I have considered the question as though it is my best friend: Why live?
The world is full of moments, some short, some long, and some unending. Until they do end, that is, which renders the latter one moot. Whether a moment secures itself in life’s final journal depends on many contributory factors. Does one love the instant in question? Does one wish to relive the experience again? If I forget it, will it matter? The criteria are as endless as the ultimate decision.
I have heard people croon about the sunrise. Other good folk have a soft spot for the moon. Children enjoy days at the beach when the tide tickles their toes and the sun bakes their skin. I am no sentimentalist. I have not the luxury of knowing for certain. But I can surmise. I can guess.
Reproduction. That insistence of life to replicate. Without reproduction there would be no life unless we, too, learned to split, endlessly dividing, sending copies of ourselves here there and everywhere. Surely, reproduction must be the reason for living, isn’t it? But here we have a dilemma, for not everyone possesses the inclination, looks, or sheer stupidity to do so. Why perpetrate the falsity of greatness, of a perfection worth continuing, when most are clearly not? It really is a pickle, life.
So, after a lifetime of near misses and many millions of seconds practising for death by living, I have come to a conclusion. ‘What!’ you scream. How can I know what scholars have cogitated over since humanity first learnt to think? The truth, I haven’t, not for everyone. But I have for me: To write this.
To put into words what the lost and the dreamers search for, this is my purpose. It is not to give them the answer, just the reassurance that they aren’t alone in their worrying and searching. Ultimately, there can be no right answer, at least, that’s what I think. But everyone has one essential reason for living, and that reason must mean something to you.
Sometimes the need to breathe overwhelms. Our throats constrict, tongues swell, eyes bulge like bullfrogs. A blue sky darkens to ocean, the world reversed, our bodies upside down. Not even the earth offers a steadying reassurance, volatile like an undulating sea. We drown, eyes open. We gasp for air. The worst of it? There’s no rational explanation. Just another day or night in a life of many. Just another second on this road called life.
These moments are fleeting, though occasionally, they linger. But the body always remembers what to do, after all, without a predisposition for breathing, why even have lungs?
Breathing is what we do when we close our eyes. We leave the body to do its thing as we dream of better. Unlike the accordion that requires a good squeeze, or the bike pump that demands manipulation, our bodies do not. So, why do we need so many teachers to help us? The answer is simple: We don’t.
Yet we have apps to follow and sites to see, gurus to advise, and leotarded superstars to offer salvation. If only we could breathe like them. If only we could do it right.
And we try. We try so very hard to understand. To appreciate. To live the dream. If we do it right, who knows, perhaps Death will never take us.
Death, the dark force behind it all. The one who wants us to fail, to gasp, flounder, capitulate. He cares not that we breathe or that we might only sometimes breathe, just that one day we won’t. Even thinking about it makes our chests constrict, breaths shorten, noses block. As dogs before a desert without master or chain, free to explore, but scared to stray far from the puddle at their feet, we hesitate. Death smiles.
Hesitation is his dark foot in the door. It is doubt. It is a taster. That instant of will our breaths return, even when knowing they should. So, we regather like they’ve taught us. We control ourselves with the skill a baby would admire. We breathe, deep and long, our cheeks puffed out and brows sweating.
They teach us to listen to our breaths and from there ourselves. The body will know. The body will calm itself. But in this calmness, this cosmic realignment, we hear what our breaths have immersed. An app shuts down. A website fails. A guru collapses to the ground quite dead. The leotard splits to howls of universal derision.
We breathe because we want to. We breathe because we must. But one day in the not-so-distant future, we won’t. On that day, Death can take us. On that day, our accordions shall not require being played. I, for one, shall welcome it, as I hope will you.
Fingers entwine like November branches, The chill offering pleasurable release; There’s no benefit to being overly warm. We swish amongst the decadent leaves Raining down in shades of gone: Ah, the bliss of the festering mind. A moment in the meadow is a lifetime on the sea; Translucent waves like polished glass Revealing only an inverse night. The hole looms like a collapsed bed, And I can’t wait to draw the obsidian sheets high. A raven rattles a warning, or a joyful dirge, Flapping wings to dispel the buzzing bats; They’ve already consumed the flies. She bends low like an avalanche Destroying all I’ve ever known, been, seen. I welcome it, her, this unmarked legacy, One colder than my heart. The impossible shades of an afterlife found Embrace this shell and pop out a nutlike soul. And though I wish to scream ‘come back’ She spins a maelstrom, shifting time and tide for me, Only for me, always for me, as she ever has and ever will. For though our cold, cold love is abhorrent to most, The universe has just gained two more stars.
I once watched an artist paint the sky. His brush caressed the canvas like a lover’s kiss. His every fluent movement was poetry in motion. At least, I thought so. The painter did not.
Whether it was frustration, or a lack of imagination, who knew? But the fellow grew so incensed, he snatched each sheet from his easel and tossed them into the wind. There they drifted like enormous snowflakes off to decorate unfamiliar landscapes.
The trees provided shade and anonymity. These I used for hours. The painter remained unaware of my presence throughout. And although I couldn’t see what he painted, I took a certain satisfaction in knowing I would.
As the sun evaporated into the river in tangerine bursts, things changed. The poor fellow’s inability to capture what he wished gained momentum until, in one shrieking outburst, he threw his palette away. It landed upside down in the water.
I expected to see a brief flash of vermillion, perhaps a touch of violet, cerulean or emerald green; there was only black. The paint bled into the river like a cut vein during an eclipse. Spilled ink might have described it, but ink had a purpose and this did not. What a waste. What a terrible waste.
I clasped a hand to my mouth, but too late. The cough echoed into infinity.
The painter turned. He wept. Tears streamed from his old, rheumy eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I spluttered.
The painter looked right through me, right into my soul. His eyes took in my colours, my personal palette. He refused to stop swamping me in his sorrows. I feared we’d both drown.
When the sun disappeared below the horizon with a pfft of extinguished flame, only then did he look away. To heaven, actually.
“Ah,” he crooned. “Now I remember.”
“Remember what?” The words left my lips without permission.
“Raven. Her hair was raven. If only I’d not tossed my paints away. Ah, well!”
Head drooped and feet shuffling, the painter packed up his belongings and made to leave. He paused as the moon came out in mercury silvers, turned back. “Never forget what she looks like, young man.”
“I won’t,” I promised.
With that, he departed. I never saw him again.
I often looked back and mulled over his words. He’d seemed so genuine. But only as I too regarded her bone white features and robes of liquid obsidian, did I know who he meant. I couldn’t have captured her raven hair either, as her ebony eyes already held my own.
It was a miscalculation, nothing more. She expected something I was unwilling to give. Such is life.
We avoided the question for the first year, the good year. By the second, we were married, mostly through boredom, and the question arose more often.
I had, of course, known her feelings from the start. Her every motion suggested it. Her every thought touched upon it. She had no need to voice it, even in those moments after, when I was most suggestible.
Our third winter was the hardest. Snow piled around our small home like parcels around a rich child’s Christmas tree. There was no way out and nothing to do within. Lilith pressed me every hour until I conceded to her point of view.
We huddled together, illuminated by the light of a single black candle. Lilith smiled more in those few minutes than she had in the previous three years. And I remembered… And I recalled…
I was a doctor once. The thrill of saving lives outweighed the sorrow of losing them. Lilith was my most satisfying work. She’d stabbed herself with an onyx dagger, but she didn’t die, and I refused to let her not live. When she left the hospital, our dating began. Like I said, I was proud of what I did for her, even if she herself wasn’t.
Lilith withdrew the dagger I thought her to have lost. The thing glittered a terrible darkness and moaned like a lost puppy begging for food. “You first,” she said.
It was odd! We’d talked about it, pictured it so many times, but when push came to shove, I faltered. Lilith angered. We fought.
I buried my wife beneath a holly tree, when the snow melted enough to dig out the ground. A citrine spring light filtered down through the still empty branches overhead, casting angular, awkward shadows across her grave. That’s when I saw it, the inscription, one I had not made. Here lies one who refused to give in to life.
I thought about that peculiar statement for many years until I, too, lay on my deathbed, teetering on the borders of forever. The female doctor bent over me as the breath faltered in my iron lungs, leaned in closer. She held a syringe in her hands, one of black glass, almost onyx, with a blade of stiletto thinness.
When you pass through the final curtain, your loved ones will gather around you like moths around a lantern. Their sadness shall wipe away your own. Unfortunately, I had but one lover, one to wait for me across the melancholy divide. She sneered and turned her back. I bowed my head in shame.
When I looked up, Lilith was gone. The gloom beyond the indigo curtain had also vanished, replaced by day. My hands bore no wrinkles. My knees no longer ached. I was alive to die again.
What had I saved in my youthful exuberance? Why did I care? Well, my friends and loyal readers, I didn’t. But she did. Her questions continued, though, in truth, it was only ever one. “Will you live, so I might die?”
“It washes across you like a mother’s first kiss. You don’t remember the sensation, but it’s always been there. That tactile moment of skin on skin, of what was within being without. There’s nothing more magical.” He waved away the horseman and drew his guest further into the fields. Tall and dark, only his flashing, bright eyes proved him there, unlike his guest, who wore scarlet. He assisted her over a small, uneven fence, the poorest of barriers, and led her on by the arm. He renewed his soliloquy as though never having missed a beat, he the actor and she his audience. “No words written or spoken may explain nor surpass it. No other feeling comes close. This is the bliss of a perfect night. Alas, you only truly remember the last.” He turned away as though moved by his own words, a shadow within a shadow within a dream. She spoke for the first time, light and hopeful. “And tonight, my love?” The girl shook out her usually ink-black hair to a deluge of silver, so bright was the moonlight, batted long lashes the same. “More than any.” She took him in all his brooding majesty. And despite his obvious melancholy, an almost perpetual predilection, and how the moonlight shied away from his form, she smiled a smile of utter contentment, of getting just what she wanted and when. “I think I’ve waited long enough.” “Yes, my dear. I believe you have.” The two nestled down in a quicksilver ocean of rippling grasses, disappearing beneath those unusual waves like breaching whales bound for an ultramarine abyss. Neither the hooting owl nor the gathering wind disturbed them. Not a watching ghost disrupted their repose. Time passed. # It was many hours before they resurfaced, one head at a time, eyes rubbed awake and blinking. She of the waist-length hair came first and him second. The moon had barely moved, giving no evidence of time having altered, as though hung there by some invisible cosmic thread. The stars surrounded it still like a celestial shawl. Those ebony spaces between them engulfed the rest. And so it was her amber eyes wandered, whilst his remained on her. Up they rose, higher and higher, defiant against both nebulae and shooting stars alike. Her head cocked to one side like an inquisitive robin, a look her outfit enhanced. She grinned as the moon winked daggers. Secure in his gaze, she reached into her jacket and pulled out a tortoiseshell comb. There, beneath infinity, she brushed out that which marked her beauty, defiant in her belief that to him, at least, she rivalled the eternal night. “Do you bring many women here?” “Not here.” “Then, I am the first?” “Beneath this moon, at this time, and this place, yes.” “I’m honoured. You, so privileged and dashing, might have chosen any woman.” “Just any woman wouldn’t do.” Her cheeks glowed a crimson to rival her dress. “Do you think we might return here every evening? Beneath this same moon? This same space?” “We need never leave.” “Good,” she said. “Though I am a little hungry.” “As am I.” He leant in close, closer, closer still. Her heart beat like a moth’s wings, fast and silent. The night breathed long and deep. His lips met her neck and kept on going. Strong hands pinned her arms as his mouth bit deep. It was soon over. The fields kept rippling as the moon shone brighter, and a man who’d seen more than he ought, wept. Time stalled. # When his anguish seemed inconsolable, he stopped, as though God had suddenly dammed his eyes. He licked stained lips. “I shall bury you, my love, as I have them all.” He used his hands to scoop the soft earth from the ground, powerful arms to drive them. He excavated more soil in a minute than a dozen gravediggers might shift in a week. Once finished, he stepped back. Looked down. Sighed. The hole stood not empty, but full. It brimmed with sloshing moonlight. The man removed his jacket, ancient in its styling, bursting with brocade and lace. Next came his shirt revealing a milk-white torso, then his shoes and britches. He lowered himself into the hole-made-grave and, a second later, was gone. One might have feared for the fellow then, but he had other ideas. Rising from those false, silver waters, he lifted the one whose life he’d taken and lowered her gently into the pit. He spoke as though in a trance. “I shall make right what fate corrupted by sacrificial blood and flesh. For this, I thank you. Truly, yours was a gift. Thanks to you, I endure, not in hate or violence, but nocturnal bliss. Thanks to you, my dear. Yes, thanks to you. And I say this with a sincerity others would claim absent, I loved you. For a time, I have loved you all. But nothing, nothing, my love, rivals the serenity of the moon.” Time pooled.
The ghosts ate the sky first.
As albino Swallows, they nibbled and swooped, munched and slurped. They spared nothing. Like strands of candy floss pulled from the whole, the ghosts sucked them away. For a time, the sky couldn’t have been clearer.
We watched mouths agape, eyes rubbed raw, minds flittering in disbelief. The cleansed sky grew brighter with each passing, shining in sapphire, glittering in gold. I liked how it sparkled just before they ate the sun. I’d seen rainbows give their all and then disappear, fill the atmosphere with hope and beauty and dreams before shattering them, but I’d never seen it with the sun. No one had.
They took the moon before it breached the mountains, sucking it up like spilt milk. The stars never stood a chance.
We prayed in small, circular groups. The eldest told us to shut our eyes, but I suspected them scared. It was an excuse, a white lie told for their benefit, not ours. So, I set my vision on one of them, less a bird now and more a blanket, and that’s where it remained.
It was odd following the ghost’s haphazard movements. One might have thought it blown, or tugged like a kite, but neither explained its ability to travel wherever it wished. I envied it if truth be told. I wanted to roam the air. And then suddenly, I did not.
They dove as a luminesce squadron. Perhaps it was their insatiable hunger, perhaps not, but the ghosts required new sustenance, and we were it.
They took the men first and the odd large woman. Their mouths yawned wide like aerial whales, and we were their oversized plankton. People fought back, but to no avail. They swiped and bashed and kicked and screamed, but all ended up in the same place: Within.
The children held their parents until the last seconds of their adult lives. Some lost their hands they gripped so tightly. The rest of us ran.
Some ascended, others descended, whilst I hid in plain sight. Actually, that’s not entirely true.
I ran inside, petrified. Up the stairs I hurtled, and through my bedroom door. My mind relaxed for an instant. I stumbled, fell, got entwined in my sheets. There I lay, gasping.
Coincidence ushered them in at that moment, sweeping through the windows, pouring through the doors. I quaked. My teeth chattered. The ghosts saw and heard nothing.
They left when they realised the house empty, and I breathed again.
It took several hours to muster the courage to step outside, and even then, only long after the screaming stopped. I wished I’d stayed inside.
There was nothing: no mountains, woods, or cities; no rocks, trees, or grass. The lake was as empty as my stomach, and the distant ocean roared no more. I was alone. Well, almost alone.
They hovered and stood and lounged and lay, everywhere and nowhere, up, down and all around. Their job was done. But what was mine?
In a moment of divine inspiration, I approached them. Hello, I said, though not a sound came out.
The ghost nodded, or dipped, or wavered. Why?
If it was its head, the ghost cocked it, or slumped like a half-empty bag of coal. Why not me? I said. It was the bravest thing I’d said since, Stop!
A void opened where a mouth ought to have been. The ghost attempted to form words. It failed.
And I thought I might never know why I alone survived humanity’s cleansing.
I slipped out of the sheet and cast it aside. Not one ghost gave me a second look. Kill me. I don’t want to be the last.
My desperate eyes slipped to the ground like April rain, and there written in the dust were the words:You’re already dead.
I knew they were right, had for a long time. But when you play and sleep and act human, as I did the night he hit her and I stepped in-between, then you almost convince yourself you are. Almost.
It was then that she came for me. I’d have known her anywhere.
It was all for me, but was it in my head, delusions of a spectral brain? Who knew? Who cared! She was there and that’s all that mattered.
I realised the ghosts had never taken us within, but me that had stepped outside.