Somebody died. Somebody important enough to his family and friends, and to his political cronies, but Somebody who made no real difference in planetary history or to the welfare of the human race, slipped quietly away in his sleep last night. He may be profoundly missed by a few. Many will be inconvenienced by his passing. It will be whispered in certain circles that, in his case, death is a definite improvement. But the rest of us will barely notice. Within a generation at most, he will have been virtually forgotten, and the universe will continue to expand as though he had never lived.
He had been dreaming, at the moment of his departure, about an enduring dispute that had plagued his household since the evening of his marriage to the good Mrs. Somebody. The argument would rage periodically and then subside, only to resurface with renewed vehemence a month or two later. He did not welcome these quarrels, and he had often wished the matter could be resolved once and for all. But it must be an equitable resolution. Above all, justice must prevail — which of course precluded any substantial concession on his part. The one truth, of which he was most certain in this world, was that he had been right from the outset. His bewildered and bewildering wife would have to be the one to give in.
The actual moment of his expiration remains elusive, as it usually does in death from natural causes. Except in rare cases of horrendous trauma, in which extinction is immediate, the separation of the nebulous self from corporeal substance is a gradual process, during which there are long moments when it cannot accurately be stated that the person is either dead or still among the living. Consequently, we can seldom say how long a person has been dead before he begins to suspect that his worldly affairs have been prematurely concluded. In fact, this particular Somebody, for a considerable interval after the cessation of his bodily functions, continued to dream as before.
The first indication that something had come unglued was the gradual dawning of an appreciation for his wife’s side in the previously mentioned argument, and a realization that he may, after
all, have been mistaken in his memory of the trivial episode that had fostered the dispute. We do not mean to imply that people, while they are yet living, tend to remember events in a light more favorable to their own prejudices, but we will concede that, when we disagree over our recollection of certain incidents, it is seldom the other party who flatters our convictions.
So, he had received this very subtle indication of his recent demise. But, as a man uncomfortable with subtlety — as a man who spoke his mind clearly and forcefully, and who expected as much from those around him — he was poorly equipped to recognize the portent. He continued to dream.
In the beginning, he dreamed of his family and close friends — of their various virtues and vices, and of his relationships with them. After a time he began to see with growing clarity, as though he were ascending from a low perspective to higher ground, aspects of his relationships that had previously eluded him. And, from this newfound vantage point, he thought it curious indeed that he had never noticed his wife’s suspicions regarding his extra-marital affairs. Nor, for that matter, had he imagined that she, too, had strayed from the marital bed. There had certainly been suggestions that might have caused him to wonder, but Somebody had been so certain of the way things were — the way things had to be if he was to accept them in his world — that he had never given any of those signs a moment’s notice.
Perhaps more curious still, he calmly accepted this discovery as though his wife and her lovers — even he, himself — had been strangers or characters in a movie. He had always been known for his tendency to shout and stamp his foot whenever he was blindsided by unpleasant news. And calm acceptance was simply not a vice that he indulged. If we should conclude, then, that death may, now and then, improve Somebody’s disposition, it would not be entirely unjustified.
Still, in spite of this unexplained eccentricity of his temperament, he did not suspect the slightest change in his situation. He had no doubt that he would soon waken, and his affairs would continue as before, though he did make a mental note to dismiss the chauffeur in the morning.
He listened a while to the ticking of the hall clock as he had on
so many sleepless nights, first in his father’s house and later, when he had come into his inheritance, in his own home. The ticking of that clock had come to symbolize stability in his chaotic world, and, even during the height of a losing campaign, it had held the power to soothe him to sleep. But soon the whirring of a second clock, an electric doodad that his wife had received from the ambassador of one of those unruly Mediterranean countries, intruded on his consciousness. He had always hated that clock — for no reason that he could have put his finger on — hated it with a consuming passion. Now, of course, it was perfectly clear that his wife had been sleeping with the ambassador at the time, and, even then — though subconsciously — he had known.
In his dream, he rose from his bed and strolled down the hall to his wife’s room. He found he could negotiate the journey without opening either door, as the walls dimmed and dissolved at his approach, offering no resistance to his passage. He recognized that, though this could never happen while he was awake, such expedience is allowed in dreams. And, with neither reflection nor protest, he availed himself of the convenience.
It had been some years since he had watched his wife as she slept, and he found the experience oddly enlightening. He immediately noticed something in her face he had never seen before. He bent over her to examine her more closely in the diminished light as an entomologist would scrutinize a butterfly of a newly discovered species. Yet it took some moments for him to realize exactly what it was that so intrigued him.
He discerned in his wife’s face — in this single moment — the innocence of her childhood, the impiety of youth, the concern of her middle years, and the weariness of advancing age. It was a baby’s face before him, and yet it was the face of his bride on their wedding day. It was the face he had seen over dinner the evening before, and it was the shriveled visage of the dowager she would someday become. He saw her, not as she had been or would be at any single moment of her life, but as the sum of her existence. He beheld the woman in her entirety.
But, this was not the woman he had married. This was not the woman who kept his house, who bore and raised his children, who fed him and picked up after him. This was not the woman he loved.
Of all the many facets of her revealed character, there was precious little here he recognized.
Where was that quiet deference that he had so admired in her?
Where was that eagerness, with which she carried out his wishes? And what of her chastity? He saw before him a liar and a conspirator — a slut who would arch her back and abandon her sullied virtue as easily as she discarded her soiled linen. He saw impudence and rebellion and contempt. This woman knew no shame. This woman . . .
He saw, too, that this woman had never loved him. Oh, it was true enough, in the beginning, she had believed she was in love with him. Blame that on her naivete. She had foolishly fallen in love with the person she thought him to be — that courteous and caring person he had been when he wooed her — the person his constituents had elected to the highest office in the land. Just as the voters had failed to appreciate political subterfuge, she had failed to understand the courting ritual, and she hadn’t taken the trouble to see the real man behind the facade. By the time she had discovered her mistake the first of their four children was already on the way, and, being a product of her generation, she had chosen this deception over fragmentation of the family. But neither naivete nor her family values excused her behavior — this woman had deceived him.
Finally, he reacted as any normal man, upon learning of his wife’s turpitude and guile might be expected to act. Or perhaps it was the implication of his own gullibility that brought him, at last, to boil. He fumed and fulminated and shook his fist at his sleeping wife, and, as she continued to calmly sleep through his harangue, he rose and stomped around the room, waving his arms and screaming the “d” word. “Darn, darn, gosh-darn! Stinky, darn, darn!” Still, his wife did not waken. Spotting that idiotic clock, he strode across to the dresser and took a swipe at it with every intention of knocking it to the floor. The clock dissolved, and his hand passed through the empty air where it had been.
“Well there then now,” he proposed, “this can’t really be happening. Clocks don’t dissolve like that in real life. Dissolving clocks happen only in dreams. And” he reasoned further, “if the clock is a dream, then I am not really here. I’m back in my own bed having a nightmare. Naturally, my wife wouldn’t wake up simply because I dream I’m shouting at her. There she lies, fast asleep, dreaming dreams of her own. Most importantly,” he added, “it is only in dreams that she has cuckolded me.”
He did not appreciate — upon seeing his wife in her eternal essence rather than in the temporal disguise with which she confronts the living world — the implication that time truly is the fourth dimension of space, and that, furthermore, he had acquired the ability to see in four dimensions. It is generally with this realization, that the dearly departed finally come to appreciate the full extent of their situation. And it was precisely at this point that Somebody began to turn his back on life.
* * * * * *
Let us point out at this juncture that, although pious people the world over — no matter the religion to which they may subscribe — firmly believe in the perpetuity of their souls, still in weaker moments they will entertain serious doubts. Atheists, on the other hand, in spite of their insistence that heaven is no more than superstitious hallucination, may cross their fingers at the persistent specter of eternal hell. No one can ever know for certain whether life survives our wretched flesh.
Nor, even if we accept immortality as a given, do we have any understanding of the soul, as a force independent of the body. To tell you that life neither begins at birth nor ends in death, without providing some insight into the nature of that life, would be to utter the most soporific of bromides and to insult the intelligence of the reader. For centuries, philosophers have wrestled in vain over the mind/body problem, and science, preoccupied with galaxies and elementary particles, offers no instruction on the subject. No matter. We shall enlighten you.
Imagine, if you will, that perfection is a pervasive white light consisting of all wavelengths of the spectrum. It is not, however, the spectrum of colors with which we are all familiar. Instead of red, green, and blue, the primary constituents of perfection are truth, beauty, and reason. Secondary constituents then — blends as it were of the primary constituents — would be knowledge, compassion, and curiosity. We might mention a few of the tertiary constituents as well, such as toleration, integrity, perseverance, and loyalty, but we have not set out to catalog an endless list of virtues. We want only to convey a general impression of the nature of the soul. For, indeed, the soul is nothing less than the perfection we have just described.
But, we hasten to add, this is the nature of the soul as it exists independent of the body. It is definitely not what we know as human nature.
To arrive at a rudimentary understanding of human nature, it might be helpful to carry our metaphor one step further, to imagine that the character of each living being — elephant, kangaroo or amoeba — results from the distortion of that perfect light by filtering it through an imperfect window — the body. If that window were perfect, then the character of the person would be as pure and undiminished as the full light of the sun. But, since no sages or saints of our acquaintance even remotely approach perfection, and since we are not concerned with the virtual opacity of the insect or salamander’s body, we shall limit our discussion to the distorted and discolored light with which you and I illuminate our world.
At birth, we were all endowed with a luminescence, equally feeble and clouded, but with varying degrees of potential. The body we inherit may be flawed, with a chemical imbalance that will render us irrational, or an insufficiency of neural pathways in the brain, which will limit our intelligence, or we may be born into unfortunate circumstances with no hope of a decent education.
It is true, of course, that within these physical and circumstantial limitations, we have the ability to brighten and purify our light by tending to the clarity of our corporeal lenses, just as we can stain and diminish our luminescence with prejudice and superstition. But, during our lifetimes, even the most brilliant among us can approach the perfection that death will afford us no nearer than the firefly may approach the sun. And this brief imperfect life, as we have been given to understand it, is but a pale shadow of our enduring essence.
So it was not by embracing death, but by ignoring and denying it, that Somebody began to turn his back on life.
* * * * * *
When Somebody recoiled from the intolerable truth that his wife had been unfaithful and had never loved him, he found it easy to believe that he was simply reacting to an unpleasant dream. Surely there was no disgrace in that. Everyone has unpleasant dreams now and then, and it is only natural to seek escape. Fortunately, this appeared to be one of those lucid dreams that respond to conscious manipulation by the dreamer — a subject on which a number of pseudo-scientific journals have been published recently.
“Anyway,” he said aloud to himself, “in many families — possibly even most families — the apparent love of one spouse for the other is largely ceremonial. The marriage in which both participants love each other equally is largely a romantic fiction.” He certainly didn’t know of any such families. “There will always be one spouse who loves more than he is loved.” he continued. “One will be needed, and the other will have needs. It’s the nature of things. In any exchange between two people, there will always be a winner and a loser. That applies to marriage as well as any other transaction.”
At this point he raised the index finger of his right hand and pivoted, briefly shifting his focus from left to right as though addressing a large audience. “The affection of the child for its parents, on the other hand, is instinctual. A father gives freely of himself, and the child reciprocates with a warm and uncritical adoration. Such associations are as pure and inviolable as anything on this earth.”
At the moment, Somebody felt the need of some pure and inviolable adoration. With no conscious effort on his part, he rose — levitated is perhaps a more descriptive term — from his wife’s bedside and moved by dint of will alone through the dissolving wall and down the long hallway to the east wing where his children slept.
They were no longer children, of course; they all had families of their own now. Though each had established households elsewhere, they had all returned in recent months, as they happily explained, to be near their beloved father. Fortunately, this old house they had grown up in was big enough to accommodate them all — and their families as well.
But, as he neared the east wing, even before the walls began to dim and dissolve at his approach, he sensed a peculiar dissonance, heavy in the air. He had felt this particular dissonance many times in the past — this unadulterated and undisguised greed — but never so strongly as he now perceived it. The term “suffocating” would have applied, had not the cessation of his breathing, some time ago, rendered him immune to suffocation.
He found he could go no farther, and, with a good deal more alacrity than when he had ventured forth, he retreated back down the hall to his own rooms. But, brief though his visit had been, he’d had sufficient time to absorb the thoughts and divine the intentions of his gathered progeny. He realized that they had come, not to be near their beloved father as they had claimed, but to examine his will, each nurturing the hope that their father’s favorite — and beneficiary to a greater share of his accumulated wealth — would prove to be he — or she — for one of them, as he clearly recalled, was a daughter.
He read something else in their thoughts that distressed him even more: His children expected him to die — soon. Well, they were mistaken on that score. That fool doctor had told him only last week that he was healthy as a horse. He had assured him that the weakness and the pain in his side were only temporary inconveniences and that he would enjoy a complete recovery. He had prescribed a nostrum for the pain and told him there was nothing at all to worry about. Those were his exact words: “. . . nothing at all to worry about.” So his heirs were in for a disappointment if they had gathered for the disbursement of his estate.
But when had they grown so callous? They had been such well-behaved children, he remembered; a stern word from him had always quieted whatever deviltry they had been up to. Certainly, as teenagers, they were sometimes sullen and rebellious; that was only to be expected. But he had dealt with it. He had sent them to their rooms whenever they became burdensome. A parent could do no more than that. Shouldn’t they have outgrown their teenage rebellion by now? Good lord, they were all in their thirties — possibly even their forties. He did not enjoy arithmetic calculation, and consequently, he was never sure of their exact ages, but, in any event, they were all full grown. It was time they thought of something besides themselves . . . time they gave a thought to their loving father.
* * * * * *
There is a certain satisfaction to be derived from victimhood — or the perception of victimhood. Indeed, people who have recourse to no more suitable diversion, have been known to nurse an addiction to simpering self-pity. The hallmark of these victims is purposely seeking out known abusers. Parties lacking the faculty of adequate defense against a skillfully articulated accusation soon learn to avoid such people. We could, were we so inclined, divulge the names of any number of such people of our acquaintance, but readers will surely provide examples from their own experience.
* * * * * *
Much as Somebody now and then enjoyed a little self-pity, he was not the sort who wallowed in it. Moreover, on this particular evening, he had already enjoyed his full share of victimhood; he thought it best to bank this latest offense against leaner times to come. Having spent a lifetime acquiring and refining the skill, he banished — for the moment — all unpleasant or discomforting thoughts from his life. Reality, he had long ago learned, need be no more complicated than he would willingly suffer it to be.
Right now he had need of the company of good friends, and, fortunately, he had made good friends all over the world. He determined that, as soon as this horrible dream ended and he woke to a fine new day, he would drop in on his oldest and dearest friend in the entire world. He had known this friend since school; they had been fraternity brothers. Of course, the friend had attended on a scholarship, and would never have been accepted into either the fraternity or the school, itself, if he hadn’t enjoyed an uncanny ability to do well on tests. He hadn’t been “old money”, or even new money, for that matter. Much as Somebody hated to admit it, his old friend had had no breeding at all; his people had been menials — hearty peasant stock, to be sure, but hardly the sort one might seat at the family table.
But Somebody had been big enough to overlook that deficiency, and he even had made sure that his friend had enjoyed sufficient spending money. He was always happy to throw a little work his way: papers to be written, tests to be taken. The friend had shown a remarkable ability to copy Somebody’s signature and looked enough like Somebody to sit in for him at lectures and exams. Following college and the MBA, Somebody had set him up in the family business, not exactly an executive position, of course, but certainly an improvement over what he might have attained relying on his own family contacts. When Somebody had heard the call to serve his country, he’d brought the friend along as an unofficial advisor, not because he actually listened to advice, but primarily because the friend would listen without interrupting, and Somebody had much to say. Every great man should have such a friend. And, finally, he had remembered the friend in his will.
Scarcely had Somebody felt the desire to drop in on his old friend before he found himself in the friend’s apartment. Surprising as this might be in its rapidity, it was doubly so, considering that he had never been to his friend’s apartment before and wouldn’t have known how to find it. Somebody mentally shrugged; this could be possible only in dreams.
Now, however, he sensed the same suffocating animosity and ingratitude that he had earlier encountered in the presence of his wife and children. Moreover, the apartment reeked of the sour smell of ambition; he somehow became aware that the friend had written an unapproved and unflattering biography of his benefactor, and that it contained damning quotations from many other so-called friends. Furthermore, it documented the truth of certain accusations that he had successfully quashed and laid to rest years ago. He knew also that the manuscript had been submitted to the publisher and thoroughly vetted for accuracy.
Somebody would take steps to cut the friend out of his will just as soon as he woke from this nightmare.
* * * * * *
Well, he could survive this. A few selected secrets, carefully whispered in the proper ears, could destroy the credibility of anyone who had contributed to this assault on his character. Anyway, his reputation was secure; no matter what certain scoundrels may write about him, he had managed, by sheer force of will, to chart a new course for the nation, reversing dangerous decisions of previous administrations, rescuing the country from the brink of ruin, reviving and restoring our faith and setting us on the road to renewed and reinvigorated prosperity. No lies they could tell, no mud they could throw, no empty accusations would sully his well-earned place in history.
But reality would not let him be; he had access now to new information — to a deeper understanding than any living person could ever possess — if only he chose to accept it. A glance over his shoulder at the near past would illustrate for him the shallowness of his earthly vision, or a brief look into the future would show just how disastrous his policies had been, and how fortunate it had been for the country that he had been limited to two terms. Even without navigating through time, he could have determined the extent of the contempt in which the people now held him.
The dawn of a bright new day, that perfect sunlight of his eternal soul had risen over the horizon, and he had only to turn his face toward the light. He cast one final glance down at his body, supine upon the bed; then he walked into the closet and closed the door behind him.
* * * * * *
The closet has a light and a mirror, but Somebody prefers the dark. Reality has no power against those who will not accept it. The truth will not force itself upon him. It is there to be had; that’s all. So Somebody remains in his closet. He missed the wake and the funeral. He was not present when his wife married his erstwhile best friend. He ventures out now only in the middle of the night, and he slinks from shade to shadow to avoid being seen. He does not look at the sleeping people he passes in his nocturnal wanderings; he would not recognize them, and he doesn’t want to know these strangers in his house. Occasionally, he frightens small children, who are especially sensitive to his presence, or certain old ladies who suffer from insomnia. But this happens infrequently and only inadvertently. Death has rendered him relatively harmless.
About the author
My stories/essays have appeared in the Eunoia Review: the Blue Lake Review: Firewords Quarterly, the Beorh Quarterly, and The Mensa Bulletin, Buried Letter Press: and Novella T, among others.