by Paul Williams
She looked like a normal old lady. The wrinkled face presented an illusion of tranquillity as well-preserved hazel eyes blinked and surveyed her audience. Her back was slightly bent and the slanted fingers moved slowly but nothing else indicated that she was the oldest person in the world. One hundred and thirty-four, calculated from documents certified genuine by three independent experts.
Age alone earned her a place in the record books but it was as the oldest prisoner ever known that people came to pay her homage.
The jail hit on the idea of using her as a tourist attraction when she reached a hundred and ten. This initiative had historical precedents; seventeenth-century citizens had paid to see criminals in the condemned’s cell and even more for a good view of the executions that followed. More recently there had been a series of popular television documentaries about life inside and a couple of modern executions had been shown live, with good ratings.
Why wasn’t the old lady executed?
In this fair and equal world, age saved you from the ultimate penalty. It was considered inhumane to gas a lady in her nineties but a kid of fourteen could be saved for the chamber when he reached his eighteenth birthday.
Nobody expected her to live for another forty-three years after conviction. They thought that she would perish in her sleep one night. The standard of care she received was equivalent to that in the homes where most elderly citizens died. Moreover she didn’t have the benefit of companions, considered an incentive for living. Who would want to talk to her? Some of the guards did, out of duty, and a few of the tourists asked for autographs which she duly provided by mail only. This suggested that she wasn’t senile, an impression supported by the eyes. Alive and inquisitive eyes that probed every visitor for an escape route.
All of the visitors left feeling uneasy. They compared her to their elderly relatives or friends, contrasting that apparent normality with her background and wondering what horrors lay unexposed within the minds of others.
At the trial the defence counsel had proposed insanity as her excuse. What else could explain her actions? “Immortality is a myth,” he had rashly proclaimed. “No sane person could believe that eating children prevents the inevitability of death.” Now that youngish solicitor was a pile of ashes on a descendant’s mantelpiece and the old lady lived on. His words were questioned daily by her growing number of supporters, some of whom tried to copy her actions.
They were executed of course. The state wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. Rumours abounded that the old lady herself would be retried in the name of another victim and, this time, receive the summons to meet her maker.
Nobody believed them but a few believed that she could really live forever.
One man who knew that she could was Hu Monchia.
Like the old lady, Hu was Chinese and, to an observer, looked to be in his forties. In truth he was much older, although he didn’t have a birth certificate to prove it, nor did he want to share that information with the authorities. He used a fake passport to enter the United States, joining the throngs of tourists who flocked to see the old lady.
There is a human fascination with cannibalism which goes back to the days when cavemen saw nothing wrong in eating the corpse of an enemy vanquished in battle. To them, meat was meat. They did not have the luxury to designate some animal species as pets or friends.
And perhaps it was a prehistoric man, or woman, who first realised that the consumption of human meat, especially that of babies or young children, prolonged life expectancy. The theory behind this is simple. Human bodies, and minds, are designed to live for a specified number of years. Some individuals perish earlier due to disease, accident or deliberate injury by self or other. Others live longer without consuming human flesh but few retain all their mental and physical attributes after the age of seventy.
It can therefore be argued that humans have an optimum life before they decline. This is the grand plan of nature or whatever God you wish to believe in. Therefore a healthy child of six is programmed to live for sixty-four years in good condition. If their life expectancy is transferred, then the recipient gains extra years.
Early men sometimes ate the brains of their enemies, human and animal, believing that the attributes passed to them. Why shouldn’t the life expectancy, too? Not in total, of course. It is diluted by the programming that already exists in the cannibal’s head.
The old lady had eaten six babies and two infants and had nearly doubled her life expectancy. She had also avoided the onset of senility.
The tourists wanted to believe otherwise; to know that the goal of eternal life was achievable.
Hu Monchia knew otherwise.
He had been born before the old lady’s trial and watched, on television, with increasing frustration as she outlined her ideology and practices to the sceptical court. The secrets which she divulged formed one of the biggest betrayals in history.
Fortunately she was not believed, but as she lived on, more and more people were questioning. It would not be long before some zealous researcher followed up the clues of her birth certificate and identified surviving relatives.
They were spread all over the world now. Few still practiced the old ways, and none on a regular basis, but they would not appreciate the contact.
Hu Monchia found it amusing to pose as an author. He told the authorities he was writing a book about the old lady. Two biographies, written by amateurs and published by imbeciles, had already appeared. A copy of one was in the cell to amuse her.
“I’ve researched her background in China,” he said. They knew nothing of the culture far older than their own. To them China was an enigma, a part of the world which their unofficial empire had infiltrated but not yet conquered. A land of innumerable peasants.
Recently he had read an American novel about an American girl in a Chinese jail. It told of abuses that were commonplace in American prisons, presenting them as unique to the uncivilised world. The aim, in his opinion, was to sow the seeds of racial hatred in readiness for the war between superpowers that would one day come.
They gave him a visitor’s pass without asking too many questions. An unofficial donation granted him private access, well, as private as can be with a warden outside the door. The old lady was going deaf, so the traditional glass screens and phones were dispensed with. That suited Hu Monchia.
The first time they sat in silence, just long enough to realise that the guard was out of earshot. Hu Monchia carried a panic alarm which was guaranteed to make the man turn around. He didn’t think he would need to use it.
“Hello auntie,” he said gently in their own dialect, as an extra precaution.
She sniffed, leaning forward to hear him better. Or maybe it was so she didn’t have to shout. “I used to have a big family,” she said. “You’re only the second one to visit.”
“Prisons were never popular for our family,” he replied. “Besides most of us are on the other side of the world. Living normal lives as you were until the arrest. That was careless.”
She nodded. “I couldn’t resist the urge that day. Normally you plan in advance, just as the tigress stalks her prey.”
“Self-control is the most essential human discipline,” said Hu Monchia. “Without it we become animals.”
“Some people think that I am no better than an animal.” Although she had supporters there were also those who wanted to see her dead. The authorities checked her heavy sacks of fan mail for threats, poisoned needles and explosives. “They don’t understand that my urges are the same as their cravings for a bacon sandwich with the difference that mine will extend life and theirs will reduce it.”
“Do you still have the urges now?”
“My great-granddaughter is having a baby,” she replied, licking her lips. “Perhaps they can be persuaded to visit in a few months.”
Hu Monchia knew that the consumption of one’s own relatives was an even greater aid to immortality. It was a practice that had largely dropped off since the authorities in China began restricting the number of births per family and ensuring that those who were born got registered.
“Why do you want to prolong life now?” he asked. “They will never release you and you can no longer enjoy many of the pleasures of living. Age is often a curse, not a blessing.”
“I don’t want to die,” she said firmly. “Some people accept it without thinking, others believe in a God and some just don’t care. I want to survive.”
“By the unwritten laws of our forefathers you have no right to survive.” The laws were unwritten because the early cannibals had never found time to invent an alphabet. Their knowledge passed from generation to generation through word of mouth, with sensitive topics being entrusted only to those with the ability to be discrete.
The old lady’s discretion had evaporated. In the old days she would have been dragged away from the tribe to a quiet place where a stake would quickly pierce her heart. Much more effective and less traumatic than the gas chamber.
“By the laws of this country you have forfeited your right to live,” she said. A smile flickered across her face, displaying artificial teeth. Ersatz molars that probably couldn’t chew human or any other meat now. He wondered if the prison dentist was responsible for the alterations and if she had consented to them. Certainly she had possessed her own teeth at the time of the crimes; that point had been well documented. “I have not committed any crime in this country,” he assured her, quite truthfully. Inventing an identity was illegal only if one committed an offence under the new name. “But elsewhere people have contributed to your longevity,” she said quietly. “How many have you killed, nephew? I’m sure there’s enough for the International Security people to investigate.”
“You have no evidence,” he said. “Besides, if you insult your visitors, the authorities may place you in solitary confinement. That must be incredibly boring.”
Her eyes dropped. He knew that the tourists gave her existence some meaning. Perhaps they were her only motivation. Perhaps instead of them observing her she was watching them. Learning about other specimens in the race she intended to outlive.
The warden knocked on the door to indicate that the audience was over.
“I’ll be back,” said Hu Monchia.
“What for?” The eyes were suspicious now. She knew that he regarded her as a traitor but she had to feel safe in this place where they confined her to keep others safe.
During the course of several meetings over the next three months they talked at length. She started to find it comforting and released some of her old memories, unaware at first that Hu Monchia was recording them on a tape recorder concealed in his pocket. The guards knew about it and accepted the device as a useful research tool.
Hu Monchia was a good listener. He imagined the old lady sitting in a cell over forty years ago telling the same story to her lawyer. He could understand why she wanted to be believed. Keeping secrets was hard enough at the best of times.
By taking notes he was leaving himself open to the same charges which he had levelled at her. When she found out she teased him about this then heard the explanation, which seemed to satisfy her.
“You and I will be the last,” he said. “This recording will be found after I pass on.”
“No more feeding for you?”
He nodded, having reached the decision a long time ago. She had no option but would still try if the opportunity arose. He noticed that the guards were careful around her and that none of them watched when she ate. He had no such scruples, observing how slowly she consumed the mostly vegetarian food that came on plastic plates with ineffective plastic cutlery.
For him the talks were interesting. They gave an insight into local culture, which he would never have gotten from books, videos or tourist officers. She spoke of her methods in selecting victims and the processes then used to trap them. Processes that had been used many times without any suspicion being generated. This, in a civilised country with higher than average rates of violent crime. A country taught to distrust young black heterosexual males but to respect old ladies.
The discussions also interested her. He found that she was waiting eagerly for his presence, and often brought out notes which she had made during the previous night. She was finding some happiness, for the first time in years. A reason to go on living.
Once or twice she looked at him strangely then one day asked. “Do you want my longevity? Is that why you’re here? To take over from me?”
He laughed. “I would rather die than spend forever in a cell.”
She laughed too, the first time he had seen her totally relaxed.
In the end he was sorry when he had to kill her.
As his visits became more frequent, the security dropped off until he was able to smuggle in a hypodermic loaded with morphine inside the tape recorder. Whilst holding her hand he injected it unobtrusively.
Before leaving the country Hu Monchia visited his cousin and told her what had happened. He’s still out there somewhere. So are others who know the secrets of immortality.
My baby was born last September. Sometimes when I look at her lying in the cot I wonder what it would be like to live forever. Then I glance at the mantelpiece and the urn containing her great-great grandmother’s ashes and have a bacon sandwich instead.
Copyright © 2007 by Paul Williams