The yellowed pages of the following missive were found under a pile of old photographs at a yard sale in Carmel, Indiana. A team of international scholars worked for weeks to translate the text, each of its paragraphs written in a different language, some of them long-forgotten outside of the academic world. It is being published here in English for the first time, that the wider public may judge the contents for itself.
Seven thousand lives have I lived pursued, and seven thousand times have I been caught.
When I first began to remember, I decided to seek out elders and wise men, shamans and priests, philosophers and poets. But even those who escape our grubby-fingered strivings to see it all laid out like quiltwork below them would never give me more than a sad smile, and would look on me with pity.
The exception was an old man with blind eyes and a stately bearing whose name and station I have lost in the timeless interstice between lives. But his gift I think I will never forget, which is humorous, for that is what he gave me: forgetfulness. He touched my lip and I felt my former lives drain away, and I died many lonely deaths again before I began to remember once more. I returned to the flight from danger and those sad smiles, even sadder when I’d point to my lips and demand a miracle.
“I cannot help you with that,” said a great father of Rome. I gained his company by throwing myself before his carriage and crying out my tale in my best Latin, until he had me pulled from the mud. Later, in his chambers, seeing how I was always glancing over my shoulder, he asked whether I had learned any wisdom in my long past that I would share with him, as he was a great scholar and philosopher.
“Nothing,” I said, and he smiled a sad smile, and a little while later I was escorted out by guards whose gay livery belied their stern faces. I wanted to tell him that it’s hard to remember across lives, and that even if it weren’t, I’d never been schooled, nor had parents for long, nor had the wherewithal to buy learning. But all of that was to me, at that time, a secondary mystery. As I have seen many times, the ‘why’ we ask when we learn of our terrible disease is white-hot with righteousness, and in its light the details of the illness pale to nothing.
“It reminds me of a certain puzzle,” said a brilliant scientist to me once on a train hurtling across the Pennsylvania countryside, away from the blood-stained kitchen floor and everything I owned. “It involves a prison with a hundred inmates and a single lightbulb…” He was very excited about his riddle but when he got to the part about the predetermined plan for when to turn on the bulb I gave him my best sad smile (for I had learned to trade in that currency) and told him that the inmates’ plan wouldn’t work for me; I had never received a message I’d left for myself. “It’s still a good riddle,” he offered. I just nodded, because it wasn’t safe to say that watching my mother get shot again never left me open to games or abstractions.
“What about your father?” I asked Kumbulohgo, the witch doctor. I think that was his name. My memory of the night is even hazier than usual; it was a conversation we had on the very first night I Remembered in that life; I was twelve, an early bloomer, and that combination of pride and terror that still rules the deep jungle of Africa flowed in my veins like a drug. I felt on that night that I was ready for life to begin; the Pursuit had not yet started, and I was naive. I recall his gnarled finger pointing up at the night canopy of my small world as he spoke of the Allfather and the single Truth that strung together all life like beads around His neck. My age-old soul shook my adolescent head and I asked if there weren’t some evil counterpart to the Allfather, some Tormenter who took pleasure in men’s lives and took pleasure in their pain. Kumbulohgo struck me then across the jaw, and the next day I was torn from my kind mother and strong father and sent into the wild. I never saw either of them again; my spear was not enough, and the beasts took me before the hunger could.
Not once at the moment of my Reawakening, when all my lives come back to me, did I ever find myself in a warm bed or with a full stomach. Gutters, stone, and privation were my lot, and though like all else I have known they followed a certain order or pattern always just beyond understanding, it was not an order anyone with a soft heart would create. So my eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were full of suicides.
(Though I have little hope of the reader truly understanding, I feel the need to at least briefly defend myself. I was convinced for a long while that suicide is an act of suicide and that if I was to suffer I should at least prolong that suffering, and become stronger for it. But as time and pain slowly wore on my soul I began to wonder whether the rules of my imprisonment might not be broken by taking my own life, whether I might not find escape by granting life that which it so desperately sought, that is, my death. I remember the joy of it, the first time off the tower, the wind caressing my falling face, my heart full of joy, wondering what lay beyond. But it was not the end, and my next few lives I threw away just to make certain. I never did it if there was someone who would miss me. More to the point, I’m not certain I’ve ever done it at all, since, until this very day, I have been some kind of immortal.)
“You atone for us all,” a one-eyed monk told me as he lay upon the straw that was his bed. He was the kindest man I ever met, and it took him the longest of all of them to smile the sad smile, so I could almost forgive him for his love of people. Atone for them? I wondered. I will not. I withhold. I withhold any benefits of my travails, and claim their offset as my own. I have been kicked by every form of boot and spat on by every type of man. I have been slain on every continent.
All this I thought, and to the monk I said, “If my suffering is for a reason, then reason itself is wrong, and I’m afraid I might go mad.”
Do you begin to see, reader? Do you begin to understand? I could tell you a thousand, a thousand thousand stories such as these. But my time has finally grown short, and so, the most important thing:
Seventy-five years ago, at the time of my Remembering, I found myself in bed in a small house on the outskirts of Cincinnati, with two loving parents, three meals a day, and life of peaceful success ahead of me.
It took me years before I realized the significance of this life I have lived as Doctor Duncan Harris. Most of those years were spent with psychologists and psychiatrists, hired by my ever-more-worried parents to treat my memories, to no avail. Despite my ‘eccentricity’ I graduated from Harvard Medical School and began a Pulmonology practice that bought me shelter from every terror that has ever haunted my steps but could not buy me peace of mind.
My lack of torment has tormented me; I have woken up in a cold sweat from many a sweet dream.
Ah, to live the sweet dream of those around me, to go about my daily business without a care. But it was not to be. How could I live a normal life? I was haunted by my memories, consumed by them. Those around me knew guilt and were always trying to help the downtrodden, but I felt more than guilt; I was a stranger to the easy life, uprooted from all I had ever known.
In my middle age, once I let go of my mother’s cold hand, I fell into a deep depression that my wife and children could not understand. Though I was doing good, helping the sick, my life seemed emptied of succor. Existence itself seemed a meaningless trial. To alleviate the discomfort of sitting still, I began to wander the streets of my little town, dazed, unpursued but unable to rest.
“Why are you doing that?” I blurted to an old woman in a shawl and sunglasses, sweating in the summer sun. She was tending to her garden, putting plantlings in the rich brown soil, her back bent to the task.
“‘Why’ is a crooked letter,” she tittered to herself, her hands covered in humus. I watched her work, my sweaty hands in my pockets. It was a few moments before I understood her little joke, and though for some reason it was pleasing to see her at her business, her answer filled me with exasperation, since it seemed to be no answer at all.
“What’s the reason for it?” I asked, when the sun on my bald head became too much.
She turned from her work and lifted her glasses to her forehead and I saw her face, green eyes suspended in a net of wrinkles. “When you get to be my age, son, you don’t have to ask that question anymore. I’m planting because I want to.” Is that enough of a reason? I wondered. “It’s enough,” she said. Smiling warmly, she suddenly did not seem to very old.
I staggered in from the street with a vicious headache and fell sprawled on my bed. A cacophony of memories roared in my ears, notes threatening and discordant. I fell into a strange state and thought it must be happening, I must finally be losing my mind.
I found myself on a strange shore, but the waves in their crashing threw forth sweet gossamer memories, a spray of new awareness that joined my tears to dampen my cheeks.
It was in that place that I came to know you.
You, the one reading these words.
For on that shore it was made known that I, who was burdened to remember, was really made to forget. I forgot the endless lives I have lived as man and woman, animal and plant. I forgot the joy of family, of music, of life. I forgot the time I read the words I am writing. I forgot that I asked for all this, at the Beginning, that I wanted to understand. I was told that if I wanted to grasp the secret of life I must know the secret of death and that it would take a long time, a very long time, until I could choose life only because I wanted to, before I, collectively, was beyond the bounds of reason and the desperate questions I would ask to the wise.
And I would need to forget.
I write this now because I don’t think there will be another chance.
I write this to you, that is, to me, so you will find it somewhere along the course of the long millenia and know that our story has a happy end.
For death, at last, does not hunt me. I hunt death until the day it, too, is ready to die.
For you, this is not the end. For you, this is the beginning. Know that
(End of text.)
Image from Flickr.
Originally posted on Hevria.
Originally on Hevria