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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Life Sentence

Category: Issue 4, Short Story Winners

The door creaked slightly as it was opened, a sound that just barely overrode the multitude of buzzings and whirrings coming from beyond.

“Mister Clarke?”  The still form in the narrow hospital bed stirred slightly at the nurse’s hushed voice.  Marty could barely make out the man’s face beneath the oxygen mask and various tubes exiting nose and mouth.  The faint rustling as of falling leaves that was his breathing broke from its previously regular rhythm.  His eyes opened.

“Mmph,” Henry Clarke replied.

The nurse drifted to the small window and prodded the venetian blinds, adjusting them in a failed attempt to evict the gloomy twilight that inhabited the room.  Henry’s eyes tracked her progress, ignoring Marty’s presence in the doorway.  Giving up in disgust, the nurse left the blinds and turned to the bedside.

“Mister Clarke, you have a visitor.  Do you want me to let him in?”  Henry’s eyes flashed briefly at Marty, then back to the nurse.

“Mmmrph mph.”

“Very well, sir.”  After finicking for a moment with his pillow and bedsheets, she returned to the doorway.  “He’ll see you, sir.  You have to understand, it’s difficult for him to talk.  Please try not to wear him out.”  With that she was gone, a white ghost discretely vanishing down the corridor.

Marty closed the door behind him.  A small ugly shaded lamp on a metal dresser provided most of the illumination, though the banks of blinking and flashing lights contributed their own fitfully pale ambient glow.  A small beige vase, chipped near the top, held a few wilted flowers in a doomed attempt to give an impression of life to the surroundings.  Other than that meager splash of colour, the room was as bare and spartan as a cheap coffin.

He perched himself on the end of the bed, his stiff joints groaning and creaking like a ship in a storm as he did so.  He favoured his left shoulder, wary of rekindling the slow smoulder of his chronic bursitis.  The figure under the sheets continued to silently regard him out of cloudy blue eyes.

“So, Henry.”  Marty paused for a moment, thinking of what he could say in these circumstances.  “How’s it going?”  Even before he spoke them, he knew the words were trite and foolish.  But he just didn’t know how to say what he really wanted—really needed—to, and he had to say something.

“How does it look like it’s going?” Henry’s voice was a sharp rasp against the ears, faint yet carrying and harsh.  “I have tubes sticking out of every opening in my body, including a few new holes that I wasn’t even born with.  I have a machine that does my breathing for me.  I need a nurse to help me pee.  How the hell do you think it’s going?”

Marty toyed with a loose bolt on the bedstead, unwilling to meet the other man’s eyes. “Yeah, it looks pretty bad.  What exactly happened, anyway?  The reports I’ve heard have been. . .kinda sketchy.  Last I heard you were hale and happy down in the Amazon somewhere, mucking about on some expedition.  So what gives?”

Instead of answering immediately, a small shriveled hand emerged from beneath the impeding strata of blankets.  Marty’s skin went chill, remembering how this fragile soap-bubble of a human being had at one time been the star athlete of their hometown junior high.

The hand shakily straightened to point at a small pack huddled neglected in a dim corner.  The bag was frayed and stained in that unmistakable way of one that had traveled to the far reaches of the world and back, by the scenic route.  Marty hooked a strap with his foot and dragged it towards the bed, then hauled it painfully up beside him

“Open it,” commanded the husk of a man.  Carefully, hesitantly, Marty unfastened the worn clasps securing the top flap.  Earth-coloured smudges stained his fingers.  Odors of damp and mildew enveloped them both as he pulled back the top to reveal the primordial darkness within.

A small piece of paper—no, it was parchment—fell out.  It was unbelievably dirty and torn, folded into quarters.  Its obvious antiquity and worldliness seemed to make the sterile white hospital sheets want to pull away lest they become somehow contaminated.

“Read it.”

Obligingly, Marty gingerly unfolded the parchment.  The inner surface wasn’t as illegible as he would have expected, even with his vision not all that it used to be.  Of course, it would be easier to read if he knew Spanish or Portuguese, whichever language the small hand-drawn map was labeled with.

“What is it?” he queried.

“Life.”  Henry paused for a moment, marshaling his strength like a general desperately shoring up the failing line with scraps of reserves.  “Eternal life.”  The small dry hacking coughs that followed were apparently laughter, though what he was laughing at was unclear to Marty.  Noting his visitor’s perplexity, Henry made a faint gesture towards the map.  “Ponce de Leon had the wrong continent.  The Fountain of Youth is in Peru, not Florida.”

For an eternal instant Marty sat staring at the map, not reading it but rather reading the implications of the other man’s words.  At last he lay the map reverently on the bedside cabinet and looked Henry straight in the eyes for the first time.

“Explain,” he demanded.

Henry sank back deeper into the mattress like a foundered galleon.  For a while he turned his gaze upwards to the ceiling tiles.  Patiently, Marty waited.

“I found that damned map. . .I don’t know how long ago.  After I met Lucy, before. . .”  His voice trailed off, his eyes turning pointedly to Marty’s.  Marty examined the checkerboard pattern on the floor.  “Yes, well, anyway, I found that map in an old book I bought at an antique store when I was in Venice.  That was when it was.”

He stopped to grope ineffectually for the water carafe beside his bed.  Marty beat him to it and poured him half a plastic cup of tepid liquid, all that was left in the pitcher.  Henry sipped a minuscule amount, then set the cup aside.  One of the humming contraptions connected to him began to vibrate noisily.  After a moment, it resumed its normal quiescent state.

“Damn thing does that every time I drink anything.  Nuisance.”  He sighed resignedly, almost amusedly.  “So, I bought that book and found that map stuck in it,” he resumed.  “Thought nothing of it at first, really.  A curio.  Look at old maps from that era and you’ll find all sorts of fantastic things like mermaids and lands of dragons.  Thought it was just another one of those things, just a curiosity to frame and display, make a nice little conversation piece.

“Then I got to looking at it.  Really looking at it.  You notice something about it when you do that.  It’s detailed.  Look at the way it shows each little bend of those rivers as accurate as you could like.  Then look at the date.  The year of Our Lord fifteen-hundred and eight.  Fifteen oh eight.  There weren’t supposed to be any white men traveling that far up the Amazon then.”

“A fake, then?”  interrupted Marty.

“Got me curious, it did,” continued Henry. “Had some experts check it out.  No, it’s not a fake.  So I got to thinking that maybe there’s more to it than I’d first thought.

“That’s when I started researching things, looking up dusty old documents and the like, talking with historians.  Spent hours every day at libraries.  Neglected my job.  Guess I neglected Lucy, too.  Probably what finally pushed her over the edge, though I guess maybe she was already on the way there before then.”

Silence reigned for a moment, during which both men fastidiously avoid glancing towards each other.

“Anyway, Lucy left me, my job was gone.  I had nothing to lose, so I decided why not?  Why not follow this little piece of parchment and see where it takes me?  That’s what the whole expedition was really about; all that talk about botanical studies and whatever was just a smokescreen.  Didn’t want herds of would-be Methuselahs stumbling through the jungle, looking for the promise of eternal vitality.”

The soft creaking of the door being opened halted the man’s monologue.  The nurse poked her head through the doorway.  Her glance swept around the room, slid to a stop on the two men.

“Visiting hours are over, Mister Clarke.  Your guest will have to leave now.”

In a sudden spasm of furious energy, Henry snatched up the plastic water cup and flung it at the doorway.  It hit the wall and splintered, erupting water across the floor.

“Dammit, girl!  Come back later!  We’re not finished yet.”  The nurse vanished like a startled rabbit taking to its burrow, the door closing behind her.  “Officious little pest.  Oh, well.”  The faintest whiff of a smile touched his lips.  “Not bad looking though; you should be here in the morning when she bends over to calibrate those dials.  God bless the man who designed those uniforms.”  He cleared his throat, a short gagging sound.  “Now, where was I?”

“Peru, I think.”

“Of course, Peru.  Yeah, we found the Fountain.  Took a little work, but we found it.  Little pool of water, little stream trickling down the rocks to the river.  All the trees and shrubs were like something out of a gardener’s dream, so healthy you could feel them radiating life.  Everything there was like that.  Pretty as could be.  So pretty we didn’t even see the snakes until we were in the middle of them.

“Jaracacas or fer-de-lances, I don’t know what they were.  I’m no snake expert.  But they were nasty little brutes.  Before I knew it I had three of them latched onto my legs, fangs dug in and pumping poison.

“I was the only one of us lucky enough to be bitten.  The others pulled me outta there quick as they could, but the damage had already been done.  They did the best that they could, the other guys, but three bites all at once was more than the antivenoms we’d brought could rightly be expected to handle.

“It was one of the native guides who came up with the idea of giving me some water from the Fountain.  The idea was that, being the Water of Life and all, it would restore me to full health and I’d spring to my feet, happy and robust and chortling in glee.  Didn’t work that way, though.  Here, give me some more water.”

Marty reached for the pitcher, but remembered it was empty.  All the water left was spilled on the floor with the plastic shards of the cup.

“Sorry, it’s all finished.  Here, I’ll call the nurse-”

“No, she’ll just remind you that it’s time for you to go.  Look in the bottom of my bag there.  I think I still have something in there.”  Marty pulled the opening of the bag wider, immersing himself in a miasma of otherworldliness.  A battered compass lay in a pile of dirty socks, a brightly coloured stone slid back into the darkness.  A two-pint canteen sloshed wetly when he shook it.

“Yeah, that’s it.  Hand it over.”

Henry took two quick sips, then replaced the oxygen mask over his face.  The machine beside the bed made its customary fitful racket, then subsided.

“Ah, that’s better.  Don’t make stuff like this here in the States.  Here, try some.”

Marty took back the canteen and sniffed cautiously at the opening.  A faint fruitlike aroma tickled his sinuses warmly.  He tilted the canteen to his lips and swallowed a little.  It was cool and mildly sweet tasting, like sugar water, but it warmed his joints.

“What is it?”  he asked.

“Some local blend I picked up down south.  Good stuff.”

Marty took another small sip, then glanced at Henry’s derelict body.

“So what happened?  Why didn’t the stuff heal you?  It’s the Water of Life, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is.  Life forever.  Drink it and you live an eternity.  Only there’s one little catch, a price you pay for immortality.  You see, it gives you eternal life—from the point that you’re at when you drink it.  If you’re twelve years old, you’ll stay twelve.  If you’re eighty, you’re always eighty.”

“So what’s wrong with that?  It’s not like either one of us is old, really.”  Marty regarded his own hands, starting to speckle with liver spots and aching at the joints, but not yet what he’d consider old man’s hands.

“What’s wrong is that you stay exactly as you were when you drink,” Henry answered.  “If you get a paper cut just before you take a sip, you’ll always have a paper cut.  If you have a hangnail, or an ear ache, or a cold, you’ll always have one.  For ever and ever and ever.  When I drank it, I had the poison from those snakes flowing through all my veins.  Here, hand me that canteen again.  I need a drink.”

Marty sat still, thinking, while the other man drank.  To be trapped forever in a body riddled with poison and the ailments of long and arduous travel.  He looked down at his own hands, trembling with arthritis.  What would he do if it was himself, with his aches and pains, malfunctioning liver and kidney stones?  And people thought that you had to die before you went to Hell!

“So, how’s Lucy?”  Henry’s question brought Marty’s mind back to the present like a whiplash.  Instantly, he was on guard.

“She’s doing good.  She was upset when she heard how you were, of course.  She would have come see you, but. . .”

“Yeah, it was probably for the best.  So, how was the wedding?  I didn’t go, you might remember.  I guess the invitation got lost in the mail, huh?”  Marty fidgeted and picked at an imaginary spot of dust on his slacks.  “Mmm.  Well.  I suppose it would have been kinda awkward, my showing up.  I was sorta bitter at the time, felt that you’d betrayed me by stealing my wife from me and all that.”  Marty twitched violently.

“Look, Henry, I’m sorry about all that, really.  I don’t know what to say, I-”

“Hey, don’t worry about it.”  Henry made feeble placating gestures with his hand.

“I just don’t know what to say, really.”

“That’s all right.  You have all the time in the world to figure it out.”  Something in the tone of voice made Marty glance up.  Henry was grinning.  It was not a friendly grin.

“Huh?”

“I said you have all the time in the world to think about it.  More than all the time in the world, in fact.  Earth will only be here another few billion years.  You’ve got a whole eternity ahead of you.”

“What are you babbling about?” demanded Marty.  He was beginning to sweat.

“Well, when I left Peru, I took back a little sample of water from the Fountain with me.  Had a faint notion of having it analyzed to find an antidote.  I hope there’s enough left in the canteen to work with.  Don’t you?”

“The canteen?”  Marty stared at the bottle, still in his hands.  He twirled it.  It was almost empty now.  It had been half full before.  He was sweating heavily now, and began shaking.  “No.”  He turned away from the other man’s mocking grin.  “No.”

“Hey, cheer up!  Think about that novel you were always wanting to write, but never had time for.  Now you do!  And all the places you will have opportunities to go to, and—uh oh!  Marty, old friend, I just thought!  You are in good health, aren’t you?”

Marty stared into space, unseeing, repeating one syllable endlessly.  “No!  No!”  His ulcer was acting up again, burning a hole through his guts.  He remembered each of his ailments in turn.  A headache that had been clawing at the edge of his consciousness finally made its presence known.  And the itch from the athlete’s foot on his left toes suddenly seemed magnified beyond all reason.

“No!”

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Old Comments

  • The writing’s fine, a bit heavy on a few metaphors - you don’t want me thinking about a creaking ship at sea instead of focussing on the story. But you’ve got a real big build-up here - a marvellous set-up for Amazonian adventure and one of the world’s great legends; and ending up with petty revenge. Doesn’t gibe.

    Posted by Mikael Covey  on  11/03  at  10:04 PM
  • I thought it hard to find the focus of the piece until I got near the end, and the writer tied the loose ends together. An EC Comics, Vault of Horror 50’s style twist, full of revenge and rancor. I was surprised the guy in the bed could speak as much as he did, all swollen with venom and such. “Prodded” the venetian blinds with disgust? That’s awkward. The premise is good, though. Everybody likes revenge. BTW- is the scource of the Amazon in Peru? Hmmm… research, research, research

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/13  at  11:54 AM
  • Yes, I did get a bit heavy-handed on the metaphors.  I’d read a book that was written like that, and it was so far from my usual more sparse writing style that I decided to try and see if I could do it.  So I experimented by writing this story, and so you all get to be my guinea pigs.  Lucky you, eh?

    The guy in the bed being able to speak clearly was one major hurdle I had to deal with.  It was important that he be shown to be in poor health and very weak, yet also the story needed him to be able to talk to the other guy.  After pondering the problem for a while, I decided that I’d just have to describe his speech at first as being laboured, and then not mention the matter again and hope that the reader just went with it.

    As for the matter of Peru, I suppose that that’s one of those cases of reality getting in the way of the story.  Most readers probably think only of Brazil when they think of the Amazon.  I chose Peru since that’s where the most remote headwaters of the river are, and I wanted to have had the explorers travel as long and far as possible.  I suppose that I should have just said Brazil, though, to avoid confusing people.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  11/28  at  07:49 PM
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