Monday, March 19, 2007

By Gihon's Gilded Shores

-i-

Ethan was in a daze when he got home.

Well, to tell the truth, he’d been in a daze for several weeks. Headaches, blurry vision, and misremembering. He even thought he saw his doppelganger a few times.

Still, the diagnosis came as something of a shock. Or, perhaps I should say, prognosis.

The oncologist tried to be as upbeat as possible, floating the hope of experimental therapies, but terminal brain cancer had a certain ring of finality.

As a life-long Christian, Ethan had imagined that he would be better prepared for the prospect of death.

He had seen his saintly grandmother die a peaceful death, haloed with the hope of immorality knocking at the door.

And, indeed, Ethan was a believer. But believing was one thing, and knowing was another. Or was it?

He had no reason to doubt. Indeed, he had every reason not to doubt.

But imaginary doubts have a way of bootstrapping their own conception, gestation, and birth.

He had faith, but how could he trust his own state of mind at this stage of the game? Was his faith a grace of God, or merely a symptom of his cancerous delirium?

He had read of signs and wonders. And heard of many more. But that was hearsay.

God had spoken to the prophets, but not to him. No burning bush or water into wine in his own experience.

Where was God?

-ii-

Ethan woke up in the middle of the night. Or, perhaps I should say, he was awaked from sleep.

At the foot of his bed stood a shadowy figure. Ethan tried to suppress his terror.

At first he pretended to be asleep; hoping he would, in fact, fall asleep; hoping the specter would go away.

But even with his eyes shut, he sensed the specter staring at him—as if it could pierce his eyelids with the intensity of its gaze.

At last he sat upright and addressed the specter.

“Who are you?”

“I am Legion.”

“What do you want?”

“To do you a favor.”

“What sort of favor?”

“I can cure you.”

“What’s the point? I’m already an old man. I’m going to die sooner or later. I admit the diagnosis threw me for a curve. Like everyone else I’ve been procrastinating about the inevitable. Maybe I needed this jolt to prepare me for my final end.”

“But that’s the catch, now isn’t it?”

“What catch?”

“It’s easy to believe when you have no other alternative. As long as you’re going to die anyway. What kind of faith is that? But suppose I could make you well? Suppose I could make you young? Suppose I could make you immortal? Then how would you choose?”

“I don’t know. I never thought about it.”

“Then give it some thought, and tell me how you choose when I return.”

-iii-

And, indeed, that’s all Ethan could think about the next day. But wouldn’t this be apostasy? If he were wrong, he would forfeit eternal life for this hopeful hallucination. Or maybe it was the other way around. Was eternal life the delusion? Maybe there was no heaven or hell. Only here and now. Why mortgage the present on a future that might never come?

Either way, the stakes were equally high. If he accepted the offer, and he was wrong, he would damn himself for all eternity. God would never forgive him. Or could he take it back?

He could only know by giving it a try, but by that time it would be too late to rectify his mistake. Ethan’s mind went round and round.

-iv-

Once again, Ethan awoke in the middle of the night. Once again, the specter was standing at the foot of the bed.

“How do you decide?”

“I can’t?”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know what to believe. What if I accept your offer, and it turns out badly?”

“Then I’ll make you another offer. So it’s risk-free, you see.”

“What do I do?”

“Follow this map. It will take you to Gihon spring, deep in the woods. Take a drink. The spring will restore your youth. Render you ageless.”

-v-

The next morning, Ethan woke up with the usual headache. Blurry vision. Forgetfulness.

He showered, shaved, and dressed. Then, when he went to put his wristwatch on, he saw the map on the chest of drawers.

So he drove to the countryside. The trail was overgrown with underbrush, making it a hot and tiresome hike. Age and ill health made it even more onerous.

Without the map, he would have lost his way many times. But finally he arrived at the spring.

The aureate tint of the gurgling the waters set it apart from any an ordinary spring.

Even under normal circumstances, a drink of cool spring water would be refreshing after such a hike. But the flavor of this water was especially bracing.

He decided to lie down for a little nap before retracing his steps. When he awoke, the sun was already edging towards the horizon.

But his headache was gone, and there was a new spring in his step.

It was nearly dark when he got back to the car. After arriving home, he went to the bathroom.

What he saw in the mirror as soon as he switched on the light was amazing. It’s as if the odometer of his life had been turned back to the time he was twenty or so.

-vi-

There were some unforeseen circumstances when he accepted Legion’s offer.

His picture ID was out of date. And he couldn’t very well update his picture ID, for there was a mismatch between his present appearance and his date of birth.

Neighbors also began to notice that they never saw Ethan around the house. Instead, some young kid was coming and going.

A homicide detective came rapping at the door. Ethan was able to bluff his way through the conversation, yet it was clear that he had only succeeded in arousing rather than dispelling the detective’s suspicions.

The next time the detective came rapping at the door, he would no doubt have a search warrant in hand.

So Ethan suddenly found himself on the run. He was able to book a flight to Rio, since Brazil had no extradition treaty.

No doubt life as a fugitive was a small price to pay for immortality, but it did put a crimp in his plans. And the irony of it all is that he was completely innocent, yet he couldn’t afford to prove his innocence, lest someone dissect him for his immortal genes.

So he’d have to lay low for a few decades. Create a new identity.

Indeed, to be an immortal in a world of mortals meant recreating your identity every generation or so—as he was to discover.

He couldn’t get married. Or even have a girlfriend for very long. He couldn’t live in one place for very long.

It was only a matter of time before the natives began to notice that Ethan was immune to the passage of time. He could only visit Monte Carlo every so often. Every few decades, really.

If you went back too soon—say, thirty years later—and the same card dealer was still there, it would raise awkward questions. Hazardous questions.

He made many new friends. But the trouble with making new friends is that they had a habit of eventually dying of old age.

And he had to fake the aging process himself—as best he could.

At first he reveled in his apostasy. The nice thing about being an apostate is that you could cast off all the hang-ups of organized religion.

And Ethan was in a hurry to make up for lost time. Not that he needed to be in a hurry. It took him a while to make the mental adjustment.

He had all the time in the world. He would be alive until the sun went supernova.

For the first few years, he wondered to himself how he was ever able to put up with the utterly suffocating, claustrophobic creed of organized religion. Life was so much bigger than the four walls of a church.

But with time to burn, time began to burn a hole in his proverbial pocket.

He didn’t dare have a wife and kids. And even if they kept his secret, he would outlive them. He would have to watch them die, one by one, of old age.

No wife or mistress. Just a trip to the local brothel.

He did attempt to make one exception. For there was one woman who was everything he ever wanted in a woman. The sort of woman that a man could only hope to meet once in a thousand years. Which meant, for most men, never meeting her at all. But as an immortal, the odds of meeting her were greatly improved.

She would be the love of his life. Or, should I say, the love of his many lives. His serial lives, as he traded on alias for another. Or so he hoped.

He didn’t care about risk. She was too good to lose.

He tried taking her to Gihon spring. But the spring had dried up. Legion’s offer was to him, and him alone.

And it wasn’t just people that died on you. Places changed.

He began to appreciate the sense of place. Place was a beachhead against the high tide of time. Place was memory externalized. A way of fixing memory.

We associate people with places. Even when the people are gone, the places remind us of them. But when both are gone, what is left?

He went back to his hometown for the first time in 50 years. But his parents’ house was gone. His grandparents’ house was gone. His junior high school was gone. His high school was gone.

Without these outward dikes to dam the flood of time, the loss of continuity began to erode his sense of identity.

Everything which anchored him to his past was gone. His childhood. Coming of age. First love.

And making new friends, far from replacing old friends, accentuated the sense of loss.

Even if his new friends had been immortal, they could never take the place of those he’d grown up with. Those with whom he’d come of age. His father and mother. Brother and sister. His adolescent buddies. His high school sweetheart.

There was no substitute for that look of recognition in the eyes, when you spoke of shared memories.

To mention a girl you both knew from high school. To mention a trip you once took with your brothers.

There’s a reason these were called the formative years. They were irrevocable.

The isolation became unbearable. The dislocation became maddening. It was like being an amnesiac. Knowing no one and known to no one.

And there was one more thing. Before his rejuvenation, he had been an avid nature lover. And after his rejuvenation, he was looking forward to revisiting his favorite haunts as well as exploring a hundredfold more.

And yet, for some reason, which he couldn’t quite put his finger on, it didn’t have the same resonance.

-vii-

So, at the age of 473, he demanded that Legion put in an appearance.

“I’m tired of living like this!”

“So soon?”

“I’d rather die. Give me back my brain cancer!”

“If you wish. But there is another alternative.”

“What’s that?”

“I could send you back in time to when you really were about twenty. And I could immortalize your loved ones as well.”

“That would be better. Yes, that would make a world of difference.”

-viii-

And it was better—for a time. He offered to take his best friends to Gihon Spring. He offered to take his next of kin to Gihon Spring.

His grandmother was the only holdout. To her, apostasy was not an option. Life without Christ was a living death.

Her refusal was a disappointment to him. For she was one of the people he cared the most about—because she was one of the people who cared the most about him. And she died as she lived—praying for his soul.

But while that was loss, there was gain. They could face the future together.

One by one they drank the water. And it changed them. Renewed them.

Yet it changed them in other ways as well.

When he told his younger brother Austin about the spring, the first reaction took him aback. He saw disillusionment in his brother’s eyes.

Austin always looked up to Ethan. Ethan was his hero. Ethan’s piety was a cornerstone of Austin’s piety.

So Ethan’s apostasy left his younger brother shattered. But eventually he succumbed to temptation. Indeed, the loss of faith made it easy.

His mother, father, and older brother Dominic, none of whom were what you’d call devout, needed no convincing.

Neither did Selina, his high school sweetheart, or Brad, his best friend from junior high and high school.

Everything was looking up—for a while.

But one of the unforeseen complications of immortalizing your love ones is that they will also want to immortalize their loved ones, and so on. And all their loves ones are not the same as all your loves ones.

Here you were hoping to spend eternity with all, and only, your loved ones, only to find yourself in the company of folks you’d rather avoid.

Ethan found that he was unable to immortalize only his own loved ones, for some of them were unhappy unless the same benefit was extended to all of their loved ones.

Yet another oversight is that, because his loved ones had been dead so long, it slipped his mind that things had not been all that idyllic to begin with.

It’s easier to love some people after they’re gone. You can forget about all of their irritating traits, and just remember the good things about them.

But having immortalized his loved ones, he immortalized all of their irritating traits.

In his memory he had unconsciously rewritten parts of the past. Made some signal improvements. Perfected the past.

He forgot that his mother never understood the first thing about men. He forgot that his dad was the consummate backseat driver.

And he also forgot why he and Brad drifted apart in the first place. Indeed, “drifted apart” is a euphemism. They had a falling out over Selina. They were both in love with the same woman.

Now he was right back to the same ménage a trois.

What is more, Selina wasn’t the way he remembered her. How could she be?

He hadn’t seen her for over five hundred years. The Selina he remembered, the Selina he idolized, was the legend. The ingénue, forever frozen in time at sweet sixteen.

Not a real woman. Or a real wife. But a fantasy.

And it now occurred to him, for the very first time, that this is why he could never settle down with another woman.

I don’t mean, when he was immortal the first time around. I mean back when he was still a mortal.

In fact, it dawned on him that he might have had a happy marriage with any one of several other women he met over the years if he hadn’t been constantly comparing them with Selina. How could any flesh-and-blood female compete with a legend?

What is more—having now known countless women over the centuries, he could suddenly see her for what she really was all along—just a normal, ordinary girl.

When he was a teenager, Selina was a goddess. A star in the constellation.

In the meantime, his parents were getting a divorce. They had a good, working marriage back when the two of them expected to grow old together. Nurse each other in their dotage.

They were sensible people. Life is short. You take what you can get. You settle for less. You make the most of what you’ve got.

But now, restored to youth, with limitless opportunities ahead of them, they could afford to be more finicky. They had the luxury of time to find the perfect mate. The husband or wife of their dreams.

And this degenerated into a lawsuit over the division of their assets.

Early one, without consulting Ethan, his parents decided to cash in on Gihon’s spring. There was a fortune to be made. People would pay anything for immortality.

They took out a loan to buy the tract of land on which the spring was situated. They then had various investors put in a bid. Billionaires. Multibillionaires. Multinational corporations.

For a time, they were living the high life. But as is so often the case, a dream come true is only as good as your wildest dreams.

Success is the worst thing that can happen to some people.

Austin became a compulsive gambler. Dominic became a compulsive womanizer. Both became alcoholics and drug addicts.

The property deed was challenged in court. The state exercised eminent domain.

Overnight, Ethan’s family was dirt poor—hopelessly mired in unimaginable debt.

A civil war ensued when Washington attempted to federalize the land, after having been seized by the state.

The civil war escalated into a world war as everyone attempted to wrest control of Gihon’s spring from everyone else.

That’s before Gihon’s spring went up in smoke—or, more precisely—a mushroom cloud.

In a fallen world, eternal life is a living hell.

Ethan saw the fallout on the horizon when he went hiking one day. He was still trying to figure out why the mountains and streams and other wonders of the natural world had ceased to inspire him they way the used to—before Legion first appeared to him.

Then it came to him. Or, rather, it came back to him. Flooding back. Before his apostasy, there was more to nature that meets the eye. Nature was a sign.

Behind a tree stood the tree of life. Behind the starry heavens stood the throne of heaven. Behind a stream stood the river of life. Behind a mountain or high hill stood Mt. Zion. Behind the dawn stood Eastern morn. Behind a woman stood the Church.

And behind it all lay God, as the surpassing good in every earthly good, and greater good in every incidental evil.

Where was God? God was everywhere he looked. But, up until now, that had been subliminal. Something he took for granted. Something so familiar that it escapes our jaded gaze.

That’s what he was missing. God was there all along. God was writ so large that he couldn’t see him—for the whole of a nature was an allegory or theophany, of which Scripture was the key.

Throw away the key, and nature is all surface. An antique photograph. A thin film of sepia.

Once more, he demanded an audience with Legion.

“I repent! I recant! I take it all back!”

“As you wish.”

-ix-

Ethan woke up the next morning with a headache. He showered, shaved, and dressed for church.

3 comments:

  1. Suggestion: Master the art of the paragraph. They can, and often do, contain more than two sentences.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous must not have read much of James Patterson... :-D

    ReplyDelete
  3. AnnoyedPinoy3/21/2007 7:10 PM

    This story reminds me of Robert Heinlein's character Lazarus Long (major book on him is _Time Enough For Love_). Lazarus encountered many of the things mentioned in this story. I'm glad to see someone put a Christian spin to "eternal life" apart from God.

    ReplyDelete