The Exile and the Urchin
by K. R. Svich
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
We even thought up a new family name and had marriage certificates drawn up, just for the humour of it. Then we headed east, by the Trans-Manchurian train, across Mongolia and alighting at the end of the line in Beijing. There we settled for a while with rickshaws dashing down the streets, daily rice in place of bread, and rising steam from the cauldrons of back-alley merchants occasionally seeping in through the back window of our flat.
There we also witnessed the beginning and end of a nearly decade-long Second Sino-Japanese War against the backdrop of a blood red Pacific. Once I even caught a glimpse of the future Chairman Mao on the street. That was before gargantuan portraits and statues of him became commonplace throughout the city.
By that point, we’d had two children: a boy and a girl. We crossed by ferry to Japan in search of some relative peace. We found it, briefly, around the Osaka bayside. Raphael went to work on construction sites and I eventually at an electrical appliance dealer in the neighbourhood. Our house was small and dilapidated side, but it was close enough to the harbor to enjoy a fresh ocean breeze with just the right undercurrent of salt each morning.
High school boys in black gakuran uniforms with high collars and brass buttons hanging undone loitered across the concrete port. Smoking cigarettes held in between heavily tanned fingers, they basked in the balmy summer heat as the freight ships came in to dock.
An extended enmeshment of steel and iron manufacturers’ shops lined the gritty, stony beach. It was broken only intermittently by warehouses packed with shipping crates to be sent out to corners of the earth far, far away from here, and which I no longer felt any desire to tread. Here I might have stayed, looking out over the ocean at passing ships and at great billowing towers of smoke dissolving into the endless blue sky.
One day, the children were no longer quite children anymore, and I realized they weren’t like Raphael and me. There was something wrong or, rather, to put it in terms of how things really were and not from the warped perspective of our own protective sphere, there was nothing abnormal about them at all.
“You knew!” Not once has the memory of that day ever wavered from the spot in my mind it occupies with a burning, scolding grip — like a clenched fist of freshly forged iron. I remember everything down to the exact point on the wall the glass hit when I hurled it across the kitchen counter at Raphael, missing my mark by barely a millimeter.
I remember his face, a blank, lifeless sheet, completely devoid of expression, not even enough to show an overt display of apathy if that was what he felt. I remember how much a hated him in that single moment. A thin trail of blood ran like a crimson thread from the tip of his cheekbone down to his jaw, but I never saw him shed a single tear or show a shred of remorse.
* * *
Things grew sour after that. At night, I barely slept, too paranoid to take my eyes away from my children lest our parallel timelines reach a fork and they disappear before I even noticed. I knew that the moment I turned my eyes away they would disappear. And one day, it happened. Raphael grabbed hold of me, forcing me to turn away. I was already too frail and worn from lack of food and sleep to even try to resist his grip on my shoulders; it was so tight I was afraid my bones might shatter.
“It’s time for us to leave.”
I would have made to throttle the bastard had I been able to lift my arms. He knew that. I don’t know to what extent he cared. “They have their own lives to live to the extent given to them. It has nothing to do with us anymore.” When he finally let go, the only thing left behind were black and blue finger marks over my skin. I never saw my children again.
After that incident we travelled back to Siberia. I didn’t particularly want to go, but I was too worn down to care. The city square of Irkutsk looked nothing like I remembered. The roads were tarred black, and that old gutter had been paved over with smooth concrete. With the number of cars constantly parked along the street it would be difficult to find space there to die anymore.
Years later, just short of the turn of another century, I managed to track both children down again. They were married and still living in Japan. I even found out about a grandchild on my son’s side, not that I ever tried to make contact. What would I have said? Even more so if I’d shown up in person, in a body younger than the two I claimed to have given birth to. It was enough just to know. Just knowing was the best I could ever have hoped for.
* * *
“So, how’re we getting out of this one?”
With no official papers, or at least none that weren’t forged, we’d been dragged by a new kind of force back onto the tracks of worldly logic. It seemed that our ability to slip by and continue existing on our own separate plane was linked far more directly to mortal reality and practicality than I’d realized.
Fingerprints and blood samples had been forcefully taken, but no living match was on record. The act of not existing is a crime in itself. It’s the perfect cover for a terrorist or foreign spy not to need a cover at all. It had only been a matter of time before somebody grew suspicious.
A fake signature here and there that used to turn us into entirely different identities was laughable these days. These days. Stopping to think, I realized that every single person who’d been on earth the day I’d come into it was now dead. Raphael’s gift was Raphael’s curse in exchange for being rescued from the mercy of those flesh-eating rodents in the slums of Siberia.
“Raphael. I have to ask you something.” In three hundred years, it was the first time the question had even occurred to me. But now my brain was overwhelmed far less by fear than by the urgency to ask before it was too late. “What are you, exactly?”
As the words left my mouth the lights in our cell switched on, as if in response to some cue. Like stage lights, except in place of the dramatic boom when all the globes illuminate in unison, the cold bluish white light that flooded the cell was underpinned by a faint electronic buzzing. They revealed Raphael’s form, slouched in a far corner, where I realized he’d always been, on the exact same concrete floor as I. No higher and no greater, just underwhelmingly there.
As the light struck his face he lifted his eyes lethargically from the ground. They rose slowly, as if he were dragging them out of an invisible congealed mass of mud and grime. It baffled me, how all the bright, white sterility encased within those four walls discoloured and turned rotten within a second of Raphael’s lifting his head.
In that lethargy there was something formidable. Shadow stretched all the way down from under his eyes to the protruding bones of his hollowed-out cheeks. The last time I’d seen them so hollow was when I’d dug him out of his grave. It was as if life itself were bleeding out of those eye sockets and running down his cheeks, disguised as shadows against the horrible fluorescent light.
“What are you, and why did you pick me out of that gutter?” Still no reply, just those clouded, dry-bleeding eyes half-risen and staring somewhere vaguely in my direction. There was no need to hear anything. It wasn’t going to make any difference anyway. At that moment the cell door opened, and the towering shadows of two black uniformed officers sliced through the glaring fluorescent light.
Raphael lay in the gutter. It would only be a matter of time before the rats started to catch on; we were no longer immortal. “It’s time to end this, don’t you think?” Raphael switched to Mandarin, presumably in the hope the guards wouldn’t understand him. Not that it mattered either way. “I’m sorry, I think I might be done for good this time, even if they don’t shoot us.”
Again, not that it mattered: they had to shoot us. Our existence was a glitch, a malfunction of a perfect surveillance society. We were malware in the system, and they were going to clean us up. “Hey, Maya, if I die and somehow you get out of here, would you want to dig me up again?”
“I doubt they’ll be any room left in the ground for your body.” Without warning we were both seized violently from behind. I gagged as the neckline of my shirt cut into my throat. When Raphael’s disheveled military jacket was torn off his back I felt a jab through my chest. But far more excruciating than the act itself was the way he didn’t even attempt to feign resistance.
When the officer holding Raphael decided to land a punch directly into his solar plexus I almost screamed. How dare he?
Both Raphael and I served this country in the Great War. Of course, I pulled myself back. The Great War? The First World War, more than two centuries ago. I swallowed back a bout of painful, bitter laugher.
My initial intention must have been obvious though because, the next thing I knew, my jaw was shattered, and I was spitting out blood and dislocated teeth. Looming off to the side of my cracked field of vision, as if staring through a broken sheet of glass, was Raphael. Through the skull-splitting pain I couldn’t read the expression on his face, if there in fact was one.
This ruined demon in front of me; he was far from the proud figure who, in another place and another time, had liberated me from hopeless destitution. So long as we chose to continue on living we could never truly be free of one another. A mutually parasitic relationship — each serving the other like a crucial blood vessel, connecting to this world. If it was severed at one end, the other would eventually bleed out, their body taking on age until in the end it followed suit.
Of course, the ironic fact of being immortal is that it installs in you a mortal fear of aging and death. So I restored the link and brought Raphael back. Perhaps, at the time, it was out of love as well, but with a more mature mind I can see now it was underpinned by pure self-preservation.
What is love anyway when, in the all-dominating bounds of rationality, we can neither be alive nor officially dead? I think I can work it out, only now in the closing moments while being led down the hallway to the final door. Behind it a bullets await us and, once they tear clean through our brains, our bodies will be incinerated and then the ashes themselves obliterated.
Those smoldering cinders of cinders will be poured away, and we will realize with both the romance of an age long past and eternal bitter futility that our only means to freedom is to be thrown away into oblivion together.
The final crutch of our own rightful existences — that I was Maya and he was Raphael — will go up in flames, and all that will be left is one indistinguishable, inseparable cloud of dust. No chains or shackles left to break. They will no longer be required, because not even death can try to part us. We are now by absolute definition and with no record or living memory to prove otherwise, eternally as one.
As the door creaked open and a push from behind forced my foot over the threshold, I stole one final momentary glance at that monstrous, grey-faced demon, Raphael. He looked back at me. Could true love be any more long-lived and fortuitous? I think not.
Copyright © 2015 by K. R. Svich