~ Dylan Thomas
There was once – so long ago that it makes no sense to think about – a young man who resolved not to die.
The name of this young man does not matter, for names are paltry, mutable things, with neither power nor meaning beyond the flickering moments in which they exist, when they are spoken or written or thought about. And names mean less and less as one passes through the mists of time; there will come to pass when even the once-greatest name will mean nothing at all.
This young man was born like anyone else, in a city by the edge of a great desert, a city already old then, and now so long vanished that not even a breath of memory of its existence still endures. But it was a splendid city once, with towering walls and great avenues, and great houses where wise men gathered and debated over knowledge so arcane that none of them could agree on where it all came from.
And as he grew, to manhood, the boy saw that those around him, his grandparents and his parents’ friends and even some of his own playmates, grew old or fell ill, or had accidents and died. And sometimes someone would go out into the desert sands, and never come back again, and perhaps a wandering caravan would find a withered corpse among the shifting dunes. And the boy made a decision, that, whatever happened, he would never die.
Everyone whom he talked to laughed at him, even his own parents. “If you’re born,” they said, “you have to die. To think otherwise is foolishness.”
“I’ll go to the wise men,” he declared. “I’ll go to them, where they sit debating in the great houses, and I will ask them about it, for it must be possible.” And, shutting his ears to their laughter, he went to the great houses where the wise men sat talking over their lore from ages past.
“We cannot let such as you in,” the gatekeepers said, crossing their halberds in his path. “Only the wisest of sages and the most learned can enter these doors.”
“I seek to know the path to evading death,” the young man replied. “If you can tell me the way to gain this knowledge, then do so, or stand aside and let me pass.” And the guards, hearing this, moved aside and lifted their weapons and allowed him to enter.
Then he reached the great rooms where the learned men with their big turbans and long beards sat with their scrolls and tablets, waving their arms and all talking at the same time, and he asked them his question. And they looked at him as if they had not understood a word he’d said.
So he asked them again: “I wish to know the way to achieve immortality, for I do not want to die. And since you, my lords, are the wisest of all men in the great wide world, I charge you to tell me.”
And the learned sages looked at each other with consternation and turned back to the young man. “There is no such thing,” they said. “If you are born, you have to die. That is the eternal truth.”
“Stay with us, and we can teach you of the flow of time and memory, and the secrets of the tides and the stars,” some of them said. “We can tell you of the meaning of the flight of birds, and the way to a woman’s true love, and of the lore of the gods.”
“But you cannot tell me of the way to live forever,” he reminded them.
“No,” they admitted. “That, we cannot do.”
Then the young man turned away from them, for he saw that they knew nothing important. And he went back down to the city.
Then, as he was passing the city gates, he saw an old, old beggar, who looked as ancient as Time itself, and he stopped to ask his question, for it seemed to him that the venerable man might know of the secret.
The aged beggar blinked at him out of rheumy eyes. “Child,” he said, “I am scarcely a century old, and that is nothing even compared to the stones that form the city around us. I cannot tell you the secret.”
“But I must know it,” the young man said. “There must be a way to beat death.”
Then the old man pointed out through the city gate and at the desert. “Even these stones,” he said, “are here for a blink of an eye indeed, compared to the sands of the desert. Yesterday they were not here, and tomorrow they will be gone. But the desert will still be there, and the winds will blow the dunes over this fair city’s bones.”
“Very well then,” the young man said. “I will seek my answer from the desert.” Passing through the gates, he trudged into the desert sands, without a look behind him at all he was leaving behind forever.
And he walked out into the desert, and listened to the wind on the sand, which made voices. And the sand told him stories, many stories, of towns and temples which had once raised their heads above the dunes, and which were now dust. It told of mighty rivers which had long since turned to wisps of vapour in the dun-coloured wastes, and of kings and armies whose feet had trod it, of caravans bearing jewels and silks, gold and spices, which had crossed it in times so long gone by that no book recorded their memories. And it told of even older tales, of times when even the desert was young. But it did not tell him what he wanted to know.
So he asked it then, “What can you tell me about how to evade death? For that is what I wish to know, not the tales of those who have succumbed to it in your bosom.”
And the sands rustled and shifted, and finally an answer came.
“The desert does not know aught of immortality. But if you walk east across the dunes, straight towards the rising sun, you will eventually find a mountain which reaches to the sky. At the foot of that mountain, you will see a hut made of sun dried brick where there had once been an oasis and now there is none. In that hut you will find one who is not fully alive, but is not yet one of the dead. Ask her, and she may be able to give you your answer.”
So, without spending further time listening to the voices of the sands, the young man struck out across the desert in the direction of the rising sun. Days passed, and then more days, and he became thin and sunburnt as the desert itself. Even more days passed around him, until he felt he had become one of the drifting grains of sand. And still he walked on.
And then at last he came to the mountain at whose foot was the dried up oasis, by the side of which a hut of crumbling bricks hunched like a the shell of a long dead tortoise. There he found something so wizened and shrivelled that he could not be certain whether it still lived. But he remembered what the desert had said, and bowed deep before the thing.
“Old Mother,” he said, “I come seeking the secret of immortality. And I am certain that you, who are so old that even the desert defers to you, can tell me of it.”
And the old thing bent her skeletal head. “Although I am old,” she said, in a voice like the memory of a whisper borne away by the wind, “I am only a child compared to the world, and the sun and moon and stars. But go you to the top of that mountain, which was old and the world was young, and you will find, at its very peak, an opening to the depths of the earth. Perhaps there you will find your answer.”
The young man thanked her and was about to leave, when she raised a hand as insubstantial as a dried twig. “Remember this, young man,” she said, “that I have not gone up to the mountain top, for I have no desire to live forever. Even my own life, long as it has been, is intolerable to me.”
“Why is that, Old Mother?” the young man asked.
“Think of what immortality means,” the ancient woman whispered. “Everything you know, all you ever loved, will fade away. If you hold a woman in your arms, tomorrow she will be a memory, and the children she bears you will be a memory the day after. Even the very nation that you were born into, the mountains and rivers you knew, will ultimately crumble away to dust. And if you get to know and love a new world, it will pass swiftly in its turn, and leave you weary with grief and despair.”
“But all that will happen anyway,” the young man said, “whether one evades death or not, one’s friends and lovers will fade away and die, and the only way one can avoid that is to die before they do. Thank you, Old Mother, but I will go to the mountain.”
“If you are so determined,” she whispered, “then I will not try to turn you from your way.”
So, bowing to her, the young man began climbing the mountain. It was a long and weary climb, and the stones were sharp and jagged enough to rip his skin through his clothes, so that he painted the rocks with his blood, and still he climbed on. The nights were so cold that he felt as though the mountain would be split apart, and he with it, and he cowered in whatever crevice he could find for shelter. But the morning came, as always, and he climbed on.
And it came that he was so high that it seemed to him that he could see the entire desert, even to the city he had left so long ago, but still he climbed. Great birds with beaks of iron flew around him and serpents with fangs dripping poison coiled on the stones at high noon, and they hissed at him when he drew near; but he ignored them all and passed on. He climbed until he felt as though he could touch the moon as she floated by, and pluck the stars out of the sky, and still the mountain would not end.
And then, at last, so long after he had started on his journey that he no longer knew how long he had been climbing, he came to the top of the mountain, and there was a deep tunnel at the peak that led down towards the bowels of the earth. Though it was late evening and he had been climbing all the long weary day, without a moment’s pause to rest he started down it into the darkness.
There were steps cut into the rock, so old that time had worn them smooth as glass to his feet, and the darkness was so complete that he could not see so much as his hand before his face. And as he went he heard a voice, hard as the stone of the mountain itself.
“What do you want here?” the voice asked. “For this way is not for such as you, and nobody has come this way since the world began.”
“I seek the secret to evading death,” the man said.
“You should not seek that secret,” the mountain said. “For death comes to all, eventually, and even the world will one day die.”
“I still am determined to evade death,” he replied, as he walked down through the dark. “I have come too far to even think of turning back now.”
“And after the world dies,” the mountain went on, as though he had not spoken, “even the stars will die one by one, and the universe fall dark and silent forevermore.”
The young man said nothing. He just walked down through the tunnel.
“If you are truly certain of what you want, then,” the mountain said, “keep on to the end of this passage, and you will come to a basin lit by a single candle, which has been burning since the start of time. The basin has a drop of water at the very bottom. Take up the drop on your finger, and put it on your tongue. Then blow out the candle, for it will have served its purpose.”
And so the man walked on down the stairs until he saw a glimmer of light in the distance, and then as he got closer he saw that it was the candle, standing on the rim of the stone basin. And at the very bottom of the basin was a single drop of water. Taking up the drop on his finger, he touched it to his tongue, and began back up the steps. But before leaving, he remembered the words of the mountain and blew the candle out.
All the way back up the passage the mountain did not speak to him, and later, as he climbed down the slope, the birds with iron beaks and the serpents with dripping fangs kept away. And when he finally reached the desert, he went to the dried up oasis, but the withered thing was no longer there, and the hut like the shell of a dead tortoise lay silent and abandoned.
And so he walked back across the desert, which no longer told him tales; and he came at last to the city which he had left. But the great old gates sagged from their supports, and the wide avenues were filled with drifting sand; and he knew that more time had passed in his travels than he could have imagined.
And so he walked through the world, to lands beyond the deserts, and he saw cities great and small. He went among kings and barbarian tribes, and feared neither the royal executioner nor the caprices of the warrior chief. He sailed seas without fear of drowning in shipwreck and fought in wars without the terror of death, so that he grew famed as a soldier and mariner. And once in a while he would stay in a city or a village, or an island in the stream, and stay there for some years or decades, but ultimately it would all crumble to dust, and he would move on.
Once in a while he would meet a woman he liked, and for a brief moment he would seek pleasure in her arms and giver her pleasure in turn. But after a while she would grow old, and their children too, while he aged not – and then, inevitably, while they still lived, he would leave them like a shadow in the night and move on.
Sometimes he would hear fables and tales of a man who, in his youth, had decided not to die, and had drunk of a basin in the heart of a mountain, and still walked the world among men. And people would laugh at the fable, or sigh enviously. He would never say anything, and sometimes he would smile.
The very languages he had grown up knowing fell away into disuse and were heard no more; new speech, strange and uncouth, was on his lips, and he scarcely could learn it well enough to make it his own before it, too, had to be left behind as he went on his way. And so the wheel of the years ground on.
One day, many thousands of years after he had touched a drop of water in a basin to his tongue, he happened to pass where a mountain had once stood, and where there was now only an eroded hill. And looking on it, he seemed to hear a voice, as of ancient stone.
“O man,” this voice asked, “was it worth it, this immortality that you have found?”
And the man smiled. “It has been hard, but worth it,” he said. “I have seen things that I never thought I would see, know things I never could have otherwise known, and in leaving behind death I have wed myself to the Now and the Future.”
“And what of the past?” the stone voice murmured. “Does not the Now forget the past, and do not the scholars lie about things which they know nothing of, but you have seen?”
“What of that?” the man shrugged. “The Past is dead. I have nothing to do with death.”
And the stone voice fell silent, and the man moved on.
And time passed even so great that his body could not bear the wearing away from the grinding of the years, and his flesh dried on his bones, and at last he could hardly move any more. Then he found a home in a dead city of yellow stone high on a mountain plateau, a city already so old that its makers had been forgotten by the world, but a city which had not even been dreamed of when his travels had already been more than half ended. There, in that city, he sat at a window of nights, and watched the slow wheeling of the stars. And the stars in the sky had changed their positions, so that the constellations were no longer the familiar ones he had known.
Then it happened one day that the mountains and plateau shook and rumbled, and the yellow stone came crashing down, and crushed his body to fragments beneath tons of rock. But his body, even then, did not die, and he lay under the immense weight of the stone, alive and knowing.
And then one of the blocks of stone over him whispered, in a faint echo of a voice he had heard but twice before, “O man, now that you lie destroyed and crushed, do you now regret your choice?”
If the man could have moved he would have shrugged, and if he had still had a voice he would have spoken. “This body is merely a vehicle that had worn down,” he thought at the stone, and decided it could hear him. “But I am still here.”
“Buried under a mountain of earth and rock,” the stone said. “What good will that do you? You will lie here in agony until your body rots and falls to dust.”
But the man did not reply, and lay under the mountain of earth and rock, and his body rotted and fell to dust in its turn. And the time passed.
And the time passed, and wind and water wore the mountain away, and the dust that made up the man was again exposed to the air, where he lay in the light of the sun. And the winds blew his dust around, and parts of him soared into the air while others flowed down rivers to the sea. But they were not the seas he had once sailed, for the world had changed. And the men who walked it were not as such as he had ever known.
But time passed, and the sun grew huge and red and hot, and the air and water were burned away by its heat, so that the very dust which had once made up the man was blown away into the voids between the stars. And there, in the inky black, parts of him entwined themselves in gas clouds, and birthed stars anew. Some parts grew into worlds, where sometimes, creatures walked and laughed and talked, and knew, and grew old and died in their turn. But still he lived, and he watched the flood of time pass by.
And then the time came when the stars grew old, and began flickering out, one by one; and in all the universe there was not the slightest dim red glow of a dying sun, and the universe itself was dead.
And then the thing that had once been a man, and then dust, and then stars and planets and life, and was nothing, was the only thing still alive in all the vast, cold, dead universe. And he looked around, and decided that this was not good.
For only in comparison to death can one have life, and only when things are alive can they die.
And the thing looked around it, and thought about what it could do.
And then it declared, Let There Be Light.
And there was light –
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015