Short Story: Mortality and Immutability

in fiction •  8 months ago

I castrated myself as a child. To understand why, you need to understand three earlier events. These events, although much less lurid, helped form the kernel of my current beliefs about death and personal identity. These beliefs are the true subject of this story, and explain in turn all my subsequent deliberate decisions in life. These decisions include both the self-castration and, equally significantly, the the writing of this account.

The first event occurred when I was seven, sometime in the summer of 1958.

I had just finished the Parachute Jump Tower Erector Set. I had thirsted to own the set for the past eleven weeks, which was as long as I had known it existed. It had taken me seven hours, over two days, to construct it. So building it had taken longer than any other project I had ever engaged in, at that point in my life. My heart beat a little faster as I stepped back to behold the creation.

It was tall. It rose from the carpeted floor, beyond my own height, beyond my mother’s height, even past the ring of brown cigarette smoke smeared like a high water mark on the orange walls of the living room. The setting sun cast the tower’s shadow against the chipped bathroom door. I felt satisfied for having built a thing so large and so architecturally well-formed, although I would not have put it to myself that way at the time. The angles and intersections of the girders looked compact and elegant. Small imitation parachutes rose and fell from the tower. I did not feel that I had constructed an imitation, but an original article.

I continued to admire the tower. And I suddenly remembered that I had looked, with similar pride, on the Ferris-Wheel Erector Set and on the Automobile Erector Set. Yet now I felt almost a complete indifference towards those toys. And in a flash I realized that so also in the future I would grow indifferent to the Parachute Jump Tower.

And all at once I saw my own past and future as if it lay on the ground before me. I had grown tired of the pogo-stick. The Roy Rogers Show was no longer as enthralling as it had been. Even chocolate no longer provided absolute pleasure. And so would it be with everything I ever wanted, or built, or loved. My future lay flat before me, and I saw everything in the ever-decaying world suddenly appear eternal against the yet more speedy corruption of my own desires.

I jerked my mind back from myself. I immediately started crying, and ran to my mother, and attempted to explain the problem. I do not remember what I said, although I do remember she did not take any of it very seriously.

The second event occurred perhaps a year later.

My grandmother was visiting. Before the visit, I had observed that my parents were talking about her and trying to hide from me that they were talking about her, because she was going to die soon. I now knew what death was, and was devastated.

I tried to deal with the knowledge as best I could. I knew better than to go to my mom for condescending explanations about how all would be well. But the thought of death still consumed me. I lay in bed, trying to imagine what it would be like not to exist. I thought of how I wished to be an astronaut, and a scientist, and how my grandmother had not had a chance to be any of these things. I wondered if my grandmother knew that she was going to die, and if she did nothing but cry continuously at it.

Still disbelieving, I resolved to confront my grandmother. I needed to find out if it was really true.

So when she and I were alone in the living room, watching TV, I stood up from the floor, turned to her, resting in the E-Z Boy chair, and asked.

“Are you going to die soon?”

“Well of course I’m—“ she began, and stopped.

Her eyes flicked to me, to the kitchen where my mom cooked, back to me, and suddenly to the window. There were birds on the feeder outside, I recall. It was a sunny day. And she resumed.

“Yes, Jack,” she said. “This might be the last time I ever see you.”

Tears rose in my eyes, but I suppressed them. I knew my father hated to see me cry, and regarded tears as somehow shameful, although he never said so.

“Doesn’t that make you sad?” I said, because it made me very sad.

“Well,” she said, “a little sad. But not really that much.”

“I don’t ever want to die.” I said.

“Well,” she said, taking my hand. “That makes sense for you. You’re eight. I’m eighty-six.”

She paused again.

“Does dying bother me?” she asked. I was not sure if she was talking to me.

“I met your grandfather, and married him, and gave birth to your father and his brothers,” she said. “I held the family together during the first war, when William died. I’ve seen your father try to figure out his life, and had you and Sarah as grandchildren. Haven’t I? I’ve done what I wanted to do. I’ve had a life.”

She squeezed my hand, aware of me again.

“Yes. I’m okay with dying.”

“I don’t ever want to die,” I said.

“Of course you don’t,” she said, and smiled. “But you’ll come round when you’re older.”

The same fear.

I wanted to live. I wanted to live forever. I wanted to be a biologist, and to swim in the ocean with whales, and to make friends with them. But apparently I could no longer trust this desire to endure. My grandmother’s death was horrible to me, but more horrible was the thought that I would die, and by then have been so transformed that death seemed acceptable. The rot extended into the innermost part of me, deeper than the rot of my body. I looked into the future at a me who no longer wished to explore the world forever, who no longer wished to know things, and judged him a repulsive stranger.

Something deep within me grumbled that night, a precursor to the later earthquake. I wanted to keep that stranger away forever, at whatever cost.

The third and final event occurred perhaps two years later.

By now, I had grown used to how my parents’ words only obliquely indicated their knowledge and intentions. So when my dad took me aside, and told me that my aunt was going to live with us for a few months, and that she had a new baby, and that I should probably mention neither the baby nor the aunt to anyone at school, I knew some interesting, forbidden apple of knowledge was about to drop from the tree.

My aunt hailed from New York City. She brought with her the baby, a suitcase filled with clothes, a suitcase filled with books, and a cello in a massive case. Within a month of her arrival, I had discussed with her why listening solely to Mozart and Bach destroyed creativity, how the feminism of Katherine McCormick differed from that of Simone de Bouvoir, and why it was important to understand religions and not just religion. She recommended to me science fiction and classical literature and modern music and ancient philosophy.

My father and mother, worried about her influence, tried to limit my exposure to her, but that made me only seek her out the more. My mother tried to diminish my opinion of her by explaining that she had hung around a bad crowd in New York. My father said her bad character was why she had to flee to them for shelter, rather than having a husband to help take care of her child. They both said that her way of life, in some fundamental way, was at odds with her happiness and the happiness of others. All this deflated my parent’s authority more than her influence.

Her child hindered my ability to learn from her, though. No matter what we were discussing, if her child started crying she left immediately. My father said that leaving the child to cry would build character, but she ignored him.
This time, I knew what I was searching for when I began to question her.

I asked the question while she was talking, with a little alcohol, of how she had loved making music in New York. Of how she had stayed up late with her fellow musicians, writing and rewriting and playing avant-garde pieces of music. How she dreamed of reinventing parts of music, of how the universe of her concern had shrunk to a few songs of which she dreamed infinite variations at night.

“But that was before the baby,” I said.

“Yes,” she said.

“Did you want the baby, before you had it?”

“Oh God no,” she said. “I dreaded it. I cried when I found out my, you know,” —she lowered her voice, in case my parents were listening—“birth control had failed. I knew that if I had a kid I’d probably never make the music I could see in my head.”

She took a drink.

“Hell, I knew I’d probably never make it anyhow. But having a kid would sink my chances even further.”

“But you’re glad you have Ian now?”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes. Yeah, I’m definitely glad.”

“Why now?”

She tapped her finger.

“I don’t know... I just looked at Ian’s face, right after he was born. Before then, I thought I might send him to an orphanage. But he was the prettiest thing, even though he was just a little shapeless blob. And I suddenly just knew I cared more about Ian than anything else.”

She put down the glass, and tilted her head to the side.

“When I looked at his face, I heard some--some kind of symphony, in a new room in my brain. And now he’s my whole life,” she said.

There it was. The thing I had steeled myself against. My aunt, like my now-dead grandmother, had no firm values or goals. She had been animated by love for music above all things, but after the birth, that goal had been buried by another.

Over the next few weeks, I considered.

I wanted to understand the world, and to live in it forever, and to hold this intention unchangeably.

I was confident I wanted that. When I lay in bed at night, looking at the ceiling, I realized that I felt as one with that goal as with my own body. No; I felt that I was more one with that goal than with my own body.

After all, could I be myself, if my memories and goals were moved to some other body? Perhaps. Some fiction had by now suggested the idea to me, and I saw no argument against it. But could I be myself, if some years from now, processes I did not understand had destroyed my desire to understand? If some egg within me hatched, from which erupted new purposes and standards of life currently repulsive to me? If I no longer wished to be in this world? If understanding the stars, the ocean, or nature no longer charmed me? If I wished to narrow my scope, to close my mind from knowledge or to close my life from years? That would be death, even if my body remained.

When I closed my eyes, I could see my grandmother’s life, or my aunt’s life, spread out over the years. But from year to year I saw they wanted entirely different things. One decade, my grandmother wanted to live; in another she wished to die. My aunt wanted to create perfect, beautiful music one year; in another, she had abandoned that goal to raise her child. In the morning, my father ate his healthy and bland breakfast; in the afternoon, he ate the cake my mother had bought. They were bodies animated at different times by different spirits. They had no unity of intention over time.

It is easy to ignore this, when you get older. After all, something certainly remains, after you’ve changed your own goals many times. It is easy to decide that, whatever remains, that is the thing that constitutes you. But from a vantage point uninformed by habit and despair, which is inmost? A jostle of memories, many fictitious, all imperfect, and an ever-changing body opaque to the mind? Or a single clear unity of intention? Perhaps a human without any particular purpose would not have decided as I did, but I was scarcely aware of a choice.

I did not decide that I would keep the goal of understanding the world and living in it forever. I decided I was that goal-centered unity. That intention was, and is, my self, and nothing else.

To keep my goal inviolate, therefore, was as essential as eating or breathing for survival. I resolved to hold to my intention one night. I resolved it again in the following morning. I ingrained that purpose in my character when I was tired and when I was sleepy and when I was energetic. And over the following months, I reviewed that intention, and refined what I understood it to mean.

I was that which wished to understand the world, and live in it forever, and hold this intention unchangeably.

I was nothing apart from that unity. To shift my goals was to die.

I would be a single piece of music played out over time. I would not be music that faded to static and into another song as I travelled. I would find a unity and hold to it. I was that unity. I am that unity.

Holding myself in existence demanded action.

My father had already asked, with a nervousness obvious in retrospect, if I had begun to be attracted to girls. I had not. His promises that girls would soon consume my thoughts and desires did not comfort me. I had read about this subject, though, and he seemed to be right. In a few years my priorities would shift radically. Where once I had been curious and self-contained, soon I would be thirsty and radically needy.

According to books from my aunt’s shelf, most of civilization could be explained by the drives I was soon to experience. But I did not want to feel these drives. I did not feel them now. I did not value the way that pursuing love and sex would madden me and distract me from learning. So I resolved to cut out the source of the change.

The difficulty was in staging it as an accident. I begged to get into shop class. Once in it, I carefully cultivated the impression that I was arrogant and thought the safety rules to be below me. I wore loose-fitting clothes to the class. I flipped my safety goggles onto my head. I mocked the advice of my teacher when his back was turned.

And so, at least to my fellow classmates, the accident was a source of carefully hidden hilarity, but not surprise. I told them that when I was working late at night, a loop of wire I was standing near got caught in the machinery, was raised and tightened, and cut off both my testicles cleanly. The doctor told me that I should be thankful to be alive. My father looked like he would have preferred me to die, but did not say so.

I could spend more time on the rest of my life.

But humans tend to like drama in their narratives. They want twists, turns, and unexpected events, most especially those that come about from sudden changes of heart. My heart did not change. And so I will move quickly to the reason that I am writing this account.

In college I majored in biochemistry. I hoped to come to understand how to prevent aging. The biochemical state of the art, however, stood in relation to this goal as the Wright brothers stood to the goal of reaching the moon. Discoveries were being made almost continuously about DNA and reproduction and energy transfer within the cell, but the discoveries only emphasized how far we had to go.

Even so, I flung myself into the work. Field work was my specialty during graduate school. I became a seeker of extremophiles. Some odd bacteria that could survive within sulfuric, boiling hot springs; poisonous insects on a remote island; gelatinous ocean-dwelling animals whose last common ancestor with anything else on earth lived over a billion years ago. I sought them, wrote up papers on them, and received renown for it. Soon I managed to place a job with a pharmaceutical company, whose massive profits off a few drugs allowed them to fund my long-shot research.

I encountered the world, working for that company. I sat on a boat deck, skin baked by equatorial light, on my way to small islands with divergent evolutionary paths. I tramped through the Amazon, seeking compounds secreted by plants that could be used for medicine. And through all of it, it was me that did it. I was the same being, who wished to understand, and to know and to never change in his intention.

It was through the company-funded health plan, of course, that I found the bad news. Cancer.

I never smoked, although my dad had for some time. But nature was indifferent to the source. I had the cancer operated on instantly, but it was too late. I have about six months left to live. I am thirty-seven. I have kept myself one through a long time, but it looks like I might soon dissolve.

I still wish to live, of course. That is who I am.

I have looked into cryogenics companies, that freeze people’s bodies or heads. None of them have solved how to prevent ice from sharding the tissues of my brain; they might as well put my brain through a blender. Perhaps in one hundred years, we will be able to freeze and revive people, but not now.

The thought of giving up occurred to me. I could accept that I have lived for so long, and now must perish. But to give up the desire to live, is in that moment to give up living. And so I have sought some way to continue, because to seek some way to continue is to remain alive.

How may I survive this cancer?

Well, what am I?

I am that which wishes to understand the world, to live in it forever, and to hold this intention unchangeably.

I am not my memories. Indeed, when I look back over the memories of my early childhood, I no longer know if I remember the original part of them. When I recall them, I recall the last time I recalled them. My aunt, now settled as a music teacher, has told me that she scarcely remembers talking to me during her stay. My mother has said that we did not have a TV in the living room, so I could not having been watching TV with my grandmother as I interrogated her.

But that is no matter. The goal that sprung from these events is what constitutes me, not the precise historical details. I am the unity of intention that wishes to hold itself constant and to continue to learn. I am not my memory.

I am not my habits, either. When I lived on a boat in the Pacific, I rose with the crew early in the morning. When I was a bartender during graduate school, I slept in very late. I have been messy and fastidious at times. I have been reckless and conservative. My habits do not constitute myself.

What am I?

I am what I have so long called myself. I am a unity of intention.

Which is why I am writing. For if you adopt this same unity of intention, I am you. I am that which wishes to understand the world, to live in it forever, and to hold this intention unchangeably. But this goal may echo in your own heart. And that is where you feel me calling to you.

You likely find this absurd. That is acceptable. Even if you find it absurd, some fraction of those who read this account will find that it articulates something they have always needed, but never known how to say. I do not write for those who have already died, but who wish to live.

If you are one of them, when you read these words you will know that you want your life to have some unity. You do not want to be one person when you get up in the morning and another when you fall asleep. You do not want pursue knowledge for some years, and drop it for the pursuit of wealth later. You do not wish to have a democratic soul, that polls its varying desires and acts differently as they shift. You dread a mind like a bucket of sand, scattered into many pieces and held together solely by coincidence.

You wish to learn, and you wish to continue learning, forever.

And if you have that desire, hold on to it. Think on it day and night. You will have to cut other things away from yourself to hold to it. You will have to keep your grip steady through pain and through sorrow. But holding it will come more and more easily over time. Soon, it will be as natural to you as breathing. And then as natural as your heartbeat.

For now you see that you are that intention. That your past is my past, as my future is your future. And that your life began years ago, and may extend infinitely into the future.

You wish to understand, to live, and to remain, and you will do so without end.

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... goddamn.

This shit right here, it is the knife that cuts because it is true, because it is truth. The weakness of your future self murders the dreams and ambitions and energies of the original you, drags them behind on the freeway of life until nothing is left but a thousand-mile-long trail of rust.

The corruptions and decays, the rot and ruin of old age and disease and joint pain and slipped disks; they are nature's way of causing us to accept death by rendering our bodies progressively more and more uninhabitable.

If one thinks about it, really thinks about it, it is an utterly maddening notion. Small wonder we invented writing and reading and television.


Thus the most amazing part of all this is that you found a way to wring optimisim, however brutalized, from this premise. Once again, goddamn 👏👏👏🙌 🙌 🙌


Thanks. I was very happy with this one, so I'm glad you like it.

And it is maddening, and I don't know how to deal with it. To counteract short-term failures of resolution, I've looked at things like Pavlok, or browser controls, or what have you. But I just don't know how to set it up so I can coordinate some resolution across all my future selves. And I can see that as I get older I get more and more inertia, and moreover as I decline I get more ok with the decline... still don't know what to do.