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A Lesser Immortal

by Charles C. Cole

This time I awoke abruptly. Startled into existence with a bone-rattling chill, I lay exposed to the elements and rarified mountain air, huddled on the bare ground amidst cool, damp grass and purple strife, just below the steep shoulder of a quiet country highway. No traffic could be heard, no companions. Befittingly on my own.

The sun was still low, barely begun in its daily chores. No doubt my immediate “good fortune” — the recently vacated homeless man I now “inhabited” — had been a victim of commonplace, though often lethal hypothermia.

A small brook took advantage of a concrete culvert under the motorway and rippled with misplaced cheerfulness nearby. Without hesitation, I reviewed the unfamiliar reflection in the gently moving water. The large hands were a giveaway: I was a man this time. At long last, I’d been granted a borrowed life who somewhat remotely resembled the vanquished form I’d left behind centuries ago.

I’d been a woman three lifetimes in a row before this. Yes, a woman can be a leader and a soldier and make her independent way through society’s sophisticated roadblocks, but the cards are stacked against her when she’s reached her eighties, alone and poor. I learned that from experience. But that was behind me.

Anyway, it was nice to have a little variety with my new incarnation, someone who could at last clearly fend for himself, though apparently not against the overwhelming elements. I guess you could call me a walk-in or a visitor. I think of myself as the original long-distance traveler, but one who poignantly calculates the droning passage of time by counting shattered bodies rather than miles or minutes.

My original name, if you must know, was Meander. Yes, like the lovely verb, no doubt coined after the myth of my very circumstances.

You’ve probably been told that ancient gods had great power and mercurial tempers. They still do. The ones I associated with thought of themselves as harangued and self-sacrificing do-gooders, who often forgave themselves too easily when they made impulsive and destructive decisions.

There was a great warrior you might have heard of who wrongly accused me of assisting his wife in hiding her affair with a handsome mortal, a rugged coppersmith. In fact, I was suspicious of the mortal and had been secretly spying on him. I was afraid to be the doomed messenger who carried bad news to my explosive master, and I fatally hesitated.

Mere moments after I had confronted the furtive couple, all of us were discovered “together” by the Big Power. Through the filter of grave disappointment, we looked for all the world like a criminal alliance. The wife was sent home, the full extent of her punishment. The mortal became a tamarack larch, a “deciduous coniferous” tree which embarrassingly loses all its needles each winter. And, because I had been a trusted friend of the unnamed god and who had seemingly “fallen” the furthest, I was “justifiably” extinguished on the spot.

At which point, or so I was told later, belatedly for me, the indignant and unrepentant wife, desiring to add insult to injury, revealed to her husband how I was a complete innocent, condemned arbitrarily for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, unjustly wiped from existence with the snap of a finger by an indiscriminating jealous rage. I was what we now call collateral damage.

To save face, I was revived, sort of. But gods don’t like to go public with their mistakes, even if it might be the morally right thing to do.

So I was given a new “used” body: someone else’s, a compromise, a majestic if half-hearted gesture. To be equitable to the living, the first occupant, I was bequeathed the castoff shell of someone who had recently died.

The binding terms of my residence: I was given a 1-year lease, before the body’s final morbid processes took over and I was unceremoniously evicted. Then a distant cousin to the Furies, sworn to secrecy, found me another body, and so on and so on for over a millennium.

I have no idea how replacements are chosen. I can tell you that the process does not consider geographic convenience. Over the centuries, I have bounced with minimal consistency between six continents. Somehow, at my re-awakening, I’m able to speak and understand the native language. At least there’s that much.

The first thing I do is to travel as fast and as far away as I can, by whatever human transportation is available. Because the one time I didn’t scramble, the confused loved ones of the recently deceased looked in my eyes and immediately, intuitively, recognized a stranger’s presence, though outwardly their relative had been recycled and reused. That time, they locked me up in an unpleasant state-run medical facility — and I use the term loosely — for a full year or the rest of that natural life.

No doubt, the impassioned god has forgotten all about this arcane arrangement.

What does this mean to you? It means, ubiquitous zombies and vampires aside, if your dearest departed should suddenly disappear in the night while you are at the funeral home with Mr. Merrill Varney making plans for a nice but not too expensive coffin and graveside service, I apologize in advance for seeming unfeeling and inconsiderate when I wander away “wearing” dear Uncle Hazen.

This is my unique curse of lesser immortality. I didn’t ask for it. I have no control over it. I will do what I can at the end of my year to send you a message for tracking down and reclaiming the remains. Rationalize, if you must: call it dementia, the failing body’s way of easing frightened mortals toward their permanent final exit.

I suppose you could say I’m literally delaying the inevitable. I didn’t make the terms. I just accommodate them. Please forgive me and know that it’s not a joy ride, not a romp. I survive one hop ahead of the abyss.

Copyright © 2012 by Charles C. Cole

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