“Look!” said Death. “These are all the living. And here is a light that will burn only a little longer, and then go out. This is your life! Take heed!”
Godfather Death, The Brothers Grimm
I can’t remember when I first became obsessed with not dying, but I was always a careful, indoor child after I saw the bird. The thing that changed my childhood was already there, and I suppose death is part of everyone’s life experiences as a child, but for me, things changed more irrevocably than for most.
We had moved to Massachusetts when I was three, and I do not remember New York at all. My childhood was spent in the same plain, wooden-framed house beside the edge of town, and I suppose this idea of small-town living had been my parents’ intention on leaving the city.
The woods behind the house were full of interesting things for a healthy young child to explore, and I remember stumbling happily through the leaves in autumn, and wading through the waist-high grasses in summer. I was five, and it was the beginning of summer, and I was searching for a lost baseball, playing with my own shadow as it rippled along the ground and the bushes. The tree trunks were patterned with stripes of shadow, and I stumbled over an exposed tree-root, grazing my leg.
With all the determination of a five-year old boy to not cry for his mother, I put my hand down to the earth to try and steady myself.
It landed in something soft, and wet, and at the same time horribly yielding. There were a few tiny crackling noises, like the brittleness of dry leaves.
The dead dove must have been about a week or so old, bloated and still partially feathered, and with an obvious stench of decomposition. Some broken pinion feathers were scattered on the forest floor, and, as though making a halo above the bird’s head, some crushed flowers had dropped their petals and pollen in my fall.
The dead eye of the dove looked through me accusingly, as though I had sinned against it in some way by disturbing its place of death.
Time stood still. I stared at it, and it seemed to stare back, pinning me in place.
A dead stare, and suddenly the wind blew, making the loose feathers rattle and tremble.
I shoved at it to try and get away, and the feathers parted. White, clean bone showed against the green and brown of leaves, and I recall running, crying hysterically as the monstrous imagined sound of wingbeats followed me home.
My father took a shovel and a shoebox, and we had a long talk about death and decomposition, and Heaven, but in my mind I still had that dead skull looking on. Memento mori. I was determined that I would not endure such a thing, and if I were to pinpoint a moment, years later, where my obsessions started, it would have been that year. The image of the dead dove never left me, and in my dreams all that summer long, I had regular nightmares about feathers blowing on the hot night wind.
Except for the occasional game of tetherball in the dry and compacted dirt of the yard, I stayed in the house for the rest of the summer.
I looked up alchemy. I looked up how to stay fit and healthy, and I stayed away from the children at school who had colds or sniffles (or who were, God forbid, actually physically sick). I wiped things up obsessively, pushing a tissue under my bread knife unobtrusively at dinner so it wouldn’t touch the table.
I must have been the tidiest teenage boy in the neighbourhood, but as my parents were usually fairly scrupulous about cleanliness (my sisters were forever being told to put things back, away or else lose their allowance) I remained unnoticed.
My tics, such as they were, were relatively small. But college exacerbated them, and by the time I had endured a couple of semesters of medical students coming back to their rooms smelling of formaldehyde and the odours of dissection, I left. I washed and sterilised my desk, and got a room on my own terms.
My obsessions became more normal, if that is the right term to use about any obsession. I trained at the gym, gave up drinking, ate everything that was supposed to extend your lifespan. Every fad food and supplement. I checked in the mirror every day for grey hairs.
By my thirty-seventh birthday, when I had found grey hair in my temples, I shaved it all off. And the next day, I met Imogen.
She was sitting in the coffee shop, on the chair beside the window. If I could explain her looks in terms of attraction, I would: she was unusually pretty, but not strikingly so. There was a determinedly sharp cast on her features, her eyes were dark grey, and her hair was a most decidedly unfashionable mane of dark chestnut ringlets. She was not conventionally beautiful. But there was something about her that made you want to look twice at her elfin hands, her slight figure, buried in a voluminous coat. It was the start of September, and it was already cold.
“Waiting for someone?”
She shook her head, and smiled. “Perhaps.”
From that moment on, I was taken by her. Not captivated, but perhaps smitten in a way that made no sense to me. I made up excuses to drag her into conversation over coffee and the day’s abandoned cryptic crossword, and she would only look at me demurely. The answers came thinly, but they were there. Her name was Imogen, she was living locally in a good neighbourhood, and she currently had no boyfriend, and preferred walks in the park to the cinema.
I walked her to the door. “Will I see you again?”
She laughed, lightly. The sound faded away on the fall air. “Perhaps,” she said, and smiled at me as she walked down the street into the gentle breeze of the evening.
I met her in the park the next day. She was sitting on the white-painted wooden railing, swinging her legs. I bought her hot chocolate. She wrapped her hands around it, red mittens giving her an oddly childlike look.
“Young at heart,” I teased.
She nodded, and sipped at the steaming cup. We watched the gulls soar and wheel over the lake for a while, finding somehow some ease in each others’ company. We chatted, about a hundred and one things, we chatted like we’d been friends for years, and had only just caught up with each other. And yet she looked at me with the eyes of a child.
“You’re young at heart, you mean. I’m old at heart – I just feel younger.” She took another gentle sip, the steaming liquid fragrant on the chill air.
I laughed. “I have to be. I aim to live forever.”
At this, she really did laugh. “Be careful what you wish for, Stephen. You might just get it.”
I shook my head. “I’m being serious. I really don’t want to get old, and I’m not going to even think about dying. I have too much to do. And I need time for that. Immortality.”
“That’s the point,” she said. “People look for it in the strangest of places. They don’t realise it’s all here.” She tapped the side of her head, and smiled. “I discovered it two hundred years ago, somewhere in Venice.”
It was a night with a pale moon, the fleeting clouds scadding across it. Perhaps she had been invited to the ball; she did not remember the host, but her dress was black satin and lace, dressed out with dark, sea-green ribbons. A charming young Comte, a Russian, had stepped out onto the floor and had danced with her almost the entire evening. They had agreed to withdraw to take some air (and rightly so; the ballroom was fugged with the soot of a hundred candles) and his gentle kisses had surprised her. Most of all, what had surprised her was when he had told her about how she could preserve her beauty a little longer, and he took the wilted rose from her corsage and stroked it. Each petal became plumper, more radiant with each pass. She assumed he must be some form of conjuror. But her rose remained radiant, and that evening, Nikolai had given her her first taste of immortality.
I was willing to believe in magic, and as a New Englander a little of it seeps into your blood and being and ethos, but this was too fantastical. I looked into her sharp face to see where the joke and punchline was, but I saw nothing but total sincerity. The world she described was two hundred years distant, but she made it seem as though it had all happened within her own lifetime. After all, no one – despite my best efforts to find out – had ever lived past a hundred and thirty, never mind two hundred years.
There had been laughter, and a glass of wine, and the faint clatter of iron against stone. This was the age of Reason, and to envisage time as something tangible was almost beyond a dream.
‘If you wish for more time, then come with me.’
She and Nikolai were on a bridge somewhere, and the reek of sewage fought against Nikolai’s attar of roses, and somewhere someone was fucking a prostitute noisily in a side street. Was there a way to escape this place? Could there be more to do before her brief sojourn was over? After all, her mother had died at the age of twenty-one.
‘Be with me’, he had said, and she had kissed him, and even as they kissed he had made his part of the pact true.
He showed her Venice. Years passed, and though she and Nikolai remained around thirty, her friends aged and sagged, peppered with goitre and pox. But Nikolai remained as wild and as free as ever, and she did equally well. Three years became thirty, and more, and still she lived.
They moved on, from city to city, and finally to the New World. But in each and every city, Nikolai would take her to the highest vantage point. ‘We look down on them, because they are so short-lived and know not what a gift they have.’
It was not blood they took from others, but time. How would you react to being told that every thing had an allotted time? She had laughed: Nikolai had shown her, and together they had travelled the world, slowly enjoying not only their own time, but the time of others.
“Nikolai once said that people…they were like fireflies. Just a brief touch, and they’d never know their light was dimming.”
I looked at her steadily. “So you’re really telling me that you’re some kind of…psychic vampire?”
She shook her head at me, and for a moment I saw something deeper than the smile of a girl who drank hot chocolate, and who read the local newspaper and who snapped hazel twigs between her fingers as she walked in the woods. There was almost a ghostly shadow over her face, and her dark eyes were lost in pools of a darker colour, like poorly-smeared make-up. And in them, there was something as sharp as knives, and I trembled, and she did not look at me again.
“I’m just Imogen. But I haven’t always been.” Her gloved hand rested on my arm.
I took her arm, and we walked in the drifts of red-brown autumn leaves, further into the park.
“Well, I was Sarah, and then I was Abigail, and then I was Sarah again; and Mary and Elizabeth, and Morgan and Dorothy and so many others. I’ve forgotten so many of them.”
She spoke of it as though she were naming classmates, rather than her own former selves. They were distanced; somewhat, and each name seemed to bring to mind a different era. “Which did you prefer?”
“Oh, I didn’t mind any of them.” Her bright eyes danced, as she looked at me. “But I like Imogen. I’ve had it twice, but never twice in a row. Too unlucky.”
Unlucky because she could have been recognised? I was too well gifted with imagination to ask her if her surname had changed, because of course it would have done – but a given name is harder to change. She seemed to slip in and out of them like winter clothes.
It was evening by the time we arrived back at the entrance to the park. The wind was blowing westward, and the trees were shuddering slightly.
“What happened to Nikolai?”
“You would have to ask that, of course,” she replied, bitterly.
I did not pursue it further.
We met every few days, often in the park, sometimes in cafes. We never kissed. What I felt for her was as chaste as a father’s love for his child. I was protective of this strange woman who carried herself like a princess, and yet went remarkably unnoticed. She spoke no more of her own past, but asked more and more about mine. I told her, one evening, about the dove. I suppose it was natural, such a revelation. She nodded sagely.
“You’re afraid of death, aren’t you? I can teach you how not to be so very afraid.”
We sat in my flat, the lights off, a small candle burning on the top of a saucer between us. The atmosphere was not spooky, or eerie, and there was nothing very much in the way of the supernatural about the way she took my hand.
Slowly, she reached up to her forehead, as though she were about to pluck out a hair. Her hand made a sudden fist, and pulled away just as quickly. Gently, she released her closed fist into my open hand, and out fell – or rather, wriggled – a tiny golden hair, not curled as hers was, but straight and quivering, and almost like a live thing. It twitched on the warmth of my palm, and I nearly recoiled were it not for her sudden grasp of my fingers.
“Watch. That is what time looks like, Stephen. Imagine what a minute would look like, or feel like, if it were tangible. Well, human time does indeed have a physical form, and this is it. That is one year of my life. And I can give it to you.”
I watched the tiny golden thread worm its way into my skin, and felt a slight warmth as it began to dissolve inside me. The whole process took less than a few seconds, but it could have been minutes, so riveted was I by the thing that sat and faded into my own palm.
“But I – “
“No, you don’t feel younger. Imagine it as a sum where we have a certain finite amount of …life each. We can count it out in years, but as to how those years are passed…well, that’s up to each individual. I have given you a year away from my own lifetime. My life will be one year shorter.”
I must have looked frightened, and she laughed. “I don’t mind. Where do you imagine I got all my lifetimes from?”
“I don’t know.” It was true. I didn’t know. I felt almost shocked that I hadn’t considered that before.
“Will you follow, and know more than you do?”
She stroked my palm. Her hand was soft, and dry and cool to the touch. I suddenly realised how she had lived from decade to decade, gently taking, like the most delicate of insects, only what she had needed. I saw images in my mind of her refusing to touch the very young, and the listlessly old and sick.
“When they’re nearly gone, you can almost see it,” she explained. “A little like when a bulb is weak, and they shine a little less brightly.”
I saw here on the streets of New Orleans, in the fields of Kansas, on the road to London, a basket on her shoulder. I saw the horizon and the countless oceans she had wandered, and I realised that perhaps she was being more than economical with the truth when she had said she was only two hundred years old. I probed her mind further, and there was a sudden flash of wetness and a cold, dark splatter, and I let go her hand.
“So you have seen something you didn’t like. A pity.” There was no remorse, or guilt in being found out, or even a telltale flicker of emotion. Just a subtle nod as to what I, even at that moment, was not quite sure I had seen.
She rose, and stretched, almost feline in her grace. Taking my arm suddenly, she leaned in towards me, and for a moment I thought she was readying herself for a kiss. Instead, she pressed her hand towards my forehead, and stroked it as a mother would a feverish child. I saw the dead dove again, and heard the childhood fear of a dead, heavy flapping of wings. And then it was gone.
I saw the dove again, in my mind’s eye. But there was no dread, no overall revulsion. Just the faint distance of a childhood memory.
“What did you-”
She only smiled, and for a moment the fear returned louder than any wing beat. But only for a moment.
One day, mid-way through chilly October, she took my hand and led me to the harbour. Apparently, my education was to begin.
“Just reach out. Touch them, skin to skin. Then imagine you’re pulling each year out of them, like a thread. Wind it around your neck, your heart, your head. Taste it.”
She stood back in the street, and it was as when I had first met her: she almost melted back into the street itself, propped up silently against a rough brick wall as though she were more a sturdy piece of the landscape than it was. Even her clothes seemed duller, more close to the colour of the brick than the cherry-red she had been wearing beside the lake.
It was dusk, but not yet late evening. A perfect time for a casual stroll.
I nervously steadied myself against a lamp post and deliberately wandered along the harbour front, past tall white modernistic buildings and the more traditionalist New England architecture in muted pastels. A man pushed by me from behind, but I was too slow: his coat sleeve brushed my skin. I deliberately backed my steps, and collided with a teenager, a wisp of goatee starting to fill out on his chin.
“Sorry man.” I held up one hand as if to apologise, and with the other lightly patted his bare arm. Filaments of gold twisted up from him, and I grabbed at them deftly in my mind’s eye, plucking two and three and five until I had about a handful and I was trembling with the effort. I did not lock eyes with him.
The boy turned, and without a glance in my direction, sloped on along the path.
I stared at my hands, and then raised them to my face greedily. The fine, gossamer-like threads wove themselves down my arms and into my mouth, across my head and over my chest in a matter of seconds. One wriggled across my field of vision, and I could see Imogen there, in the halo of sudden actinic light. I felt elated. I would live forever, and all I had taken was just a few years from a kid who was barely into his teens, and who had the rest of his life to spend. After all, who was saying that I was taking away good years of his life from him? Might not these be the sickly, nursing-home years, the days lived out like months sitting in a chair in front of Jeopardy with the volume too loud?
I shuddered as another filament settled beneath the skin, and then another, and finally it was over.
Imogen was watching me as I wiped away the traces of the golden threads from my cheek, beneath my eye. I don’t know if it was a misplaced sense of passion, or if it was the elation of the moment, but I suddenly nuzzled her like a cat.
“How was I?” I gasped, pressing my lips against the side of her neck, breathing in the dusk.
“Exceeded expectations,” she murmured, and I swear in the dark, I could feel her smile.
The weeks passed, and the month turned from October into November, with the leaves falling and changing, thick and forgotten on the ground. Business was brisk: every other day, I would drive into Salem and work at the shop. But the afternoons were mostly my own, so often I would grab a coffee and sit in the park, watching the people as they came by. I practiced my new art silently, taking a year here, a year there. The golden filaments leapt as if to my command, barely needing to be coaxed from the skin of old and young both. I began to see people in a new light: it was as though, in the slowly darkening afternoons of winter, their life-force shone through a little more brightly. Thin coils of gold surrounded the vital young, and thicker coppery ones around the old. Those who were sickly or dying had far, far less. I once saw a toddler being pushed in a pushchair, with only a tiny few strands of gold shining about her head. I looked at her parents, both pale and exhausted, and then at her more vital brother, boisterously romping beside the edge of the path, chasing the pigeons.
I couldn’t help myself. I pretended to drop my paper: he rushed at once to my side, and grabbed it up, and I took it from him gently. I only took two or three years, and then flicked them towards his sister. But they did not land upon her as they had done with me: They lay on the surface of her skin, and did not sink in, and instead burned away slowly, leaving no trace.
I may have been working, but Imogen remained never far from my mind.
One afternoon, I broke with habit and took her to a restaurant on the harbour side that was altogether too pricey and upscale. She approved.
She frowned when I told her about the toddler and my experiment in the park.
She toyed with her linguini. “It just doesn’t work with everyone, that’s all.”
“There has to be some reason and rhyme behind it all, surely?”
She made no reply.
I persisted. “Perhaps she was too young, or maybe too sick?
Could that affect it?”
Imogen shook her head and looked away from me. “Too good.”
“Oh come on, Stephen. Don’t be naive. We’re in the business of taking things from people. We’re not good. It doesn’t make us some kind of Robin Hood figures. We can’t just redistribute what we take. You took three years away from that little boy in the park and you never even used them for yourself.”
I dropped my fork to my plate with a clatter.
“I’m not a thief.” I tried to take her hand, but I must have been too rough.
“Stop.” She pushed me away, and the wine glass suddenly tumbled onto the table beside the breadbasket, red spilling away into the bleached-bone white of the cloth.
Before I could stop her, she was at the doorway of the restaurant, and had disappeared into the end of the daylight.
We are not good.
I wondered about what she’d said, after that. Perhaps I had known somewhere inside that simply taking what I wanted was not an ethically ‘good’ thing to have done, but I reasoned it was hurting no-one. I had never taken every possible year from a human, but in the park I had occasionally pushed the odd seagull past its own endurance. Coppery threads had come from their tired bodies at last, and with a final mentally visceral tug, I had taken the last year from them. It came free, I found, like the end of a roll of film. They neatly crumpled up, as though sleeping on the shoreline of the lake, and I fed on what they gave me. Although Imogen had never admitted to being more positive after thieving from the years of others, I could quite categorically state that I felt almost effervescent. Perhaps it wasn’t good to take the life of an animal, but it was only a bird. And I was scarcely a vegetarian.
I had drawn back from Imogen after our incident at the restaurant. I decided to apologise to her, and after some forethought, took a bottle of a very nice Australian red and walked the cold pathway to her house. The door was open (so unlike Imogen that I almost called the police there and then) and so I went straight in. There were no lights in the hallway, not the kitchen. Nor the bedroom.
But from that room, there was noise. I reached the door, bottle raised as a makeshift weapon, as though I would know what to do when confronted with a burglar.
There was a sound, wetly animal, from somewhere within the room. It was a kind of grunting, half mixed with an exhaled breath. Part of a bark, and then a choking noise, and it didn’t seem human at all, but I knew it was. Perhaps that was why I ran, half-stumbling from her rooms, towards the long stretch of path outside leading to the brighter lights of the town. A security light (oh of all ironies) came on automatically, illuminating me and the path and the house against the pitch-dark night.
There was a garbage bag I had not noticed before left on the sidewalk. Waking faster, I tripped over it in my haste to get past it to the main path, and it was not a bag of garbage after all.
It took all my courage to pull it away into the bushes. It was a cold night, and the bag lady would not be missed.
After, I went back into Imogen’s kitchen and found her there looking almost normal. Her eyes were red, but that I think was only from crying. I played the best card I knew, and offered sympathy. I reached my arm around her shoulders. “So it’s not the first time you’ve taken too much.”
She nodded mutely. “It’s so easy, sometimes. Too easy.”
I said nothing. It was too telling.
I came to her a week later. My business trip to Boston had taken longer than intended, and I stayed at a cheap hotel before driving back up towards Lynn.
She was in her favourite chair, reading in the half-light of the lamp from across the room. She looked paler than before, and perhaps not as well nourished, and there was a sad smile on her lips as she looked up at me. She looked visibly older.
“You’ve taken another one, Stephen.”
“Well, that’s a fine welcome.”
She nodded, and gestured gently to the sofa. “Was it all worth it? To be as I am?”
I smiled crookedly. “To be as you are would be worth more than I’ve already done.”
She flung down the paper in disgust. “Then I’ve taught you nothing. All of this, wasted.” Sweeping across the room, she dropped it into the bin with an air of finality.
“Youth is wasted on the young. It’s not wasted on me, Imogen.
You showed me that.”
I found myself licking my dry lips as I recalled the young child I’d found at play in the park that morning, whom I’d pushed gently in the direction of his frantic mother. Two, three years in that one touch alone. The cashier’s hand that passed me my change at the coffee shop: five years. The man whom I’d bought a paperback from, mid-afternoon. A decade or so. I had even patted the hand of one old dear as she tottered alongside her dog along the cold pavements. Only five years. But I had stopped at that, because some instinct told me that there were less than ten left for her before I came, and that the chow she was trailing along beside would outlive her.
“You’re not supposed to take so much at once. I took barely a year a week: Look at me. I was fine.”
I looked at her. She had not taken anything recently; I could tell that. Her eyes were hollow, and deep-set, and her hair dry and without its lustre.
“You’re not fine now. Is that how I’ll look, when I’m past a thousand?”
She did not turn to look at me. Instead, she took a comb from the mantelpiece, and slowly began to comb out her long brown curls. “Perhaps.”
The comb stroked her hair in the way that I had perhaps longed to in my dreams, but had no wish to do now.
“You’ll find that you have to take more regularly if you want to pass as one of them. I used to take a year every month when I was by myself: for you, I’ve had to take a year a day. Now look at me. I’ve not taken in two days.”
I was shocked. I had assumed that Imogen drank as freely as I did of the odd year or three of other’s lives. If she had but sparingly taken, instead of glutting, and had aged so rapidly without taking for only two days…
She did not look at me directly, but looked at me in her mirror, which hung above the fireplace. “The more you take, the more you need. It’s a nasty little rule, Stephen. I’m not sure why it works as it does. But, as Nikolai always used to say, may you get what you deserve.”
I looked up at the mirror, and all at once I saw that hungry, sharp-knifed look in her dark eyes, and I suddenly knew without a doubt what had happened to Nikolai.
She rubbed her belly like a pregnant woman, barely breaking into a smile.
“Hungry and hungrier. We both took far too much, and far too often, and they were going to hang me as a witch, can you believe that? Nikolai and I quarrelled, and then whilst he slept, I got ready to leave…”
I could see it all. How many names, how many times the same face? How many lives had she simply taken, year by year, to remain perpetually thirty?
“Perhaps you understand better than you know, Stephen. I can’t let you go on taking what I should really have. One of us in the world is enough: two in the same place, and people start suspecting things.”
She turned from the mirror, and held out her hand. I felt a strange tugging, and resisted it.
“I will be immortal.”
It became a monstrous tug of war, a battle of wills that had us fraying those little shards of life all over the place. But she had not taken in days, and I was stronger, and just as she reached for me, I reached her first. I grabbed her up in my arms, and held her tightly, much as a lover might. I kissed her throat like a predator, and I could hear her slow heartbeat.
Hungrily, I grabbed solid gold tresses from her, and pulled ropes of gilded copper from her belly, and chains of bullion from her eyes.
“Bastard,” she whispered, but I was too busy sating my own appetite to really hear.
I looked at her. She was ghostlike, in a haze of white and what must have been bones poking through. There was a final golden flicker about the crown of her tiny head, and I plucked it, like a man reaching for ripe fruit.
“Make me immortal”, I whispered, and cradled her eggshell-like skull in my hands, her skin as thin as paper.
Naomi Hay-Gibson asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work