“Crazy weather we’ve been having,” an old woman said as she creaked her way forward to a row of chairs in the pharmacy, something in her knees snapping softly as she sighed and sat into the chair next to a man in early middle age, looking reflectively at his cell phone.
The man called “Cuch,” which was short for Cuchullin (his Irish mother had a thing for ancient epics), had saggy, red eyes like he’d been crying. Was this why she was making small talk? Normally the man would have dismissed trivial attempts to occupy time while waiting for a prescription with a clipped yep, but today something compelled him to reach out.
Today, Cuch felt more appreciative of these opportunities to exchange small pleasantries with other human beings because he didn’t know how much longer he’d be able to do it.
He felt a kind of desperation for some connection, too: He had always been bad at socializing and didn’t have many friends he could confide in. Today, however, he felt like this old woman could teach him something. He yearned to reach out to someone older and wiser and grasp them by the hand and indirectly, covertly, ask them how to live in the face of inevitable death.
Cuch didn’t want to be offensive, but he felt like older people knew how to process death better than younger people, as they’d had a lifetime to confront it its inevitability. Younger people, like those he taught at his school, were mostly content to forestall or block out such unpleasantries and acknowledge only that it would happen at some distant point in the future. It was so long away for them that it was generally safe to ignore; little did they know that time leapt forward as soon as they got into an adulthood routine. Cuch realized now that he was growing an appreciation for the elderly, and this kind of daily courage they had to endure every day as they continued living and doing things as simple as getting out of a car and walking into a pharmacy. In his own youthful days, he was ashamed to admit that he looked at them like unironed, black mold spotted, delicately stepping snail people. He had often twisted his lips into a snarl of contempt without even intending it. But now, at his age, suddenly they weren’t unlucky humans whose bodies were turning against themselves. They were actually lucky to have experienced all those decades of slow decay, of learning how to be brave in the face of the mortality hurtling toward them. In spite of American culture’s incessant celebration of youth and the fact that most people hated to be reminded of their own mortality, they courageously continued to exist.
Perhaps this change in perspective was a result of Cuch’s own misfortune: instead of looking forward to decades of self-challenge, he was facing the prospect of death because of a prolonged QT arrhythmia, a tearing chest flutter that would, according to his physician, send him to his own grave sometime before he was forty-five, and maybe before then. Cuch was therefore destined to see his own demise long before these people he used to pity and sneer at would see their own, and the now fragile man couldn’t help but darkly laugh at the irony of it. He had been named after a demigod from an ancient Irish epic who could do almost anything he wanted to: effortlessly punch fifty men at once or hurl a ball and catch it before it hit the ground. Cú Chullain was, along with Achilles or Aeneas, the blueprint for the superheroes broadcast on every theater screen for the last decade and on the comic book page for almost the last century. But then Cuch remembered that even that ancient warrior met his death at a younger age than Cuch was now.
An equally epic self-pity belabored his thoughts. He felt it was the kind of profound personal tragedy that, if outwardly expressed, would cause other people to either sneer in contempt or fawn in faux-pity; he was genuinely disappointed to realize that people were going about their lives as if nothing of significance was happening at all—but, of course, nothing of significance was occurring, as hadn’t he done the same thing every second of every day? Was he so egotistical to think the world would freeze for a moment and cry for him? He wanted to alert everyone that there was, indeed, something very important happening in his chest, and at any moment, he could tumble to the ground with a shriek-frozen face, his unrealized dreams as a writer locked away in unshared documents in his computer’s cloud, destined to be forgotten and unrecognized as every thought in his brain had fried into ash and then scattered into some pretty ocean bay his mom would pick, sentimentally sending the human being she created back to the vast sea.
He felt his diagnosis warranted the interruption of every radio and streaming channel, like presidents would do in the old days. He imagined every human being sobbing simultaneously at their televisions for someone they never even met. Then he scolded himself for the navel-gazing and wondered if every human being was just as selfish.
We all think we have more time, Cuch thought, until the end arrives, and nature surprises us with its random claws as it slashes at another unfinished life for no reason at all. He was bewildered at how a sperm and egg conglomeration capable of producing one of the most complex organisms in the universe—the human brain—could be felled by a pencil-sized plaque accumulation in an artery, or, in his case, an isolated wiring dysfunction.
So, naturally, he pouted and sulked under his doing regular human things like carry on small talk about the weather—except he no longer found it meaningless.
“Yeah,” the man said, looking up from his cell phone. “It reminds me of the winters in Alaska. Winters would slip into May, sometimes. But this sudden reversal—”
“Yeah,” she responded. “Six inches of snow on the ground last week and sunshine with temperatures into the sixties this week. Something is going on. Like the world’s mad.”
The younger man merely nodded and thought about how he used to fret about such things. Of course, that stemmed from his absolute certainty that he would inhabit the uninhabitable world humans were creating for themselves in the near future. But now he wouldn’t. So, he thought, maybe there were perks to his condition after all.
He didn’t even have a family to worry about. Indeed, since he’d always wanted a family, his disappointing life at this stage revealed a single, recurring image in his mind that he couldn’t shake, an emotion linked with imagination. It reminded him of an almost dream-like series of events that now leaped through intervals of time and coalesced in his memory. There was a man who used to fish with his father. He owned a once-beautiful cabin overlooking the coast of the Cook Inlet near Anchor Point, Alaska, not far from where he grew up. It was a home nicknamed the Gingerbread House—gorgeously limned in deep green and scarlet trimmings under its long, sloping, triangular roof. It had a Germanic or Swiss kind of vibe, overlooking as it did, the sloshing greyish waves of the inlet from the top of the fifty foot cliff on which it was perched, the hazy blue teeth of the mountains piercing the distance. When this man died, the Gingerbread House was slowly reclaimed by nature every summer when he and his father passed by it on the way to a boat launch site to fish for halibut. Five years later, the grass grew through the once finely lacquered porch floorboards, its cocoa paint beginning to flake away like peeling, tanned skin. Ten years later, it was like some kind of relic of the 1964 earthquake: one could still see piercing the low, grassy fog along the road to Alyeska a collapsed roof, swallowed by encroaching forests of moss and grass, and a seedling birch starting to grow from the middle of the house through the collapsed roof.
Since the Gingerbread House man (he was about seven when the occupant died) had no immediate family and the cabin had been neglected for so long, it was like he hadn’t really died at all but had personally chosen to abandon it in order to seek shelter somewhere else, leaving all of his tools behind to rust. Cuch and a few teenage friends visited it during Halloween and invented ghost stories like those strange neglected dwellings. Inside, they could still see the minutiae of his life: his newspaper and magazine stacks yellowing and crinkling in recycling baskets; the tobacco for a pipe that ultimately played no small part in killing him in the first place still spilling out onto a cobwebbed and water-logged wooden table. Cuch had picked it up, and it crumbled effortlessly into fine ash grains in his hand, like sand in an hourglass. He still remembered the sweet smell of the man’s pipe smoke creating its own pleasant fog just over the boat as they fished in the inlet. At that moment, the tobacco was like the trickling sand that makes up an hourglass or the ashy clump that resulted from the Gingerbread House man’s cremation. His father had trickled the man’s remains into the sea over the bluff near the house they thoughtlessly invaded for a stupid Halloween thrill.
He wished he could remember the Gingerbread house man’s name.
It occurred to him that the memory of his father dumping the man’s ashes into the sea was why he imagined his mother doing the same thing with his own. He thought it might have been vaguely symbolic of something—that we incinerate people to ash so that nature could better reclaim all the tiny minerals that made up every human endeavor When he reminded himself of their little sojourn to the cabin, it was now less depressing. The spruce tree growing out of the ceiling—once such an important, sheltering object in a human’s life—was a reminder that human imposition on nature would always morph into something else untended. Everything slowly, seamlessly integrated with the natural world that created all life once again. And maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. Maybe the decaying wood of the once homely cottage with the European flair would be repurposed into shelter for someone else—maybe for a cold family of foxes that curled up together, looking like little red commas. Maybe people could benefit less from imposing their will on the world in which they found themselves and instead embrace their own impermanent role in its cyclical, impermanent beauty?
“Yes. Isn’t it though?” The woman sat, pensively with her hand on her chin. “It seems like there’s always something going on that we can never control, never quite possess. That no matter how hard we try, nature always wins.”
The woman’s turn to philosophical speculation, so thematically in tune with his own just then, surprised him. He turned to her, and it seemed to him like she was facing some kind of sadness of her own. Despite her straight, alert back, her eyes were slightly watery, and she nervously clenched and released the fabric of her black coat or played with the little threads hanging from it that hinted at age and overuse. He hadn’t noticed before that she was wearing all black and purple: The black leather winter coat, as old as herself, cracked and whitened in some areas, was neatly juxtaposed with a long purple scarf that looked as soft as silk. The colors were strikingly combined with a white, almost animal-tusk alabaster skin, as if she spent all of her time out of the sun. Her storm-cloud, grey eyes were encircled by a dark mascara and a touch of black makeup. Whoa, Cuch thought. She is kind of like a goth grandma.
He supposed her own apparent sadness made sense. They were both, after all, here collecting medicine for something, and that tends to make a person anticipate licking their wounds with little oval tablets.
Cuch was silent for a moment as he tried to think of a clever response. “That’s what science is sometimes. A war against nature. And we always seem to lose, so I sometimes wonder what the actual point of it is. Why we all work so hard and never see our families and then die. For an illusion?”
“Exactly,” the old woman said, smiling briefly, and then her lips bent into sullenness “A young man I know—about twenty-six—spontaneously developed a lump in his throat a few days ago. At first, he thought it was just a lymph node infection or a thyroid problem, but nope...throat cancer.” She shook her head. “While we may be able to conquer cancer one day, nature will just throw something else at us.”
There was another long pause, and both of them looked at the blue carpet, at the other, much happier customers gathered in the small town pharmacy, some of whom were catching up on family changes. It was the peak hour, five-thirty on a Friday, when everyone got off work, so Cuch felt a little warmer amid the cluster of bodies. Some of the customers that were standing because there were no more available seats looked up at the pharmacist behind the counter expectantly, shifting their feet, anxious to get home.
Cuch debated whether he should just tell her about his own death sentence. He felt like there couldn’t be much harm in it. He didn’t reach out to others much, as he had a desperate need for isolation; indeed, it was often so intense that he was angry when he didn’t get enough of it, but when he did, it was for a good reason. But there was no damage that could come from telling a random stranger anyway at the pharmacy. “I can relate,” he said. "I was diagnosed with a rare heart condition just a day ago. They tell me it’s bad. Something I’d never heard of called Long QT syndrome, an electrical disturbance in the heart that could cause life-threatening arrhythmias at high intervals. Mine’s at a...chasm-wide interval.”
She was sitting on the edge of her own chair, her spine aligned and strangely erect, like she was poised to take action. Cuch felt like this was strange, and though he could hardly devine her thoughts, she looked at him like she had to do something but was torn about whether to do it in the first place. She was nodding solemnly with her eyes clenching, like she’d resigned that life was filled with unjust and inescapable tragedies, but it was unclear what exactly she was reacting to.
There was something about this gesture, however, that suggested she already knew everything he had just told her, that it was old news she’d already accepted. With her aura of witchy incense perfume and her black and purple garb, she looked like she’d drifted from some long-lost Irish barrow where she practiced divinations over steaming cauldrons—something out of what his mother, who was Irish, would read to him when he was sick.
She bore a resemblance to this one figure he remembered, a sorceress who turned into a crow, but he couldn’t recall her name. She was associated with death, he knew. His mother always said that reading the strange epic, The Tain, starring the hero after which Cuch was named, was the best way to heal oneself when sick or injured, and any mythology could deliver that kind of healing quality. The Tain had been translated into modern English and released during The Troubles, and every person in divided Ireland, at war with each other, rallied around the book as a source of national pride and comfort, the tale relying heavily on geography and the naming of familiar places in their country. The story didn’t have just one author but hundreds or more, and it still connected through a distinct sense of place, which made the story like an Irish Iliad, recited orally through the ages by a multitude of voices, each of them adding some element to the original story. While his mother’s adult friends thought it an odd choice to read to a child because it was a difficult book to understand even for adults, his mother knew that for children, sound and visuals were just as important as meaning. She could speak some Gaelic, and he would sink into the couch, cocooned in a blanket tightly wrapped around him, sedated with cold medications, and she would read it to him with all those funny sounds and words. She even changed her voice to mimic the different characters, modulating for age or gender or position, involving many gods or demigods like most epics.
It was strange that he could remember all of that, but why couldn’t he remember the name of the witch-like character?
“And do they know the cause?”
“Yes. In some cases, it’s sometimes the result of medication, but we’ve ruled that out. Apparently, I have some kind of recessive gene that I inherited, and there’s not much they can do besides watch it carefully for the rest of my life. I’ll get an electrical resetter installed like I’m a cyborg or something. A de...” he trailed off, searching for the word, turning his eyes up to the ceiling.
“Defibrillator,” the old woman said, kindly.
“Yeah,” he said. “One of those.”
She nodded again and smiled. “There’s that scientific human ambition again. Ha ha.”
The man looked at her strangely, with a soft, searching look. “But, I mean, if it prolongs my life...”
“Oh!” She exclaimed, chuckling and maternally patting his knee. “Of course, of course. I didn’t mean you shouldn’t. I only mean...it’s just another indication of man’s priorities. To heroically fight against death when death always wins, even though I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. It’s a...it’s a...just a strange thing.”
“You think something natural could cure my heart?” I asked.
“Well, I do, and I don’t. I think a lot of healing methods depend on the patient’s ability to believe in its effectiveness, and there’s not a lot of faith or patience for those things these days. But regardless, I also think that the heart issue isn’t really the issue, is it? You’re still young, aren’t you, by the look of you? You still have things to do?”
I smiled, intrigued. “Yes. And I fear I’ve wasted my life. And now it’s got to come to an end soon.”
He sniffled and sat back momentarily, psychically dulling the scratch at the corner of his eyes, the tickle in the back of his throat. He succeeded in crushing the waves of sadness and sat forward closing his eyes and shaking his head. She also reacted, in her still stiff and regal way, with a faint sniffle.
“Oh, look at all that self-pity,” Cuch said. “When impoverished people the world over would’ve been happy to simply put food into their family member’s mouths and call that a satisfactorily achieved life goal.” He chuckled.
“Hmm.” The old woman responded. “I think everyone’s entitled to a little self-pity, especially when they’re staring death in the face. If you can’t feel it then, when can you feel it?”
“Well, I definitely feel it’s been wasted. And I don’t know a larger individual tragedy than that. That I had a modicum of talent, and I could have contributed to the arts, been a film director, even, as my professor read my work and thought I had a good knack for visuals. I just feel like something was supposed to happen with my life that just... didn’t, because I waited for it to happen to me instead of being brave enough to go after it, to risk rejection and the pain that that causes even though my fear of rejection is literally more terrifying than death to me. I’m forty-one, and I look back at all the time I’ve wasted playing video games or watching television, not making friends, not going out and taking any real risks.”
He sat forward moving his arms vigorously as he talked. No one else in the pharmacy existed to him. It was just them. “I would sit in my apartment like a hermit for weeks at a time. Because I was so vulnerable that a single line of criticism was like subjecting my back to whip-like lacerations. Because the only thing worse than not trying at all, to me, is trying and then failing.” He caught a reflection of himself in a long mirror that was revealed behind another door as a pharmacy technician opened it. He could see himself in a hulking caveman pose; he was summoning another relic of his personality that he thought he had worked out, that Alaskan oilfield masculinity he was taught to adhere to, the kind that rallied under dictators that he supposed lived deep somewhere within all men. His eyes bored into the carpet below him, as if that’s where he saw his weaker self—that despicable object of pity, that embodiment of shame and fear through violence, even if self-inflicted. He sat back and breathed deeply, as if purging something through the rhythm of his lungs.
Then he sighed and relaxed his posture. He returned to the old woman. “I hope you know that I don’t just unleash emotional diarrhea on, like, everyone I meet. There’s just so much I don’t get to say to anyone, I suppose. I don’t normally talk like this.”
“Oh, you’re overwhelmed. You just got this news. You’re here picking up, what, beta blockers?”
He was surprised she knew what his doctor prescribed. “Uh, yeah. How’d you know?”
“When you’re as old as I am, you get to know all the medications, all the conditions, quite well. If you don’t have it, either one of your friends or a family member has been given it. Anyway, you're here picking up beta blockers because your still relatively young, poor heart isn’t doing its job, and you’re not taking it well, as anyone might be expected to. Believe me, I totally understand, and I’m just glad to be here for you to vent.” She sat forward and put a hand on his knee. “Really. Don’t punish yourself even more for feeling a perfectly natural set of feelings in reaction to something so monumental.”
She paused for a minute. Cuch thought it was a bit strange that she wasn’t in a hurry at all, that she never once glanced up at the pharmacist to see what was taking so long. This was someone who is good at accepting what is or what will come to be, he told himself. This is someone a person like him could learn from.
“Have you asked yourself why you have such a desperate need to save yourself from criticism?” she asked.
“Oh yeah, and it’s pretty blunt. It’s because I cared so much about what I had to offer to the world that I felt like if I failed one too many times, I’d have absolutely nothing left to live for. I was afraid my depression and anxiety were going to win—that I would commit suicide, just like so many of my relatives.”
“Ah,” she said. She shook her head sadly but looking a little uncomfortable.
“I’m sorry,” Cuch said. “I’m oversharing.”
“No, again, don’t be sorry. You just got this news. You’re processing. So...let me ask you something practical. Are you all alone? No one to help you run errands or go to the grocery store?”
“Yes,” he said. “That’s another one of the things I was never courageous enough about—risking rejection, in relationships and in writing. My two biggest fears. It’s like, I was so afraid of rejection in either case that I was willing to punish myself by accepting a world without love. It’s ironic, I think, because you have to experience love before you can be relentless, as one of my favorite writers once said. The last time I was in love, I could write all day and be so engrossed I would even forget to eat. But that lasted a year and a half. Marriage was talked about. And then, just when I thought things were getting serious, she announced that she was going back to her jock ex-boyfriend. And then I replaced that prior productivity with moping on the couch and feeling sorry for myself. I was sort of milking the tragedy of unrequited love, the absolute certainty that I had found the one person who I could spend the rest of my life, and...she doesn’t love me back. So, I have a lot of false starts, a lot of unfinished drafts, a lot of fragments. A life in tatters.”
“And no children?”
“No.” I said. “I never planned on that, regardless of whether I married. I’d be passing on too many destructive genes. Tendencies toward alcoholism and depression, things like that.” He envisioned a classic double-helix of DNA slowly crumbling like the Gingerbread man’s cabin slowly get reclaimed by the wilderness—a strong yet strangely fragile thing destined for decay as protective telomeres fray. He pictured his DNA as flawed: moldy fragments amid some sparkling microbes of lost genetic potential, carried for centuries from line to line, but ending with him. He felt strangely guilty when he decided not to have children: like he had disappointed his ancestors, some of whom undoubtedly had unrealized dreams and ambitions of their own that instead only died with dreams that their descendants might finally summon the rare gumption that it takes to be immortal in human society.
“Ah,” she said. “Well, that’s actually quite noble. It’s a sign of humility, and that’s rare. It takes a gigantic ego, I always say, to force your genes into the next generation when they’re so afflicted, but it’s also a perfectly normal impulse. I never had children myself, so I suppose that’s why I lean to that side of the argument.”
“Hmm,” he responded, sinking low into his chair, widening his knee length enough to relax his leg muscles but not to induce manspread-based resentment. He sat and thought.
“Maybe, and this is just a suggestion, you need to reevaluate your definition of failure,” she responded.
“True,” Cuch responded, “but if anyone doesn’t succeed at what they attempted, like getting a novel published, then aren’t they, by definition, a failure?”
“No,” she responded with a confident stare full of momentarily amazing conviction. “Not if you still wrote the novel. Not if you still got it out there, self-published, even. Or maybe not. There’s a Japanese author, Kenkō, who lived a life of solitude, not unlike yourself. He thought the greatest kinds of beauty come from unfinished fragments of thought or being in general. That great beauty is the byproduct of impermanence. The pieces of a life left unused aren’t less beautiful for not having been printed on a page and then disseminated. It’s impermanence—and no one thing will ever be finished—that represents all of life and its wide ranges of imperfect, fleeting and subjective moments through art. If we lived forever, these feelings we have about anything would be muted, diluted by the notion that they will come again, like with Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.”
He looked at her with amazement. “Whoa. Are you, like, a philosophy professor?” he asked.
The old woman chuckled a little and shook her head. “Oh, no, no, no. Just someone interested in these things. Someone who likes to question convictions and think through all the little complexities of life.”
Cuch cleared his throat and sat up straight. This kind of thinking required some late-day energy he didn’t know if he could summon. “Okay. If I accepted this guy’s position, then, say, a work of full-throttle genius may never be read because the author might die before its completion, but it’s still beautiful despite, or because of, its lack of completion. But that still leaves me wondering if it is somehow more beautiful to this guy? And the writing would never have achieved what the author intended for it to impact the lives of others.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. I think myself that it belies the point of art to think it needs to be read or seen by as many people as possible to be meaningful and do what it does well. A few people will see it, maybe, and a piece of writing still might still get published posthumously. Fragments might be finished by other writers who knew him. But that incomplete, desperate scrawling from a life lived—a fleeting scrap of consciousness that will soon cease to be conscious of anything at all—is the true beauty of art in and of itself. It is really art’s distillation, I suppose. All we have are those impermanent moments. And if it’s powerful enough, if it’s got something that packs emotional heft, contains unique personalities, and it allows oneself to reveal a life lived to only yourself and no one else, then isn’t that enough? Perhaps it needs no audience at all to be beautiful, because it already was to one person who was ultimately consoled by its existence. Again, really, isn’t that enough? For that person to know she poured the best of herself into that thing and managed to express a fragment of a life lived, even if it doesn’t see the light of day?”
“I don’t know,” Cuch said. “Maybe. I’ve always been under the impression that art is most meaningful if it helps someone understand something in a new way, brings clarity to a problem they would one day face as well.”
“What’s more important? To be famous and to impact other people’s lives or to have lived a rich, fulfilling, but impermanent life for yourself, and to have the work you completed amid that pursuit of happiness stand alone as evidence that you wrestled with something. Felt something powerful. Lived in a way others could respect rather than worship.”
“I think my father would have said it would be more important to be famous and be known. That way, you escape mortality and become known to others. To him, that was proof of your superiority to others, your unique, powerful individualism.”
“And to you?”
Cuch scratched his chin. “I don’t think fame is a big deal. I’ve realized these days that half the people you talk to on the street haven’t even heard of the most artistically inspired novelists anyway. And writers these days don’t ever really get famous, no matter what they do. Unless they manage to create an entire mythology, like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or Tolkien. Or they’re a director as well, like Guillermo Del Toro.”
“People worship these individuals,” she said. “They worship them more than they used to worship the Gods.”
He laughed quickly and surprised himself at how he could still find anything humorous. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, they do.” He had attracted the attention of the other patrons with his sudden laugh attack.
“So, do you want to be worshipped?”
“Hmm,” he said, a musing look on his face. “No. I’m not sure that I do. Though part of me thinks that anyone who says that is lying to themselves. I don’t know. I think you do when you’re young, because at that age you don’t realize that there’s a vast galaxy of other talented primates outside your own head, an unimaginably complex world that human beings have yet to fully comprehend, and even then, that world is only a tiny bubble of existence on a planet we can’t escape. And, someday, the Earth will collapse into the Sun, and everything that humans ever did would be insignificant in one burst of flame, and then all of human accomplishments will be culminated by the burp of a swallowing star.”
“Yes. Eventually that will be. In about seven point five billion years or so.” She smiled at him to reinforce the point. “And in the meantime, there will be billions and billions of people who will exist, who may see your work and actually be impacted by it. You see, art is like medicine. It exists to heal the many billions of wounds to come. To help another consciousness understand that they are not alone, and that everyone that has ever existed struggles. But more importantly, it exists to heal yourself. It helps you to appreciate it more fully, and thus it is valuable as medicine regardless of whether it gets seen.”
“My mom used to say that. She used to read to me when I was sick.”
“And think of all the time you’ve spent getting here,” she said. “All the time you’ve spent to get a degree, and all that reading and writing critical analyses of how they all worked, I assume. You did all that for a reason, I assume, to gain the knowledge to produce your art in the first place. And if you have a modicum of talent, well use it. To say something important, something staggering, to whoever has ears to hear it, or for now, just for your own. It’s outside your control what happens to what you did with your life when you die, and you don’t know when that will be. It’s the relics, the little scraps of knowledge you’ve accumulated that you can dispense with in some meaningful way, like bandages to heal the next generation of wounds to come, but they work only because they healed you first. Maybe your novel will eventually be discovered and published by a major publisher. Maybe it won’t. Maybe it will sit in your house or on a hard drive and never meet someone’s eyes. If it was something that meant something to you, if it helped you grow, and you worked hard to produce it, this art you can be proud of. So what? It’s out of your hands. We only have the time in front of us and what we choose to do with it. Everyone else decides if the story you wrote had an impact on them or not.”
They both paused and looked at the floor.
“And if, say, one were to suddenly grant you your wish to live long enough to pursue these dreams, would you work at them? Every day?”
“Yes. Yes, I realize now that I would. It’s amazing that it takes facing death to realize I would take that in a heartbeat.”
“Okay, then,” she said, and faced me, one side of her lips arching up into a smile. “I officially bestow upon you the time you need to complete your novel before you pass on.” She grinned mischievously, which Cuch thought was odd, as she looked serious when she said it. It was like she was joking, but also not.
Cuch chuckled, amused, going along with the joke. “Eh. I didn’t feel a thing. You sure?”
She smiled again. “But you don’t know how much time you’ll have. So, it doesn’t really matter that I don’t actually have magical powers. You can pretend you’ve been given this time, and you can use it productively, and then you can pass on with pride, knowing that you’ve done something for yourself to help you understand your own life.”
“Huh,” he smiled. “I suppose so. And I’ll make sure to thank you in the dedications. Speaking of which, I actually don’t think I ever caught your name...?
At that moment, someone at the pharmacy counter called out a name. “Morrigan? Your script is ready.”
“Oop, that’s me,” she said, as she got up with surprising adroitness for her age. “I’ve got to get my anxiety pills. I have a tough job sometimes, and it’s rewarding too, but it takes a pretty good dose of Xanax.”
The man was still surprised that she was working at all, and not in retirement, but he didn’t want to offend her by asking about it.
She went over to the counter, and they rang up her prescription. Then, as she was turning to leave, she reached out her hand to the man’s and said, “Now, I hope you’ve learned a little something, my still very young man. Remember. I expect to see a novel as completed as possible before your death. It isn’t about anybody else, and it never was. It’s about you.”
It is at the guarding of thy death that I am and shall be. The line popped into his head out of nowhere. For some reason, he suddenly remembered it from The Tain.
Or did he? The line actually seemed to have been spoken to him from outside his head, a voice projected directly through his bones, bypassing his cochlea entirely and to his brain like a sound from a person yelling inside of him, like sound emanating from bone conduction headphones.
And then he shivered slightly with a vague sense of recognition.
Morrigan? Wasn’t that a character in a video game he played? Or possibly one of the ones he heard as a child? Or in many different stories, possibly even Morgan Le Fay from Authurian legend?
That’s an interesting name, he thought as she left with her medication.
But what if...?
As soon as he got his beta blocker medication, he swallowed a capsule and gradually noted the decrease in his blood pressure and heart rate over the next half hour. The pressure on his chest was still present, but less insistent—less like a crate of glass wine bottles and more like the more concentrated but lighter heft of an infant.
It was summer in Utah and his students were either off on frivolous adventures or going to summer school or preparing for college. The silence on campus was unusually loud in its surrealism, as there are hundreds of students roaming the quad at any given time during the regular school year. He had the sudden sense that all these empty buildings were owned by himself and his fellow teachers as they roamed from dorm to dorm looking for used student books or gathering unwanted furniture from departing teachers. The silence was inviting him to do what he had intended to do, which was write that summer, and to write with a hitherto untapped energy. While he initially thought he was going to write something small, realistic and reflective, he instead decided to write a modern epic with allusions to long poetic myths of ancient lands—something daring—that would seamlessly unify entertainment and art in a way he was convinced was still possible that heroic self-sacrifice was possible, that a Cú Chulainn or King Arthur could still exist in a world cluttered with antiheroes that no longer believed in a classical hero’s journey, or a selfless transformation through exposure to incredible hostility.
And, more importantly, it would be more fun to write a more commercial kind of book–something epic and daring but still literary enough to garner artistic respect. If this was supposed to be medicine, then he had to choose this kind of tale as his first and last project in order to summon the necessary energy to withstand the stressors of writing an epic while delicately monitoring a wayward heart. He would also need to expose himself to great dangers himself by potentially stressing his heart so much it could kill him. Though he wanted to spend his last moments enjoying what he typically enjoyed, he unplugged his video game console and locked it in a chest in his closet.
He could either live longer and indulge in his lazy pastimes and not fulfill his dream, or he could hasten his own death in creating something that conjured every part of his intellect and his imagination. And just maybe, he would also give it to the world if they would have it.
But he had plenty of relapses in which many television shows were binged. Eventually, he couldn’t watch TV anymore because he now realized how many times characters used the word “heart.”
But my heart can’t take it.
My heart is yours. Always.
That was as black as your heart.
He found he couldn’t even listen to music anymore.
As soon as they referenced a heart, which was all the time, he was done.
Everyone’s heart doesn’t beat the same, said Green Day on his way to get groceries. It’s beating out of time, they added, seemingly just to ram the point home.
Tell me about it, Cuch grumbled.
Ultimately, he floated back and forth every week between narrative ideas; he had numerous false starts. Nothing sustained Cuch’s attention or enthusiasm, and he was beginning to wonder if writers themselves weren’t actually superhuman gods of some kind with abnormally abundant willpower, not just their inventors.
He eventually convinced himself not to just become interested in telling a story—to invent plausible people that didn’t exist in order to show the range and depth of human emotion, its variability and intricacy, chronicling the human beast’s unique solipsistic struggle against nature to achieve immortality—but to use the narrative to lose himself so that he would not do anything self-destructive, which was a constant impulse. He gazed longingly at the closet that had contained the white brick console that offered imaginative escape and blocked out the envy he felt on his afternoon walks in the neighborhood when he waved at his fellow teachers, who roared off to the Utah mountains with canoes or kayaks strapped like large bananas on their SUV roofs. Then he went inside, devoured books on the sofa for a few hours and then went to his desk. A little sticky note attached to the back panel of his desk that said “you should be writing” egged him on. He ordered pizza and helped Jeff Bezos lay waste to the environment in order to send him simple foods like V8 juice and Clif Bars in two-day Amazon shipments. This, admittedly, put a less heroic spin on his literary quest, and he wondered about quitting. Ending it all preemptively, living his last days amid alchohol-fueled Netflix binges.
Wishing for death wasn’t anything new, as anyone living a constantly demanding, exhausting fight for life might say. At times Cuch thought about David Foster Wallace—loathe as he was to compare himself to such a productive genius—who had carefully laid out his unfinished manuscript alongside a suicide note to his wife in what Wallace’s best friend, Jonathan Franzen, had suggested to Cuch in an email was a gesture of defeat, an admission that this beastly brick of words had slain him in his own noble, heroic pursuit, and the resounding notion the rest of the artistic world was that even the exorbitantly talented author with a kingly name like Wallace could be felled by the ogre of artistic ambition. He felt an affinity for Wallace, not because he shared any shred of his genius, but because he shared some aspect of his character: a daily agony in the face of postmodern meaninglessness and the almost obligatory psychiatric malady with that unjustly imprecise name of “Major Depressive Disorder.” One had to name it something, he supposed. Wallace had probably hugged his dogs and sobbed and then proceeded to hang himself on his back porch. It wasn’t something Cuchliked to imagine, but imagine he did, and frequently.
When Cuch learned of his heart condition, he was half tempted to do the same thing, but without the brick of pages to leave behind because, after all, what really was the point of spending his last moments working, anyway? Who does that? What is this silly ritual we expend so much time and emotional and physical energy on, tapping words to approximate a human being’s haunting mind vapors? At first, it was drudgery, and he dragged his mouse cursor over the word count tool every ten minutes, thinking that if he could only scribble down a thousand words a day like Jack London did, he would eventually produce a fantastic masterpiece. Then he reminded himself that he was already older than Jack London when the famous author died at forty.
What exactly in the fucking hell had he been doing with his life?
Of course, everyone wants to leave something behind—a legacy, even if it is just a knife scratching on the gas station bathroom stall wall saying, “Fred was here.” He decided he couldn’t die until he had finished something, even if it wasn’t really that good.
So, he started tapping away at the keyboard, making himself meet a quota of a thousand words a day, just like good ‘ol Jack. At first, it was tough because he couldn’t even remember the rules for punctuation and when to use em dashes or semicolons, and he had a tendency to write long, overly descriptive maximalist sentences.
Eventually, however, the routine and habit became instinctual, automatic. He locked himself into flow state: a state of nonconscious absorption in a task that challenged and entertained the mind that forgot about the human construct of time altogether.
A month later, Cuch had about sixty pages written, finally feeling alive even among imminent death. But it wasn’t only so that he felt alive; he felt, slowly, but inevitably, as long as he was being true to his vision, like he was mending the torn threads of his confetti heart while weaving an epic tale about unrequited love, a tale that would mirror his own tale of unfulfilled love. The woman who had wanted to marry him, but then left him for someone taller, more muscular, more popular. The experience that had wrecked his own hope for romance altogether.
It was then that he realized he had always needed, in his life, a constant absorption in the power of myth to symbolically realize the emotional battle he had been waging internally for twenty years.
He discovered why Dante needed Beatrice. He needed hope.
The epic tale involved two close friends—one male and one female. Though the man, Amal, had one day realized he was in love with his friend, whom he named Morgan (he had no doubts about what inspired this name) and she had rejected him in favor of another former flame, they had remained friends since college, and the man was able to relinquish his passion for the sake of her happiness. On the way to her wedding, they died in a car accident together. The female character, dressed in black, had a vaguely witch-like air about her and had large appetites for drugs and sex, and was implicitly declared a sinner and sent to hell. The man was sent to heaven, and he could not understand the meaning of heaven in her absence. The main character was sure they didn’t end up together in heaven by some cosmic mistake; he argued persuasively that Heaven could not be understood as paradise, and thus it was—and could not ever be—the reward for a good life spent on Earth that it was intended to be. He would rather be sunk down to Hell and create his own Heaven there with her like Milton’s Satan than to remain in the faux Heaven they had created for him.
Amal’s happiness depended upon it, he told the angels, who were gold-plated, armored and cloud-shaped humanoids that stood eight feet tall.
Cuch, as he was writing this, could tell that this representation of heaven might have been too unoriginal, too influenced by video games, but he trusted his instincts and moved on.
Amal was told by Michael, the Archangel, that once the fiend below, the angel’s former brother, had taken a soul, it was gone forever. No one had ever succeeded in trying to reclaim a soul from him, but he could tell that Amal was pure of heart, even if that heart was shattered. Michael said that if Amal wished to enter that realm to rescue her, he was welcome to try, as that was part of the reward for souls lucky enough to enter Heaven. They could go where they wished. Michael said, however, that if he chose to do so, he would potentially leave Heaven altogether and remain trapped in Hell. Indeed, that was the most likely outcome. But Michael sensed a larger quest lay before the curiously brave human, one that could potentially mend his broken heart. Michael did not say this to Amal, however.
Amal said he recognized this, and the angels, intrigued by his courage to take on the maw of hell and its sadistic armies just to recover her, would indeed be one of the greatest sacrifices for love they had ever seen. So, they gave him angel armor that bestowed upon him the strength and the power of the angels themselves.
At this point, Cuch began losing confidence in himself. It was all too fantastic; he felt like he was getting too nerdy and even into comic book territory, and no one would ever publish it. The narrative wasn’t marketable enough; it was too derivative, someone else would always say it better than he ever could. He wondered if he should drop this fantasy novel and turn it into a graphic novel instead, and even if people would take a fantastical plot like this seriously as literature anymore, that he didn’t have the endurance or the tenacity or the talent or the imagination or even the wits.
But in the face of all this negative self talk, he reminded himself he only had time to tell maybe one story. He put his hand on his heart and noted its jerking rhythm, and, as if he had just took note of his remaining time with a mundane watch, and the continued tapping away on the keyboard anyway.
But he kept writing anyway.
Just as his main character plunged into Hell on the blank page, Cuch himself went on his own trip to personal hell: He got a pacemaker surgically implanted just after he began writing this passage, and he felt like Dante, being guided by his own kind of unrequited love, which was being figured in the novel by Morgan. His operation was a success, and since he now had a device that could reset his arrhythmias whenever they occured, he felt that the device was a kind of safety button now.
But he also had to arrive back in his own fictional Hell as soon as he was released from the hospital, and as soon as he sat down he felt the pang of self-critique again: He would live; but his idea was complete dogshit and he would just have to live with that and he didn’t know how other writers still managed to live and breathe with the knowledge that something they worked so hard for was going to end up unread and in the trash folders of so many agents and publishers.
He felt like he could possibly live to write more than just one novel, but after this first experience, he felt like he shouldn’t bother. He wondered what was the point of doing something that only made him hate himself.
When he rarely wrote something remotely original and unexpected, he would say sarcastic things to himself like, You’re like Hemingway!
But even as he registered the negative thoughts yelling at him, he just thought that if he could keep going, something of his life’s work would at least get recorded on paper and then it would be worth it. Even if it was complete trash, he would have left that bathroom stall-wall scratch behind before he departed from life: Cuch was here.
So, he transported himself back into his story, despite the searing, unleashing insults at the back of his mind.
When Cuch began writing again, he decided to make his Hell more reflective of actual life and plunged his main character, Amal, into a kind of upside-down version of New York, with armies raging against each other for the control of certain provinces and never-ending fire in the sky.
Though neither Amal, nor anyone else bore burn marks, Amal could tell through the unprotected parts of his body that his flesh was slowly cooking. He discovered that Satan had vacated his seat in Hell for a life as an anonymous man on Earth (Cuch wanted readers to recognize a Neil Gaiman reference here), and armies battled for control of it. Amal befriended a local alliance led by a resistance, and with their help, he was eventually able to find Morgan and fly her back to Heaven. Amal grabbed her in his arms and launched into the sky like Superman with a trail of blazing white light rainbowing behind him. As soon as the other demons realized what was afoot, they launched into the sky in pursuit—literally and figuratively demonic historical figures like Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, and Ghenghis Khan. Amal swung the sword of Michael with one hand, furiously beating them off, and glowing as was with a radiant white light, cutting through Jeffrey Dahmer like butter, which made Amal laugh at the delicious irony. Eventually, Amal crossed into purgatory and the demons were blasted with an atmospheric barrier of white light that burned an outline of their leathery, dragon-winged humanoid forms for a split second before that outline simply dissipated. Those who didn’t cross the barrier blinded the rest.
Amal and Morgan crossed into Heaven, and Morgan didn’t know quite what to say in the wake of his declaration of love for her but was nevertheless certain of her own platonic feelings toward him. Morgan did what she had done on Earth and apologetically told Amal that her feelings toward him had not changed.
Even though Amal would be lying if he didn’t partially admit he was hoping for a different result, he managed to control himself because he knew it was too unlikely. He told her he wasn’t expecting Morgan’s feelings to change; he did what he did because it was the right thing to do, and he only wanted her to spend eternity where she belonged.
She simply thanked him and walked away into the fluffy, golden-beamed horizon of Heaven.
Surprisingly, Amal didn’t even care anymore. He had the power of an Angel now, and he had just rescued someone he loved, deeply, from an eternity in an afterlife she didn’t deserve. And he wished her happiness as she walked away.
Despite finishing a very rough first draft of the novel, it was hard for Cuch to keep up with such a breakneck pace without further damaging his heart. His arrhythmias returned and something in the defibrillator wasn’t functioning appropriately. He didn’t get adequate rest or sleep, but he kept believing in Morrigan’s promise, and there was still, lingering in the back of his thoughts, a very tiny and tentative voice that said maybe, just maybe, he had run into the real goddess herself and that she might have saved him from imminent death. And as he wrote about every swing of his hero’s sword through a demon’s neck, he also felt he was conquering his own demons.
That was why Cuch named Amal after the Arabic word for hope.
Hope that the magic we serve up in stories could actually be real in a way.
That in healing Amal’s heart he was actually healing his own.
But it wasn’t. It was only getting worse.
The draft was finished just before Cuch had to return to his teaching job that fall.
Cuch tried sending the manuscript to editors, but all of them rejected it, saying it was too derivative, and there wasn’t much of a market for this kind of mythological fantasy. They said they could tell it was a bit rushed, but most of them thought it was still pretty well written, whatever that meant. Most didn’t provide any feedback at all.
He got caught up with the world he had left behind and checked Facebook. In his news feed was a post from the woman who had broken his heart twenty years ago—his own Morgan. As he browsed her profile photos, looked at the teenage boy and girl that bore her features clustered around her hospital bed, holding her hand adoringly. The children (he urged himself not to think of it but couldn’t help it) that could have been his.
She was in the process of divorce and was suffering from atrial fibrillation, her updates had reported.
He sat and looked at the screen, his lips parted in amazement. He did think the logical thing at first: Her own heart defect arriving at the same time as his own was simply a coincidence. That and nothing more.
Not two broken hearts.
But this magical, dreaming personality who was always in his head but didn’t know how to awaken until now didn’t believe it was a coincidence. In some crazy way it was symbolically appropriate: as if the universe was punishing them both for not ending up together back when they could have.
Cuch cried. But not for her anymore, at least for the most part. The work he unleashed was an attempt to approximate the depth of his feeling for someone who didn’t love him back, and after he wrote the ending, he saw how she was so ridiculously undeserving of that love in the first place. But he nevertheless bore some part of himself inside that could never really stop caring for her, and he wondered, if she were to change her mind in that instant and tell him she had made a mistake, if he would come running into her arms.
Curious paroxysms of rage and sadness rushed through his body, manifested through clenched fists, and then a groan like that of a weightlifter lifting his max weight in rapid succession, as his eyes watered and his face reddened like a flesh-fire had started to burn underneath his skin, and his upper body muscles flexed in a kind of agonized harmony.
After about thirty minutes of a confusing whirlwind of emotional agony, of debating whether to send her a message and to tell her how sorry he was, how he was going through the exact same thing, he calmed himself and recognized those feelings for what they were: intense and admittedly a little pathetic, but ultimately the residue of the man he once was. He had once thought that only she could make him happy, but that was a juvenile lie. When he had gotten over her, he had hoped only that she would end up happy, but now he didn’t even care about that. He just wanted his own personal journey through Hell to have meant something to everyone else, and not just to him. So many others have experienced that same kind of journey for which Hell was just a convenient Western metaphor for a monumental struggle that didn’t quite approximate the actual experience of unrequited love itself. How he’d starved himself for days, how he had emailed professors to skip classes due to illness as they were still in college when they first met, constantly checked for messages or texts on his phone every time he even went to the bathroom.
And for Cuch, that journey had ended with two defunct hearts, and two deathbeds for two people in their early forties. The tragedy wasn’t unrequited love—it was selfish of him to still want her in the first place after she had made her choice—it had resided only in the fact that two people who had lived only half a human life were simply going to fade away.
And who were we to ever think that human beings could ever be demigods? he thought.
Who was my mother to name me after one? All it ever brought me was false hope.
Amal. What a joke. There was no such thing. No glory or conquered monsters for this ordinary Joe. Just existence tinged with the reading reminder that he could have been something greater had he pushed himself more.
And then only death and silence.
In the months afterwards, Cuch’s heart arrhythmias were getting more pronounced, painful, and enduring. His pacemaker was working overtime. He was concerned but a little less concerned than he was before, as he thought his device was resetting the wayward rhythms on their rightful course, that the pain in his chest was normal.
But one day, the pains became unbearable, and he could barely breathe. He felt like someone was clawing and tearing through his heart from inside it in a series of quick muscular tears in sequence. A chill ran through his body from his upper chest to his anus, and then he managed to text a neighbor and friend just before he fainted.
“911,” he managed to text before collapsing on the floor.
Just before his world perished in darkness, he swore he saw a crow with curiously intelligent eyes at his windowsill in the living room looking straight at him.
Cuch woke up in a hospital bed with no one next to it. Not even the neighbor who brought him there thought it kind to stay, he supposed.
He felt a keen sting at this realization. He was on his deathbed, and he was going to be all alone. His father had died when he was young and his mother when he was twenty. Both had been middle-aged as well, and he had felt it was his genetically determined destiny for his telomeres to fray early, for some genetic transcript to become indecipherable and transmit the codes for tumors, for strokes. His own body turning against itself.
He didn’t ever think it would be his heart that would fail him, but in the end, at least, he felt it was symbolically appropriate.
Eventually, a doctor entered and told him the defibrillator had failed, and they were going to give him a new one, but he should know that the survival rates for those who endured a heart attack due to Long QT syndrome were very low. Another pacemaker would be installed in the meantime. Cuch didn’t say anything.
He tried to cultivate a sense of calm resignation. He told himself he should feel satisfied. He’d managed to write something that maybe wouldn’t get published, that maybe wouldn’t get remembered, but the exercise itself had purged himself of the deepest, most intricate thoughts his mediocre brain was capable of scribbling onto paper. If he had been a younger, more ambitious and self-conscious man, he might have raged against his current condition through his words, angrily condemning a character for his own long-lost chances, his numerous failures and lazy idleness.
But now, he said, he should feel only a sense of calm acceptance pervading his mind. A warm, drowsy kind of look and a genuinely warm smile greeted the nurses as they came in to check his vitals and IVs. He told himself he was less angry, less fueled by some kind of entitlement he had never realized that he had the luxury to fight for in the first place, whereas, he reminded himself, one must remember that many others in impoverished countries fought for their survival every day, people who were always on the deepest rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, too preoccupied with finding bread than with trying to pen a monument to their egos. It was of them he thought just as he realized he was finally going to die: and he told himself he was only filled with nothing but gratitude, for he was able to live life anyway: this single, middle-aged man with a tiny bit of writing talent that probably wasn’t good enough, this lonely man who could nevertheless afford bread and heat. This lonely man, who, though the woman with the equally broken heart that he loved never loved him back, felt himself supremely fortunate to have experienced that love in the first place, and to have been selfless enough to only desire her happiness, even if that meant that they would never see each other again.
This is the narrative he concocted to console himself, at least.
Later on, he awoke in another haze of drugs, which had become a familiar occupation of his time lately, and he looked out of his hospital window at the stream running along the north end of the hospital. Normally, no one was there, but now he swore that, just for a minute, he could see the crouched form of the woman he had met at the pharmacy washing what looked like his clothes, which were now stained with blood for some inexplicable reason. He also seemed to remember waging a battle of some kind, a fight that was now forgotten in the river, delicately and with care, as if according them great honor and reverence, like they were the cherished battlefield armor of some great Greek or Celtic warrior. He couldn’t hold his eyes open, however, and he wasn’t quite sure he even saw it, and, later on, he told himself it was just a dream, a result of the morphine.
That it couldn’t have happened.
He couldn’t open his eyes again, and he drifted between consciousness and agitated sleep. He was barely aware of his surroundings except that every sound that he heard seemed to be carried over a vast distance from somewhere far away.
Cuch knew he was dying.
He remembered how Cú Chullain, the hero after which he was named, had died: he had forced himself to stand, then he wrapped his intestines around a rock so he could look like he died as a warrior should, despite the fact that his body had been skewered with spears. Those arrogant heroes, he thought, posing themselves so that those who would see their upright but still dead body would somehow think they’d be ready for another fight soon.
Cuch thought that he might have felt a similar vanity had he found literary success at an earlier age and had posed himself in an empty gesture of muscular masculinity, like Cú Chullain or a twenty-first century Hemingway, upon his ultimate death after writing dozens of acclaimed novels, at least figuratively. But maybe if that other version of himself had lived long enough, he would have realized that all we were ever meant to be, and all we should be, are temporary beings made of borrowed cells that could and should decay into the earth that gave us sentience, not dragging out their own entrails to tie oneself to a rock, standing like some tired boxer, looking drained but poised for another fight. There was a good side to all of this, it seemed. He was fortunate to have lived to see himself grow up so much, unlike the millions of young men who had died in so many senseless wars over the centuries who hadn’t posed themselves like action figures before the end.
That death wasn’t really death at all if one simply reinvented it.
But wasn’t that exactly what he was doing? Trying to console himself with some half-baked philosophy? To tell himself that the fact that he might as well never have even existed could possibly have some positive side to it?
As he felt himself reaching the end, he lost the ability to open his eyes. He was a dumb meat slab on a bed, incapable of doing anything but existing and hearing everything else around him and waiting for it all to end.
Then he sensed someone pull up a chair and sit next to his bed. It was a woman who spoke in a soothing tone of finality but with a hint of an Irish brogue. He smelled the same incense-like perfume he had smelled when he met the old woman in the pharmacy.
“I’m going to tell you one more final story. There is a Cherokee legend that I adore,” the Irish woman’s voice said in a hushed but still forceful voice as she spoke pleasantly in the visitor’s chair next to his ear. “Humans and beasts once lived in harmony, but then man became greedy and began killing the animals for meat and their hides. The animals were easy to kill, as they were used to human friendliness, so they simply came up to the humans, expecting their love and their companionship, only to receive a spear through their heads. So, the animals had various councils in which some declared war on the humans, but others, like the peaceful deer, used magic to make the humans ask permission to kill them first, or terrible curses would befall them. The fish and the reptiles decided to haunt mankind with horrendous nightmares, which could only be cured by someone called the medicine man, who was not only a healer but a natural storyteller. The insects and birds decided to spread diseases amongst the humans for their own kind of revenge. But the plants—the plants were everywhere and they heard all of these plans for revenge and violence, and only felt sympathy, not just for the humans, but for all the creatures of the world. So, they spread stories to each other, from the majestic elms to the low-lying shrubs and then even to every distinct blade of grass. Their stories of what was happening in their suddenly violent world spread quickly, for plants are everywhere and could hear everything. Thus, they planned to make medicine for the creatures of the world, cures for the slaughter and illness and disturbing dreams, and the medicine men learned to channel the voices of the wilderness in their tales and their healing alike. It was said that these plant stories spread to the medicine men along with their aiding the sick, and they were not just the tales filled with hopeless violence, but they were the many acts of kindness and generosity they saw that counteracted all that violence. So, the medicine men could explain the movements of all the creatures in the vast world to the sick and injured and dying through their stories and comfort them in their painful or their last moments if their herbs didn’t salve their wounds. You’ve told yourself the story you felt you needed to in order to make your peace with the world, and that’s why I postponed your death: So you could be your own medicine man.”
But just then he heard a leathery creak as if she had sat forward in her chair to say something closer to him.
“But...did it work? Do you feel...” And just then he heard a mirthless, bone-chilling, bellowing laughter, ending with a kind of guttural bellow. She was absolutely ecstatic, giddy, even, like she had tricked him in the end, and he was the sucker who fell for it.
“Do you feel consoled? Hmm?” Her low laughter rattled through her throat at him again, and the Ms in her Hmm seemed to echo in the room like it had been a vast cavern this entire time.
Cuch didn’t even want to open his eyes now. He shifted in the bed uncomfortably, trying to get away, but he only managed to weakly shudder his body and squeal a little.
“I want to hear it,” she demanded as her breath, hot now against his cheek. “I want to hear you say the words.”
“N-,” he said, weakly.
“N?” she replied, mockingly. “It’s a one syllable word. Surely it can’t be that bad. No wonder you struggled getting those words out on the page.” Her breath was flame hot now on his cheek as she cackled and he whined weakly, desperately, but he only managed to shake his body again, slightly.
“Is ann aig dìon do bhàis a tha mi, agus a bhios mi.” Toward the end of the last of Morrigan’s Gaelic words, his hearing started to fade altogether.
Then he felt arcing, birdlike claws dig into either side of his hospital gown near his chest and his groin, and the last thing he felt was himself getting hurled sharply into the sky like he was as weightless as a rodent. There hadn’t even been a roof there at all, but he somehow didn’t think he was getting lifted up into heaven like his characters, either.
When the nurses and attending physician came to call the time of his death, the nurses found it strange that the crow on the windowsill outside had remarkably intelligent gray eyes, instead of empty black ones.
His manuscript was never published.