In the Economy of Life
by R. C. Capasso
part 1 of 2
The Baleg funeral preparations deserve a full chapter in my study.
Visitors to Baleg are highly limited; there is virtually no space on the planet for outsiders. I was elated to receive a rare spot for my research; a member of their population actually went off-world, so there was an imbalance that I quickly moved to stabilize.
Transport was uneventful. At docking, the Balegs sent up an odd dry rustling garment, and I suited up so as not to add to the organism that is their world.
In all of the planet’s existence, it seems that the population has remained exactly the same, neither growing nor decreasing. Their mythology claims that all Balegs sprang into existence simultaneously in one intense flowering of life. When they recount this, you can’t help imagining a broad field with golden flowers opening at once.
Although the beings share a remarkable commonality of traits and behaviors, they aren’t identical. And the biggest particularity is that they die individually and at separate moments.
Apparently this realization — that they weren’t all going to leave existence together as they had come — accounts for much of their psychology and arts. They spend much of life mourning, in my terms, but they consider themselves resolutely bright.
At the moment of death, the deceased individual goes back into the planet to maintain matter and consistency. There are no familial funeral observances; Balegs don’t exist in individual families, and there are no specific partings.
Technicians — or as they prefer, caretakers — put the dying body in sheer, dry casings resembling husks, which are golden and smelling like a field under the sun. The husks go down a stream into a tunnel and are deposited back into the earth. The whole process gives a strange, vital vibration to the land, and it takes some getting used to. On my arrival I felt as if I was on a ship or a machine with a gentle, rhythmic hum.
Each individual is replaced exactly on its demise. I say “it” because Balegs have no gender, and trying to explain our reproduction is profoundly frustrating. New individuals simply arise out of the planet itself, as solitary flowerings.
Each emerges just as its predecessor moves down the tunnel to rejoin the earth. The constancy of the population has made balance a key concept in the culture. Harmony is their highest value.
At my arrival a guide, Poreh, was assigned to me. Poreh has developed Baleg telepathy so that it can communicate with other-worlders.
We went at once to the “passage” or birth-death area. Since the Balegs do not have non-participants at their passages, they’d hastily constructed a fine screen of bright, glittering droplets, scented like flowers or like the stones of the Zanzibar moons. Poreh and I stood behind it.
Within hours I observed two deaths, both quiet and orderly. Poreh reluctantly provided information about the age and background of the two dying beings, since it’s notoriously hard to distinguish Baleg individuals.
Their newborn bodies have full mobility and skills within an hour of exposure to the Baleg sun. Emotional and psychological development comes later, as they are welcomed into the Baleg society. But even that is normally almost effortless for both emergent and welcomers. They maintain their warmth and glow consistently through all stages of development, with virtually no altering of their long, slim bodies from emergence till death.
Pleased to see two deaths, I asked if this passage center was typically so busy. I’m working on virgin ground here, which is great for my publication, but it also meant that I didn’t know if I was at a bustling center or a small outpost.
Poreh paled slightly, in their equivalent of a frown. I’m guessing it was shocked that I spoke only of the deaths and not the births, a slip on my part. Balance. Must remember balance.
Also, Poreh was offended that I was glad to see the deaths; my academic objectivity rubbed it the wrong way. Finally, I think it just considered me ignorant, which is hardly reasonable when the Balegs keep to themselves so much.
In any case, Poreh answered with famous Baleg courtesy, and the answer was so exciting that I almost hugged it. I was at Baleg’s one and only “passage” area. Dying beings from all over the planet make a pilgrimage to this one spot to re-enter the earth, and all new lives emerge from this spot. I was at the heart of it all and going to witness every death that took place while I was on planet!
Notes on the deaths. Both were identical. From a long passage before us, a being appeared, moving with a slow, graceful rhythm. This was the dying one. The two technicians approached it, each taking a hand and standing in silence for a moment.
Then the technicians removed the being’s outer robe and helped it into the husk, where it lay with its hands open by its side, head pointed left and feet right. There was a moment of stillness, then a diffused light began to appear from a tunnel off to our left. A slim oblong shape appeared through the tunnel, a warm green shot through with light and delicate tones of purple, orange and blues.
The oblong slid along the sunken stream, coming to rest against the death husk. The emergent husk unfolded a bit, like a flower opening, with the emergent’s head close to the dying one’s. They lay against one another a moment, then the death husk began to move away as if on its own.
The technicians and Poreh exchanged benevolent glances, till the death husk was gone. The technicians then focused on helping the new creature stand up.
Since I was there, I took notes on the new being stepping a little unsteadily from the long green casing to our left. “Can it speak?” I asked.
Poreh paled again and I looked at it, questioningly.
“It is just your use of that word, ‘it’,” Poreh said quietly.
“This is the word my people use for objects without gender.”
“But we are not objects; we are sentient.”
I nodded. “What do you say instead?”
“We use our names. But you can say” — he paused — “’the one.’”
I considered this. If the being in front of me was “the one,” what did I call the dead being?
“We are all the one,” Poreh added.
“So what happens now, to the new... one?” Until there was another death, I might as well focus on what I could observe.
“The caretakers will help the one understand all that the one’s predecessor has shared.”
Poreh glowed. “We use telepathy to know our successor, so we can prepare.”
I must have looked confused. Poreh expanded. “As each prepares to depart, each reaches forward to the successor. Our minds touch, the departing one communicating experiences, knowledge, our ways. The emerging one communicates wishes, questions, and the promise of what that emerging one will contribute to our whole.”
“So the emerging one is trained to replicate the departing one?”
Poreh scanned my mind and blanched. “Not replicate, no! The departing one is unique, the emergent one is unique. But the departing helps the emergent to prepare, and the emergent helps the departing to know what the emergent needs.”
“And the technicians? Do they just handle the husks?”
Poreh went so white that I must have offended it on multiple levels. “All who participate here add to the exchange. All on that side of the... screen, as you call it. It is one of our most valued roles, to guide our ones through departure and emergence.”
With a technician at each side, the emergent moved out into the sun, walking steadily after no more than five or six steps. Poreh was so still that I began to wonder if we were waiting for another death or if he was giving me the silent treatment.
And yes, I now thought of Poreh as “he” because he was standing so stiff and offended. But just then a kind of green flush pulsed through his face. Green signals agitation for the Balegs, and when Poreh actually turned around a couple of times, like a dog sniffing the air, I knew something was wrong.
Two different technicians moved into the passage area, their bodies oddly tight for a Baleg. They looked to the right, where the death husks come into the narrow stream. A husk approached, but no dying one had appeared.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Poreh just went greener and said nothing. The technicians looked at one another, and then over to Poreh.
“We should leave,” Poreh said.
“What’s going on?”
“It’s going to be a... a difficult passage.” His face was the color of pea soup.
“I need to see this.”
“It will....” Poreh seemed to be struggling, and it wasn’t just the translation. “There is no harmony. The one...”
Copyright © 2014 by R. C. Capasso