If I combined all of the moments I’ve spent wondering about when the end of my life would come, their number would exceed the number of days I have lived. Mortality is a funny thing. The living hold on to the knowledge of mortality as the driving force for all actions. We know we are going to die, but as we gravitate towards the end of our days, we spend most of our moments trying to survive. It is the never ending futile game of preserving this existence. I wanted my demise to come as a whisper in my senescent ear as I fall asleep with years of memories surrounding me to cushion my exit. I wanted to control it. I suppose I’m not the only one who doesn’t hope for it to come anytime soon. However, I am in sparse company when considering what I have done to ensure death and I would never meet.
The first time I was offered the choice of immortality I was only fourteen years of age. It was a very long time ago; so long ago, in fact, the name and native tongue of the people I come from has been lost to history forever. My quiet, widowed mother with soft hands and a tender heart was knocked to the ground by a hurried old man one day on her way back to our hut with jugs of water. Although she was scraped and bruised, lost her water and broken her jug in the process, my sweet mother was more concerned for the stranger than she was for herself. Her good heart impressed him, and he offered to compensate her for the jug. She declined and continued on her way home to me where she recounted the event.
Later in the evening, the stranger arrived at our hut with herbs to heal my mother’s injuries. Again he offered to make up for the jug, and again my mother declined. She offered him a drink and a meal and sent him on his way. In the days following, I learned from neighbors about the stranger’s identity. He was a man of the land; this is what my people called those few of us who understood the soul of life on a level we could not. These were the people we sought out to fix our ills, commune with the spirits and bless our village.
He came to our hut once more in the following days. I remember the sun was just beginning its trek to slumber, and he sat with me as I beat the dried clay off of the tools my mother used to craft her jugs. He offered me anything my heart could conceive as a repayment to my kind-hearted mother. I told him there was nothing in this life I wanted; I had all I needed. So, in response, he offered me more life. He promised me I could live as long as the sun. I considered his offer and the idea of living long enough to see everyone I knew perish and blow away. The loneliness of the thought overwhelmed me. I declined his offer with gratitude for his generosity, and I did not see the man again for a very long time after.
I built my mother’s funeral pyre ten years after that. A sickness docked our shores with the men from the great boats, overtook her, and she slipped away from me one morning while I thought she was sleeping. Her death left me alone, and the loneliness I once imagined manifested. The same men who brought the sickness began to overtake the people in my village and take the men to dig for gold in the caves. My people were disappearing in a cloud of despair and death, and I realized there was no longer a need to fear immortality, so I ran to it. It took me some time to find the old man again. He’d gone into hiding to escape the reach of the men from the ships, but I finally found him deep in the jungle where they were afraid to go. I begged him for the gift he’d once promised me. I told him of my mother’s death and pleaded with him to honor her memory with one wish. He patiently listened to my frantic pleas and easily obliged me.
I imagined my transition into an immortal to be an event of wonderment. I expected the earth and skies to open and release an eternal spirit into me. But, becoming immortal was nothing like this. The old man bent over me as I lay on the fragrant earth, and he placed herbs and stones all over my outstretched limbs and body. His eyes rolled up into his head leaving only the whites to show through the slits. As he rocked and chanted the stones on my body grew hot, so hot I found it difficult to remain still as I was instructed. He rocked faster as the stones began to scorch my flesh. Pain screamed through my body until I didn’t think I could stand it anymore. Instantly he stopped moving and collapsed in a heap at my side. I laid perfectly still unable to check to see if he was hurt.
My body was paralyzed, and I couldn’t speak. As we lay there, I wondered if death found me. The man finally began to stir, and he touched my hand whispering another incantation, releasing me from incapacitation. He removed the stones and herbs from my body and pulled me to my feet. As we parted, he said these words I have carried with me all of my days, “Death has no opposite. Death is humbling, but life is not bold in response. Death stands alone as the most final of all things, but life is not infinite in response. All things must end, and even with immortality there is a choice. I give you the gift of forever, but now you have to decide when you will give yourself the gift of death.”
For over 500 years I have lived. I have walked on all of the lands of this earth. I have seen civilizations rise and fall. I have witnessed it all collecting memories and knowledge more valuable than any amount of riches. I have loved and lost so many people, they have all become like gods to me. I hold their existence close to me, tethered to my immortality, and I am tasked with the responsibility of keeping them alive. I take their legends with me. Although it has no hold on me, death still follows. I am still only surviving, even with the promise of infinity.
When the man told me I would give myself the gift of death all those years ago, I cast off the idea of ever wanting to cease. I couldn’t imagine ever wanting anything but more and more life. Now I feel, after centuries of the same, the unknown has begun to pull me in. How many more times can I wake up? How many more meals can I eat? How many more friends can I bury? After half a millennium I finally understand, in my flight from death, I chose to be infinitely entwined with its companion. I chose to live alongside death like roommates in our flat existence. I chose to watch it in its natural habitat selecting members of its army with random precision.
I was told once by one of my dear friends that with my immortality I’d cheated death. I explained to him, to cheat death I would have to begin as death’s opponent, and I have never measured up. Death is truly infinite while my immortality is only an illusion of infinity. As of late, I have often considered the gift of death and putting an end to this elongated life. I think of my dear mother, who remains the most difficult to miss, and I wonder why I never thought to ask her if the old man offered her immortality as well. Had she asked him to offer it to me instead? The question haunts me. If it weren’t for her, I would have never been presented the opportunity. If it weren’t for her overwhelmingly good spirit, the man would have never felt indebted to her. With her short life, she created something that would go on forever, not my life, but the life of one act of patience, one act of selflessness. I have learned it may be better to be a memory than the keeper of them. In our pursuit to lengthen and preserve existence, to truly cheat death is to become a beautiful memory and create infinite feelings of love.