I had to take this down a little while ago, but it’s back up now. Hope you enjoy.
I watched as a lonely sun floated just above the sea: it’s lonely because it’s unique; lonely because of its size and its heat that’s so fierce it burns anything that gets too close. It’s a single dominant being, forever alone.
The horizon began to swallow its glowing mass; bright ribbons danced along the surface of the sea, and the clouds reflected its energy in orange and yellow streaks on their bases. I’d seen it too many times, thousands of times, and it no longer had the power – this most powerful of things – to stir my heart.
My toes curled into the sand. I thought of how once, long ago, this sand had probably stood proud, solid, part of some magnificent mountain range. Now it was just granular and anonymous: Time had worn it down – destroyed it.
The sun disappeared completely and the sky began to bruise from the east.
How many years now since I’d first met the Man in Black? I could no longer remember. Neither could I remember when I’d last seen him. Everything had mixed together: when time is an irrelevant idea, structure is lost, as is a sense of history. I know, though, that he tricked me. I remembered that much.
I walked back to the entrance of a cave that I now call my home – a yawning mouth in the cliff face. The cave’s opening looked out onto a beach, where I would sit for days watching the tide come in and go out, watch the wildlife breed and feed and die, watch the sun rise and sink. I remember the carcass of a gigantic whale being washed up onto the beach; its skin glistened in the early morning sun, like a giant jewel. Around it, creatures fed greedily on the rotting meat, and birds tore at grey flesh, until all that was left was bone. The sea breeze brought the acrid smell of decay to my nostrils, where its sour odours stuck. I watched the animals; how desperate they must have been, I thought, how strong their desire to survive must be for them to eat that mess.
I stepped into the cave just as the colours outside were fading into the monotone shades of moonlight. This was where I’d first met him. Who had I been then? What did others call me?
He had been sitting in here, with a dying fire glowing in the middle of the floor. A black cloak hung around his body and a soft hood covered his face. His gaze was concentrated on me as I entered; I could just see the shimmering reflection of the fire in his eyes, his other features hidden by shadow.
I joined him at the fire; I was glad to see another enjoying the night’s atmosphere. We began to talk. His voice was a velvet whisper and its silky tones must have settled me, for when he asked me a question, I took it as hypothetical.
‘What are you afraid of?’ he asked me. I thought for a moment, then my answer formulated, and it was an answer that most men of middling years would have given; especially when he deems that the world has not delivered him all that he would have hoped; I was feeling the pull of time as it sucked the life from me, ageing my body and mind and passion, draining my ambition.
‘I’m afraid of running out of time… running out before I get a chance to do everything I hope to do,’ I said. The Man in Black was quiet for a moment. The flames flickered and then died down to a glowing ember.
‘How much would you be prepared to give for more time?’ he asked eventually.
‘I don’t have anything to give,’ I replied.
‘I’m sure you do,’ he said. His eyes narrowed slightly, as if he was smiling. ‘Would you give everything if you no longer had to worry about the constraints of time?’
It was now my turn for silence as I thought over this question.
‘I think I would,’ I said.
‘Yes. Yes, I would give everything. If I didn’t have to worry about time, then surely, I could get everything back, eventually. So, yes.’
‘If you’re sure.’
Then I saw a slight twitch in the man’s arm and the embers in the fire burst into flames again, suddenly warming me and lighting the cave, covering it in a rich yellow glow. The Man in Black stood and I could see him clearly in the light. A smile touched the corners of his thin lips, and his dark eyes – made to look even darker by the paleness of his skin – bored into mine.
‘If that’s what you want,’ he said, and then he began to walk out of the cave.
‘What?’ I said.
‘If that’s what you want,’ he repeated. He stepped out of the cave and into the night. I scrabbled to my feet to follow him, but when I got out into the moonlight and looked along the silver beach, there was nobody there. All I could hear was the gentle lapping of the sea.
After that encounter, my life continued as normal for the first few years, but then I began to notice that as everyone grew older around me, I seemed to stay the same age. I was puzzled, and had almost forgotten the encounter with the Man in Black, and it wasn’t until I saw him again that it all fell into place.
It was an early autumn night; the wind was curling the sea into great waves, and white froth was pushing its way up the beach. The wind ran its playful fingers through my hair as I walked so that it was dancing in front of my eyes, partially obscuring my vision. As a strong gust blew my hair out of my face I saw a figure in the distance, then the wind swirled in another direction, and once more my vision was obscured. I pulled my hands up and pulled the hair from my face, but the figure had gone. I continued to walk, and when I reached the cave, I entered to find a fire burning in the centre. I sat down and listened as the wind gathered speed outside.
I could see the rough sea churning, and bits of loose vegetation skittering along the sand, and then I saw him again. He was walking towards the cave, but something looked wrong. His cloak seemed to be still, as if the wind wasn’t affecting him; it was like he was in a different place, superimposed onto this scene. He entered the cave and smiled.
‘How’s life now?’ he asked through a smile.
‘You!’ I said. The Man in Black took a seat on the other side of the fire and remained silent, waiting for a response to his question.
‘Who are you?’ I asked.
‘That is not important. What is important is that you answer me.’
A brief moment passed between us, and for the first time I felt a darkness emanating from him. The fire’s light seemed to darken around his figure, like he was sucking it in.
‘My Life?’ I asked.
‘Yes, your life – how is it now that you aren’t bound by time?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You know. I know you’ve noticed it, the way you stay young when others grow old.’ He smiled at me. ‘It’s what you wanted, after all.’
‘I don’t…’ he began to stand up as I was speaking. ‘What…’
‘You understand, or you will, soon,’ he said. He turned and left the cave.
I was half excited, half scared by what had just happened. Could it be true?
It was true, like he said, and I spent many lifetimes enjoying life’s pleasures, reforming my character with each generation, becoming someone different with each new situation I found myself in. But it was not to stay like this forever. Loneliness began to creep up on me, and slowly, I began to suspect that it was a curse that had been put upon me, not a wish. All I could do was watch as others around me, others I’d grown to love, died; and each time I saw it, it took a little bit of my soul from me.
I began to seek loneliness, and shun companionship, just to avoid the pain of loss. I was a vagrant constantly moving from one place to another, but with no final destination.
It was on a lonely stretch of windswept cliff that I first tried to kill myself. I’d been travelling for what seemed like an eternity, and I just wanted there to be an end. I stood on top of the cliff and peered over the edge. The sea roared far below, crashing onto the rocks that lined the base of the cliff. I closed my eyes, leant forwards, and gave myself over to the sensation of falling. Then, with a crash, it was over.
First there was darkness, but then I saw images; it was the Man in Black, and he seemed to taunt my dreams, laughing at me, ridiculing me. I jolted awake to find myself – alive – on the rocks below the cliff – I had fallen, but I wasn’t dead.
Who was the Man in Black? God? The Devil? I didn’t know, but I wanted to see him, I wanted him to remove this curse. I thought of our first meeting, and longed to be back at the cave again, back somewhere familiar. I’d go there and wait for him. I’d wait for him and then ask him if I could die. I realised then that I was different: I had lost the driving desire for survival; life wasn’t precious anymore, there was too much of it. I could no longer call myself human, because I no longer shared a fate with the rest of humanity – the knowledge that life was finite.
What had I become?
I returned to the cave that I knew so well. Its hard rocks were a comfort to me as I touched them, but I knew that even they would age faster than me.
I sat and waited for the Man in Black.
How long did I wait? A year? A century? More?
Eventually, on another stormy night, he arrived. He walked into the cave and sat down opposite me. I became aware of a fire, and I wasn’t sure if it had been there before. He smiled his thin smile at me. I smiled a response and leant back against the wall. We were both quiet – contemplative – we had all the time in the world. He spoke first.
‘Do you know who you are now?’
I thought for a moment. ‘I’ve been so many people it’s hard to remember anything at all. I’ve seen too much,’ I said.
‘Do you see what you become if you remove just one part of the human condition?’ he asked. ‘You’re nothing.’
‘I’ve lived too long. So long that life isn’t even life anymore.’
He nodded his head slightly, as if he understood. ‘You told me that if you had unlimited time, you’d be able to get everything that you lost back. Where is it then?’
I shook my head.
His hand twitched again and I looked up to see him smiling. The fire then began to fade… and fade… and fade, until all was pitch black.
When I awoke, I was laying on the beach. A feeling of overwhelming fatigue covered my body. I couldn’t move and I realised, with joy, that I was dying.
A bird landed beside me, ready to pick at my flesh when I was dead.
I smiled. I was glad to be a part of life again. I watched the sun, a beautiful sun, as it began to set over the gentle sea.