It’s been a few months already, yet that day still feels like yesterday. I am still not convinced that I didn’t lose my mind that day, and even if I didn’t, it’s changed my thinking quite a bit.
I was in a green grove in the local cemetery, sitting on a bench. As it is the piece of nature closest to home, I used to go there quite often. A small group of men, all at least in their 40s and wearing black suits and ties, had passed by just as the bells in the nearby church began ringing.
A new member joins the club, I thought, meaning the graves all around me.
Spending eternity in a place like that mustn’t be that bad, I observed, as another, larger group of people was heading presumably to the same funeral as the previous group. There were no preoccupations, no problems, only greenery and quiet as far as the eye can see; nothing but birds singing, squirrels slipping away from tree to tree, and people strolling as they came to see their dead. There certainly are worse things than this, I said to myself, especially if you’re alive.
“Very nice indeed, or so it would seem,” a voice from behind suddenly said. The person then came to sit right next to me as I looked at who was talking. I looked her up and down for a moment, trying to establish whether it was safe to remain seated or if I should spring up to my feet.
It was a really beautiful girl, about twenty years old. She had red hair reaching to her shoulders and icy blue eyes. She was leaning forward, her elbows on her knees, staring at the graves before us; she didn’t seem to care about my startled look. Judging by her attire, I’d say she too was going to the funeral, although she seemed to be in no rush to go anywhere.
“Indeed, I’m not,” she said, as if she’d read my thoughts, still looking at the headstones. “It’s pleasant here.”
“I beg your pardon?” I finally stuttered.
“It’s pleasant,” she reiterated, slightly turning her gaze towards me for a moment, and then back to the graves. “Isn’t it? It looks like a nice place.”
“Undoubtedly,” I nodded, hesitantly. She said nothing. She had a slight, intelligent-looking smile, which made her look somewhat pleased with herself, though not arrogant. It was as if she were waiting for me to say anything, as if she knew that I had something to ask.
The bells rang again.
“I’m sorry, miss,” I commented, uncertain, “but did you mean that the graveyard is nice or just that it seems to be?”
“It depends on your point of view.” I would have asked more, but she continued. “Are you in a hurry to go?”
Her question caught me off-guard. “Me? No,” I stammered, thinking for a moment she must be one of those young girls trying to hit on men one or two decades older. “It’s Saturday afternoon, and—”
“That’s not what I meant,” she interrupted me, looking away from me towards the church.
“Then what?” I asked, even though I should perhaps have left, annoyed by the way she was talking to me.
“You’re right,” she replied, apparently ignoring what I had asked her. “It’s a quiet, pretty place, perfect if you need to relax or reflect. However, I wouldn’t like spending here more than an hour or two. How about you?”
“Well,” I said, asking myself once again why I was even still having that absurd conversation, “that would depend on what else I had to do at—”
“How about if you were dead?” she interrupted again, still gazing at the many headstones, as if I wasn’t even there. “You wouldn’t have much to do if you were dead. How much time would you like to spend here, if dead?”
“What a silly question,” I replied firmly, trying to conceal how her mentioning my own death had upset me somewhat. I told myself that it was an absolutely normal reaction, and her question was really silly anyway. “Excuse me, miss, but if I’m dead, then it’s obvious I’ll be spending eternity in the graveyard, be it this one or another.”
“I didn’t ask you how long you’d be here,” she clarified. “I asked how much time you’d like to spend here.”
Her remark seemed to suggest she wasn’t too sound of mind. I quickly glanced around, desperately looking for people who might be short of a crazy relative on their way to paying the last respects to the dearly departed. Not a soul was in sight—except those that the graves were standing in for.
“I doubt my preferences would make any difference,” I said shaking my head, smiling as I would to anyone too mentally unstable to be safe to contradict.
“That’s true,” she nodded. “Then again, it doesn’t matter, does it? It’s such a pretty place that one would gladly spend eternity in it. I mean, there are worse things than this, especially if you’re alive.”
As I noticed the similarity between her words and my own earlier thoughts, I felt a lump forming in my throat. I was tempted to ask her what the devil she wanted from me, but then I told myself there was no reason to lose it for a simple coincidence, however disturbing.
“Indeed,” I nodded nervously.
She took a few steps toward a tall headstone nearby and knelt before it, seemingly to read the epitaph. That would’ve been the perfect chance for me to take my leave, but she managed to anticipate my move once again.
“Of course, there’s a small problem with this theory,” she said distractedly.
“What would that be?”
“If you’re dead, whether the place is quiet or pretty doesn’t matter to you.”
“Of course not,” I said, starting to feel fed up with all those truisms.
She turned toward me, feigning perplexity. “Then why did you agree with me, when I said one would gladly spend eternity here?”
“That’s just a set phrase,” I replied. “Things people say.”
It felt as if she thought she was the teacher and I the schoolboy.
“But anyway, what does it matter?” I went on, feeling I should retort something. “You just implied that if you were buried in the worst place in the world, you wouldn’t care in the slightest.”
She turned again, with an almost naughty smile, and she moved closer to me. “Normally, people don’t talk to me like that.”
What cheek! As if she hadn’t been agitating me this entire time!
“They don’t like talking about it, but it’s almost as if they feared me, you know?” she continued. “Almost reverentially, one would say.”
Who wouldn’t be afraid of such a nutter, I thought.
She turned abruptly and slowly started walking away with her arms behind her back. After taking a few steps on the grass, she asked out of the blue, “Say, are you afraid of death?”
“Excuse me?” I said, even though I had got that perfectly.
“You heard me,” she replied promptly, as she kept walking slowly away from me. I kept following her, telling myself the only reason I was doing so was that, clearly, she was disturbed, and it would be irresponsible of me to just leave. I was convinced that she should be attending the funeral at the nearby church. She was probably a relative of the deceased, and her relatives were understandably too shaken up by their loss to notice that she wasn’t there. I wasn’t certain I was right, but even if I was, I certainly couldn’t just pop up and interrupt the funeral to ask whether someone was short of a daughter or a sister. I decided I’d wait until the end of the ceremony, as it probably wouldn’t last much longer. Meanwhile, I’d try to understand whether my intuition was correct.
“So?” she insisted. “Are you afraid of death or not?”
“If you really want to know, I’m not,” I replied. “I see no reason to worry about something I cannot be aware of in any way.”
“You keep answering questions I never asked. I asked if you’re afraid of death, not of being dead.”
“So you mean the act of dying? I’m not afraid of that, either. Granted, I’d rather it be painless and not too drawn-out, but—”
“I really cannot take into account individual preferences. Be as it may, you say you’re not afraid?”
“I’m not,” I reiterated, ashamed of my own apprehension.
She hummed pensively. “I see. Then what reason do you have to sugar the pill?”
“Your set phrase. One of those things people say, that which we were talking about a moment ago. There are worse things than spending eternity in such a nice place. Why do people say things like that?”
Now I was starting to see things more clearly. She just had to be a close relative or friend of the person whose funeral was taking place right now. She must be so much in shock that she couldn’t even join the mass, her pain and anger fuelling all the bizarre things she kept saying. Notwithstanding that, she mustn’t have been too sane even prior to her loss.
“They say them to console who suffered the loss of a loved one,” I replied in an almost fatherly tone.
“How about to dispel the fear of one’s own death?”
“Well, that too, I guess…. In some cases…”
“You just told me you’re not afraid of death.”
“Indeed I’m not, but—”
“Then why were you thinking that it wouldn’t be too bad to spend eternity here? Why do you need to tell yourself that if you’ve got no fear to dispel or people to console?”
I stood speechless.
The graveyard was almost entirely silent, except for the incessant chirping coming from the treetops. I couldn’t help but wonder whether that girl, very weird at best, was just unbelievably perceptive or if she really could read my mind. Did she know that I had indeed thought that before, or was that just a lucky deduction?
I really didn’t know what to tell her, nor did I like the idea of having to justify my unexpressed thoughts to a complete stranger; thus, I tried to change the subject. Once more I had an uncomfortable feeling that she knew I was in a tough spot and wasn’t expecting me to answer her question.
“Are you here for the funeral?” I asked, bobbing my head to point at the church.
“No,” she replied.
“Was it a relative of yours, or…”
“I have no relatives, nor anything more to do with this funeral.”
“Anything more?” I asked puzzled, although ever more convinced she was lying, denying the truth to deny her pain. As she was used to, she ignored my question and changed the subject.
“Come,” she said. “I want to show you something.” She then headed off to a trail among the graves, as sure about where she was going as the cemetery’s caretaker would be, without even turning to see if I was following her—which I was, though in frustration.
She led me to an eye-catching headstone with a low-relief angel holding his forehead in despair. There was an inscription, too, which I guessed was a quote from the Bible or the Gospel.
I waited for her to say anything, but as she kept mum, I resolved to ask: “So?”
“The inscription. Read it.”
I couldn’t hold back a short grumble, annoyed as I was at her manners, but then I began: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies.” Once more, she kept silent, so I pressed her: “Well?”
“Do you believe that?”
“No,” I answered, happy that there appeared to be at least one thought in my mind she hadn’t already read. “I’m not a believer.”
“A great deal many others are, though.”
“Yes. So what?”
“Millions, billions of people believe, or believed, that death isn’t the end, and that some kind of afterlife is waiting for them beyond the grave. They believe there’s a place where they’ll somehow be able to live forever without pain or afflictions. If overcoming death is such a cornerstone of long-lasting religions with so many followers, then maybe the set phrases you’ve been saying are meant to console those who say them, rather than those who listen to them, in more than just ‘some cases’.”
“I never said people aren’t afraid of death,” I objected, fearing that I was clutching at straws. “I just said I don’t think that’s very rational, that’s all. People have a lot of irrational fears.”
“And as you said, you’re not afraid of death. That wouldn’t be rational,” she said, nodding slowly, as if she were finally understanding what I had been trying to tell her. “So,” she went on before I could say anything, “if I offered you, here and now, a quick and painless way to die, just as you wish, you wouldn’t be against that, would you?”
My heart skipped a beat as I felt adrenaline rushing down my body like a waterfall. She was crazy, all right, but just how crazy was she? Anyway, as weird as she was, I didn’t believe she was dangerous, nor did it look like she had anything with her that could be used as a murder weapon.
“I said that I don’t fear death,” I hurried to clarify, trying to keep my composure as much as I could, “not that I’m looking forward to death. I don’t wish to die now, but I don’t fear the moment of my death.”
“So you’re saying you would refuse my offer,” she concluded, nodding. “However, given that you don’t fear death, would you refuse my offer as you would if I was offering a meal you’re not in the mood for? Perhaps with a smile, a kind gesture of the hand, and a ‘no, thank you’?”
“Do you realize it’s homicide you’re talking about?” I said drily and quietly, trying to appeal to any shred of rationality she might still possess.
“How interesting that you should appeal to the outrageousness of homicide in a conversation about the irrationality of fearing death.”
Once more, I didn’t know what to counter, but whatever she might be getting at, I had no intention of letting her win the argument. Something unknown inside me was pushing me to prove her wrong at all costs, to show she was mistaken. I passed a hand on the back of my neck, casting another look at the church as I wondered how bloody long it would still take for the funeral to come to a close. The girl, always as cool as a cucumber, resumed her stroll among the graves.
“Listen,” I told her, trying to show compassion, “I understand the pain you must have felt when—”
“I already told you that I have no relatives,” she interjected. “He did, though.” She stopped before another gravestone. “Read his birth and death years.”
The inscription said 1946 and 1951, respectively.
“I see,” I said. “He died still a child.”
“A real tragedy, was it not?”
“It certainly was,” I conceded. Despite her stubborn denial, I thought that contorted discourse might be her way of telling me her story. Perhaps, the person she’d lost had died an equally early death.
“Is it irrational to fear tragedy? When this child realized he was about to die, was it irrational of him to be afraid? What about his parents?”
Since I had met her, each and every of her words had been uttered in the calmest and most peaceful of ways. Not once had she lost her aplomb nor betrayed any anger or sorrow. There was no enmity in her words but no indifference either. From where she was standing, I thought, she was simply discussing a topic that interested her very much, displaying exemplary cool-headedness and firmness.
“This is a special case,” I observed. “His death was very much premature.”
Without ever taking her eyes off me, she moved to a couple of graves a few steps away. “He was 67 when he died,” she said pointing at the epitaph on one of the headstones. “Was he ‘ripe’ enough for death that his passing cannot be considered a tragedy?”
“I… I know nothing about this man,” I attempted to justify myself.
“He took his own life. His health was deteriorating, and he could not cope. So, was this a ripe enough death?”
“How do you—”
“I just know.” The girl pointed to the grave next to the man’s. It bore the same family name as his. “After he died, she lived fifteen more years, though it was no longer the same without him. She had a heart attack, at age 85. Was this a tragedy, or was she old enough?”
“Look, what do you want me to say?” I burst out, spreading out my arms. “I’m sorry for these people, but death is a part of life. You must learn to accept it.”
“Not my problem,” she replied, puzzlingly.
“Oh, isn’t it now?” I asked, simply unable to conceal sarcastic defiance. I sat on the border of a flower bed, shaking my head in frustration and disbelief.
“No, it is not,” she replied, barely shaking her head. “Besides, not all that is part of life is accepted without question. For example, infant mortality. It was a part of life until you found a way to eliminate it almost entirely. Most parents of all times had to accept that, probably, some of their children would never live to be grown-ups. Yet, it is no longer so.”
“Whatever do you mean ‘until you found’? Are you an alien?”
“No,” she said, not bothered in the least by my sarcasm.
“Listen,” I said as I sprung up, determined to make things clear once and for all. “I don’t even know your name, and—”
“No, I don’t,” I went on undaunted, “and I’m getting tired of you acting mysterious. I tried to be patient, because despite your obstinate denying it, it’s glaringly obvious that you suffered a tremendous loss recently—quite likely the person in that coffin right now,” I said pointing to the church once more. “I am sorry for your loss. I mean it. I must admit that façade of absolute tranquillity you put up could fool anyone, but I can tell you’re shaken up. Do you want me to say that death is not a nice thing to think about? Fine, it isn’t. But it is inevitable. And at the end of the day, that’s good, because just like many other unpleasant things in life, death is also necessary.”
“It happens every time,” she nodded musingly.
“Every time you begin to realize that death is nothing like the indulgent metaphors you use to describe it, thinking of its inevitability pushes you to look for other ways to justify it. Bearing with a horror that is both inevitable and useless would be too much; and as it can’t be but a horror, you need to find it a purpose.”
“You’re blowing it out of proportion,” I objected firmly. “Granted, diseases, wars, and calamities cause useless deaths. They are horrors, I agree; that’s not the natural end of a human being, and indeed we do our best to avoid those deaths. But the circle of life must close itself for the common good. That’s not a horror but only the natural order of things. An endless life would also be meaningless and would wind up being a sentence to eternal tedium. Besides, it would be so problematic on so many levels I can’t even begin to count them.”
“What’s a human being’s ‘natural end’?” she asked, completely unimpressed by my speech.
I snorted in annoyance. “You’re just pulling my leg now.”
“All right, if you really want to play dumb. The natural end of human beings is death by aging. We are born, we grow up, we live our lives, and finally we walk into the sunset. You can see this kind of cycle everywhere. Without it, life itself wouldn’t be possible.”
“Are you sure,” she inquired, “that what you’re talking about isn’t just the umpteenth item on the long list of obvious and incontrovertible truths that were such only until someone had the effrontery to prove them false?”
“What the devil are you—”
“Can you claim without fear of contradiction that it is absolutely necessary for everyone to die, sooner or later, in order for life to continue? Are you ready to prove to anyone old enough that their death is as necessary as is due? If it was possible to avoid age-related decline and death, would you oppose that on the grounds of your convictions, thereby sentencing to death every human being present and future? Are you so sure of your stance that you would deem reasonable, right, or acceptable, to ask everyone to sacrifice themselves in its name?”
Under any other circumstances, I would have thought that this rapid-fire sequence of questions was pompous, arrogant, and rhetorical. I would have laughed right in her face, called her haughty, and left. However, she had spoken candidly, without an ounce of arrogance or conceit. She had uttered those words with the same tone as any other word since I had met her—the tone of someone patiently waiting for you to realize that maybe you share the same views as her.
“I don’t feel like I can make this kind of moral judgement,” I stammered after a moment. “Maybe… Maybe I wouldn’t be so sure about it, but anyway…”
“Yes?” she encouraged me.
“…I don’t think it matters. I don’t think anyone would want to live forever. Yes, yes, I know what you’re about to say: myths, stories, films, and what have you have been talking about eternal life for centuries. I know you were about to say that; I figured out who I’m dealing with by now.”
“Not yet,” she smiled, “but you’re getting there. Please, do go on.”
I didn’t even attempt to understand what she meant, and I continued: “In fiction, the gift of eternal life appeals to many. It’s an attractive prospect, but it always turns out to be a double-edged sword. Nobody who has seriously reflected on it could ever really want to live forever. Sooner or later, we would lose motivation; there would be nothing new to do, see, or learn. Knowing that life is endless would make us unable to appreciate it, just like we would be unable to appreciate a nice sunny day, if all days were.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s obvious!” I stammered again, angrily, after a few moments spent looking for a more convincing argument to no avail. “After a century or two, what do you think there would—”
“If two people having this same conversation three centuries ago had been alive today, they would have had innumerable things to do, see, and learn that weren’t even imaginable at the time. Are you sure that human progress on all fronts has already come to an end? Do you believe that life can be appreciated only if it’s short? Maybe these are just assumptions that you make to help you banish your fear of death from your mind. If there was a moment when one is tired of life, wouldn’t you rather decide for yourself when this moment has arrived? Death may come when your desire to live is still strong or long after you had already lost it, without asking for your opinion first—just like I didn’t before I began this conversation.”
Something in the way she pronounced that last sentence sent shivers down my spine. Speechless and short of breath, I peered at her for a few moments, trying to understand what was the answer to what I had thus far avoided to ask her. She held my stare without flinching. Finally, I resolved to ask.
“Listen, what the hell do you want from me?” I burst out, surprised by the hatred I felt for her. “Why don’t you go and dump your pearls of wisdom on somebody else?”
I had to defend myself. That’s what I felt. That was the reason for my hatred. I didn’t know why, but I felt threatened. The threat could be averted only by putting an end to the conversation and forgetting about all that bloody nonsense.
“There is only you and me here,” she noted, as if she was pointing out the obvious.
Indeed, the cemetery was absolutely deserted, and thinking about it, it didn’t seem as if anyone at all had passed by during our conversation, which I had estimated to have lasted about an hour. I must have got carried away more than I thought, since I hadn’t even noticed that the nice blue sky of that day had turned a leaden shade; roaring thunders announced an upcoming storm.
“Then go back to your relatives at the funeral,” I went on irritated. I was no longer showing her any respect, as I thought she had proved herself unworthy of it. “What’s taking them so long?!”
“There is no funeral,” she said. “There never was.”
“I’ve got enough of your rubbish!” I growled, quickly moving closer to the church door. “Of course there’s a funeral, look at the…”
The funeral announcement was gone, as were all the funeral wreaths. There was no sign that anything at all had happened in that church on that day.
“What the devil—they couldn’t just finish and clear out that quickly without us noticing!” I said nervously, looking all around the church for any sign that anyone at all was there. “They must have taken out the coffin, how could I have missed that? We’ve been here the whole time!”
She followed me, and looking at me compassionately, she said: “I told you. There was never any funeral.”
“Rubbish!” I shouted as a lightning bolt loudly tore the sky open. I probably looked much crazier that she was, and I was surprised that she didn’t seem to be afraid of that.
“What the hell do you want?! What the hell do you want?!” I shouted again.
“I only want you to understand something that, deep inside, you already know.”
“What? That death is horrible? A tragedy? A disgrace? That there is some kind of holocaust going on without anybody noticing? What do you know if that’s what I think?”
Once more, she stared at me silently. Her silence was worth a thousand words.
“Moonshine!” I shouted in her face. “Everything is completely normal, and it’s perfectly fine as it is! Am I going to be dead someday? Everyone is? Fine by me! There is no holocaust, no disgrace, and no tragedy!”
“I wonder if you would still think that,” she mused, asking herself more than me, “if rather than by headstones we were surrounded by the poor bodies buried underneath.”
I didn’t know why, but suddenly I felt terrified that that horrible scene might be happening right behind me, as if driven by some kind of supernatural force. Petrified and short of breath, I stood silently, listening to her once more, jolting at the slightest sound coming from behind.
“It gives life its meaning and makes you appreciate it, spares you the tedium of too long an existence, even begins the afterlife… it’s the end of a cycle, a relief from the chores of life, a sunset, a quiet and peaceful rest, an eternal sleep…” The girl chuckled. She was wearing the same benevolent expression she always had, which made her even more unsettling. I said to myself that, if the dead were really rising from their graves behind me, I’d rather know than let them take me by surprise.
I turned abruptly.
The headstones were exactly where I had left them. I sighed deeply, in relief, slightly shivering at every blow of the cold wind from the upcoming storm.
“Is this how you imagine me?” I heard her ask from behind.
In that moment I was sure that, had I turned, I would see the girl transformed into a horrible cadaver. I swallowed hard, and once I found the courage, I turned quickly towards her. Luckily, I was wrong again.
“You really don’t come across as someone who doesn’t fear death,” she commented.
The dim glimmer of rationality left in me insisted that the girl was simply disturbed, and I was just letting the circumstances deceive me. Yet, I could not resist the temptation to finally ask her something that, in truth, I had already been tempted to ask her long before.
“Are you… are you death?”
“Is this how you imagine me?” she asked again, in a particularly eloquent tone.
It could not be. None of it made sense. How could such a beautiful girl ever be—
“I am not as beautiful as you think,” she chuckled almost timidly, looking away for an instant. “I am not a release, a sunset, quiescence, or an eternal sleep. I am nonexistence, oblivion, nothingness, annihilation, the loss of yourselves, destructor of possibilities and dreams. I don’t give life meaning, nor do I give anything; I take without giving. I am what is when you are no more. I am what is when even hope is lost. I am the end of all.”
“It can’t… It cannot be…” I stubbornly denied, shaking my head in panic. “That’s just nonsense… You… You’re crazy!” Quickly, I moved away from her to the exit, walking backwards to keep my eyes on her. She showed no intention of following me. “Stay away!” I ordered, regardless, pointing my finger at her threateningly. “I want nothing to do with you! Stay away!”
“I am glad you finally understand it,” she said, almost relieved.
I quickly turned around and ran away. I crossed the exit gate and kept running, and without ever looking back, I headed to the closest tram stop. I didn’t need transportation to get home, but I had an urge to get far away from that girl, whoever she might be. The passengers on the tram looked somewhat alarmed by my hasty and disorderly entrance, and were casting fleeting and diffident glances at me; regardless, the sight of normal human beings felt like being able to breathe again. I hurriedly collapsed on the first available seat, and only then did I notice with great stupor that it was late at night. I had no idea how that was possible; it was barely past midday when the girl approached me, and there was no chance it could be that late now. Yet, according to my wristwatch, it was past 10 P.M. To hell with it, I didn’t care; all that mattered was getting far away from that unsettling nutter and getting home as soon as possible. I took a deep breath and tried to relax, mentally calculating the stop at which I should get off. I couldn’t help looking around, every now and again, just to make sure she wasn’t there, among the passengers, observing me with that disturbingly benevolent air of hers.
He might have run away from the girl, but he cannot run away from himself.