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The Castaway

by Sergio Gaut vel Hartman

Translation by Carmen Ruggero

part 1 of 2

A la versión original

I had lived inside that body for over sixty years and it was very difficult for me to accept this new state of being, one in which the body can be discarded after use, like an empty, useless vessel.

“What are you going to do with... it?” I didn’t know what to call it; we had been one for a long time. The bio-technician shrugged his shoulders; surely, he would answer the same question several times a day, every day.

“We stick them in the depository for the discarded. It’s possible that some of the organs could be used, although... I don’t believe that’s the case with this one. How was the liver? Did it smoke? “

“Does that mean you freeze them?” I didn’t answer his questions directly; in fact, I found them offensive. My ignorance on the subject flashed a red signal. I was afraid to know. From the day the transfer took place, I was ruthlessly bombarded by images of freezers shaped as coffins piled up in dark warehouses.

“Freeze them?” The man gave me a puzzled look. “Why would we go through that kind of trouble? We connect them to feeding tubes and leave them until their clock stops.”

“Their clock stops!” A beautiful and ruthless metaphor. “They continue living...” I sighed.

The idea that my old body was rotting in a foul-smelling depository while I started a new life seemed insane. What kind of a monster have I become? I thought.

“Living, what is implied by living...” said the bio-technician, “is a ventured guess. Not in principle, but the vegetative functions are not extinguished in the transfer; flashes of memory, linger on — traces from their youth are not completely erased. They are quite alive, I suppose, although as you know, no longer officially considered, people.”

“Quite alive,” I repeated his words. “Like being a ‘little pregnant’; isn’t that sufficient enough to deserve respect, support, consolation and affection?”

“You are completely crazy!” yelled the bio-technician. “Instead of enjoying your new body, you lament the luck of the old one. Are you similarly attached to each Coke bottle you empty? Let me tell you: the road you’re on leads to hell.”

I inhaled deeply and tightened my fists: “That’s exactly what I thought until a little while ago, before finding out that my old body continued to live.”

“Would you rather we had killed him? Because... as far as I know, bodies do not die without the aid of cancer, or cardiac arrest, or pulmonary edema, or...”

I left the guy talking to himself while I disappeared through the labyrinth of Korps’ corridors. I walked for hours, reflecting on the second crucial transformation of my life.

It took several days for me to accept my new body and when it began to feel natural for me to be thirty years old, someone who could have been my grandfather, would suddenly come out of nowhere, demanding payment of a bill. A bill for what? Had I broken something? He didn’t have the right to demand anything, I reflected. He lived what was normal to live. And I will live until I feel like dying.

I had accidentally walked into the depository but didn’t discover the magnitude of my mistake until it was too late to correct it. What I thought to be a utility room filled with used instruments and old furniture turned out to be the place where they kept the discarded bodies. All of them, the majority belonging to old, frail men deteriorating before my eyes, lay on canvas cots facing the door.

There were a hundred, maybe a thousand cots not necessarily arranged in any particular order and barely visible inside the grim ambiance of the depository where they waited with indifference for that jump into space. Their trembling faces, withered by the endless wait, showed the outflow of blood from their bodies. I had fallen in the middle of someone else’s nightmare.

Seeing the plastic tubes connected to their trachea and sunken veins of their forearms, was a most disgusting experience. The wasting human bodies appeared to struggle to free themselves from their restraints, although there was no good reason for it. Even when the need for transfer was not visibly drawn on their faces, one could see their resignation and indifference, as they submitted to the lost world.

I had overcome my first impulse to get out of there, and predisposed to accept my role in the process I chose to undergo, I glanced through the room looking for the one I had been. I found it impossible to think about him as someone else — some stranger — separate and different from me. Perhaps, that was the reason why it took me forever to identify him. My gaze bypassed him as I couldn’t distinguish his inert silhouette from the others in the depository.

I proceeded slowly for fear that any abrupt movement could trigger a wave of protests, but the truth was that the bodies ignored me. Only a few expressed their annoyance at the intrusion by clumsily moving their hands, and so entangling them in the plastic tubing.

Finally, when I managed to get through all the obstacles separating me from my old body and I could look at him face to face, my mind drew a blank. I tried unsuccessfully to tell him how I felt; to say something in way of an apology, but I found myself so inhibited by its rigidity, its impassiveness, its stillness, and to my amazement, it was he who broke silence.

“I was expecting you,” said my ex- body in a thread of a voice.

“You were expecting me?” I imagined myself waiting, unable to dream, much less hope for a sunset, or the one responsible for putting me through such gratuitous pain. I also felt guilty because my presence there happened by chance.

“You did not come by chance,” he said, as if able to read my thoughts, “...and I do not read your thoughts; somehow we go on being the same person.”

His words tingled in the air. It was clear he felt more like me than I did. There was memory, but... there was also a body. The same body that held me from the beginning is now condemned because speculation had it, he was the one who plotted the outcome. But when I tried objecting to that logic, the words adamantly refused to come out. I knew what he was thinking; he had waited patiently and calmly to show me he still controlled my destiny.

The scene was peculiarly similar to an earlier experience, when my parents decided that I had to say goodbye to a dying grandfather, a stranger to me. The old man made me feel responsible for his death as if my youth had somehow caused his departure.

I heard a hopeless cry from another body crawling across the room. That is how they go, I thought, with a moan that fades as they discover they will not be rescued, this time.

“I will moan like that, when I leave,” said my first body. “We all do it. It is like a ship’s siren as it casts off from shore.”

Once again, I was unable to respond. Who is the castaway? I wondered. Did the ship go past the island without giving warning signals?

I looked at the feeding tubes that joined the body to the tanks and suppressed a deep urge to pull them out. It is preferable to suffocate than to wait without hope for rescue. And once more, my ex-body stripped me of my thoughts.

“Perhaps I am not the castaway,” he said.

“I have all my life ahead of me,” I protested. “It’s a new beginning, right?” The lack of conviction in my words was mirrored by a clumsy and incomplete movement of my hand like a stroke of affection that suddenly becomes an angry blow.

He shrugged his shoulders showing indifference while gazing at the bodies dying around us. “To begin anew, yes,” he said, “but not from the very beginning. The memory of those who come to say goodbye to their discarded bodies will forever hold the images from this depository.”

“What is that supposed to mean? Are you reproaching me?” I was suddenly disgusted by his attitude. Was he trying to entangle me into something? He — we — were condemned: the doctors said it was a question of days, weeks at the most. There was no way out, but to go through with the transfer. My old body had put me in the defensive. An invisible net dulled my senses, I felt as if paralyzed.

“No one forced you to come,” said my old body. “Why not just enjoy the freedom a healthy body offers you for the first time in a long time? It would have been the most logical thing to do. But instead, you felt compelled to pay back a debt to avoid future self recrimination. It seems like a good idea to me. I would have done the same.”

Those last words brought back a memory: a cunning ease for cruel irony, a talent I was proud to possess. Would I be able to conserve it, I wondered, in my relationship with life-long friends? As in a game, too many options began to unfold, but the strategy for handling them wasn’t at all clear to me. Was I to move away from all that was familiar? Was I to seek different people, a different ambiance, leave the planet?

“I ended up here by accident,” I said, feeling disheartened.

“Yes,” my ex-body seemed to have lost interest in the conversation. Or maybe, the pain he had suffered silently had returned. I knew a lot about that pain. He moaned, again. The agony spread like a wave of electricity from one body to the other. The sound, gray and flat, dissipated throughout the depository.

There was nothing else to be said, or done — nothing else to think about, or feel. It was time to leave that place.

But I didn’t do it. The body had accepted my irresponsibility with the utterance of a hollow word meant to defuse any future argument from me. So great was the tension created by his obligatory: yes, that all I could do to break it, was to extend my hand and lightly touch his dry cheek with my fingertips. My old body shook, as if having received an electrical discharge.

“What did you do?” he asked turning his face away from me.

“Nothing. I think I just tried to be kind.”

“You’re afraid — very much so.”

The accusation was harsh; it transcended simple translation. But then, I heard two moans: one was low, and sinister; the other was high pitched, like the chirping of a bird. There are many ways of dying, I supposed.

“Afraid? Of what? “ I asked him.

“There are many ways of dying,” my ex-body repeated my exact words, but with an obvious slant. I ignored it. Anyway, I no longer knew what our dialogue meant; I had lost the meaning and perhaps, even interest on our conversation. I found myself hypnotized by the colors of the plastic tubes: red, blue, green.

“I am not the one connected to the tubes,” I said.

“They are useless,” said my old body, “just something to impress the visitors. It’s just a good show to affect the psyche of the transferred one; something to improve the outcome.”

“Useless? I thought they were being fed through the tubes.”

“That, they do,” said my old body. “They are useless because it makes no difference whether they feed us or let us starve to death. We will not leave this place because they have stopped our medication, and they only come into the depository three times a day, to gather the corpses. “

I told him it was cruel, but there was no other way to do it. “It’s not possible to wait for the first body to die; the transfer could not be carried out, if we had.”

“Sure... sure...” said the body in a tone balanced somewhere between sadness and rage.

“Now we are like different species,” I said, desperately looking for an excuse to continue our dialogue, but each word had the opposite effect from what was intended.

“This is the price we pay for progress. In the old days, people would die and that was it. Now the laws of nature are violated, we’re playing with fire.”

“I was never a believer,” I said. “Is the proximity of the death what makes you wish for eternal life?”

Proceed to part 2...

Story copyright © 2007 by Sergio Gaut vel Hartman
Translation copyright © 2007 by Carmen Ruggero

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