NEW FICTION: The Man Who Could Not Die (Chapter 1)
October 5, 2002
First, a few items...
ITEM: My thanks to Brian Scot Johnson at Khepri Comics Online for helping me complete an Incredible Hulk run--and for being a great supporter of indy comics! Please be sure to check out Brian's retail store--you won't be disappointed!
ITEM: This month Sequential Tart! features an ALTERCATIONS preview, with preview pages not available here at the SGC site.
ITEM: This week I'm presenting the first installment of a new serialized story, The Man Who Could Not Die. It will run for the next several weeks, after which Simplify, my first real forray into science fiction, will be serialized.
The Man Who Could Not Die
There are sequoia trees, giant sequoias, in the forests of northern California. Centuries old, they live and grow in the appropriately named Giant Forest and Giant Grove, as well as Adler Creek, the Converse Basin, and various other sites. Massive testaments of nature and creation. Unparalleled in their glory, their sheer magnificence. They are like wooded skyscrapers. Undying and seemingly incapable of death. To truly comprehend their stature, their unprecedented magnitude, one must visit the California forests. I’ve been there twice in my 38 years. Video and still photography will never be capable of properly capturing their brilliance, their God-like dominance over the forests.
There are no giant sequoias in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania. Its climate is simply not conducive to the sequoia’s requirements. The rainfall is too scarce, the summers too hot. I remind myself of this fact several times while standing before and staring up at a half-dozen giant sequoias atop a hillside in the Pocono Mountains. The trees are positioned in a manner that, if an observer stood on high and drew a line connecting each tree to the other, the lines would form a circle. The diameter of this circle would be approximately 60 yards—this is merely an estimate.
There is little difference in the size of each of the giant trees. They all stretch to the sky like children reaching for the stars. Though one of the six trees appears old than the others, its bark a bit darker, its roots somewhat more pronounced. To the left of the tree is a hand shovel, partially buried in the ground enabling the shovel to balance unaided. There is rust, thick like sugar icing and orange like an Arizona desert morning, on the shovel’s metal handle and blade. The wooden stem is withered with age, any protective finish it may have once had has long since faded.
The grass atop the hillside is several inches thick, perhaps as many as seven or eight inches. Standing in the center of this circle the surrounding view is one of peace and tranquility. The mountains in the distance are lush, green tapestries, the clouds, fluffy like cotton, hang lazily in the sky, obscuring the sunlight for brief moments. The sun is comfortable and warm, typical of the Pocono spring.
The sequoia trees are not typical. They should not be here. I tell myself this while walking toward the tallest of the six.
A family, I think to myself. A family of trees. A family.
I press my unshaven face against the bark of the great sequoia. My fingers touch the tree and I reach out to embrace its approximate 80 foot circumference, as if such a feat were possible.
In front of me I see it now. I hadn’t seen it earlier even though I’d been here for several hours. But as early afternoon grew to late afternoon, and as the sun again peaked through cotton clouds and a long shadow fell behind the eight-inch blades of grass, it became obvious. A patch of ground, approximately seven feet by four feet, was somewhat raised—was not quite flush with the earth as it should have been. As if a hole in the earth had been had been dug—perhaps with a rusted hand shovel—and then recovered, though with little care for neatness and order. I kneeled down alongside the previously uprooted earth. It became more pronounced upon closer inspection. There were thick patches where no grass grew, or grew unevenly in comparison with the rest of the grass upon the hillside. And the earth that was raised, I’d seen a similar sight before—years earlier—when I used to walk with my parents through the cemetery. I learned at a young age what the freshly patched holes in the earth meant.
I touched the earth. It was solid. The rusted shovel a few feet distant. The great sequoia slightly behind me. I laid down on the ground, not atop the raised earth, but alongside it. Laid down and stared up at the sky, the cotton clouds, the trees. I imagined the magnificent shadow this one tree must cast each day at dawn. The perfect place, I thought, for a picnic. The perfect place for a grave.
I removed the journal from the back pocket of my denim jeans. It is, not unlike the jeans, faded, worn, and dirty. The once black cloth binding of the palm-sized book is now a charcoal gray. The gold foil-stamped lettering centered across the front of the book reads “JO RN L.” The lettering is badly flaked, no gloss remains. It was this book that brought me here, to the Pocono mountains, on a beautiful day in April. I would have otherwise been at my office, in Philadelphia, copy editing what can best be described as utterly inane and mundane articles about nursing staff development, topics in case management, and a myriad of legislation and regulation features regarding the home care industry. The work is pathetically uninspired by authors who are not authors in the purest sense. The quality of the manuscripts is often incomprehensible that I am aghast that the works are “peer reviewed.”
But I am not in Philadelphia. I am in the Pocono mountains. Atop a hillside. Lying on my back in a circle of giant sequoia trees that should not be here. Lying next to what I believe is a grave. Holding in my hands a book that has brought me here—a personal journal of a man whom I believe lies buried several feet below me. A man who cannot die but who is dead. A man who cannot die.
It is his journal. Within its weathered and withered pages is the story of his life, at least as he’s told it. If the words are true, it is an astounding tale. Yet how does one verify another’s words as truth or fabrication. Perhaps I find his story fascinating because, as a writer of fiction, I immerse myself in the super-heroic genre, and his life is shadowed in feats typically confined to the exploits of masked avengers in four-colored publications.
Perhaps I just find his life’s story interesting, period.
I would like to tell you a fascinating story as to how I acquired the journal. I would like to explain how it arrived mysteriously one afternoon with the mail even though it was Sunday and there was no mail delivery; or how I’d been walking through the Wissahickon trail last October and stumbled upon an old, semi-abandoned mine shaft, and how I curiously stepped across the barricades and into the mine shaft and how I found a skeleton in whose bony fingers rested this torn, beat-up book; or how I was on vacation with Dianne at Martha’s Vineyard and on the third day of our getaway a violent storm swept up the east coast, so violent, in fact, that the roof of the bed and breakfast in which we were lodging was ripped apart and we were lucky to escape alive, and how, upon sifting through the rubble the following morning we’d found an old, iron box, the interior of which was lined with velvet upon which rested the mysterious, faded black JO RN L.
But those notions are fictitious.
The truth, the plain truth, is that the journal was purchased in March during a block-wide yard sale in Manayunk. It was purchased, along with several vintage Halloween decorations, a wooden soup spoon, and a 1970s clock radio molded in lime green plastic, for all of $8.00. I made no inquiries as to where the owner of the journal had acquired it. Initially, I was mainly interested in the book’s endpapers, which were of a blue marble design. I intended to scan the endpaper for use in an electronic image. Instead, I found myself more interested in the words between the endpapers. Fact or fiction, I kept asking myself as I read through the pages of the book. Fact or fiction?
This question began to consume me, it burned in me like a canker, like a pain an impassioned lover feels when his or her love is rejected by another, like a quest that has no end.
Except this quest had an end. It was written down on paper. It was written right there upon the pages of the JO RN L. A definitive ending and a way to assess the question of fact or fiction. Which is what brought me here to the Pocono mountains, away from my uninspiring desk job, away from the city. To a circle comprised of six giant sequoias that should not be here but are—exactly as noted in the journal. To what appears to be a recently dug grave beneath the greatest of the great trees—exactly as noted in the journal.
Fact or fiction? I will leave that decision to the reader as I’ve lost my objectivity. I want only to believe. The words that appear below are not a “diary” in the purest sense of the word. The entries were not entirely written in sequential order but I have arranged them as such for clarity and continuity. It is difficult (for me at least) to ascertain when the journal’s chronology began. The monologue is more representative of a memoir than a journal. One note about the wording: The text is that of the author. The journal entries are largely written in the first person, as if the author were speaking/writing to himself or to a friend. There is, at times, little regard for style. I interpret this not as a handicap of the author’s acumen, but a result of steam of consciousness scripting, as though he was viewing his own existence as something akin to a book or movie. The few headings that appear are not those of the author. I added them as I felt necessary for clarity and structure (blame the editor in me). They are intended to provide logical breaks in the narrative rather than interrupt its flow. I have not altered the text except to correct misspellings, of which there were a few.
Fact or fiction? You tell me...
Monday. I am the man who cannot drown or be drowned. I know this even before I step into the water and sink beneath its chlorinated waves. I sink slowly until my body at last comes to rest at the bottom of the 15 foot pool. I breathe in, the water rushing through my nose and throat and filling my lungs. My face, I’m sure, wears a grimace of pale indifference. I exhale and then sit on the floor of the pool, the sunlight shining high above brightly. And despite the water’s depth I cast a shadow on the cement base of the pool. My chest slightly rises and falls as I unconsciously inhale and exhale. I would welcome drowning. But what can I do? I am a man who cannot be drowned.
There is a hillside in the Pocono Mountains, one of many. But atop this hillside are giant sequoias—six of them. They form a circle. The trees are not native to Pennsylvania nor suited for the climate, the harsh winters and dry summers. But I’ve taken special care to ensure their survival. At the foot of five of the six trees are graves, in which the following individuals are buried: My parents, my wife, and our two children. My father died at the age of 82, my mother, 79. My wife survived 77 short years on the earth before succumbing to cancer. My son, Joshua, was a pilot for a major airline. His jet exploded high above the Atlantic coast in 1955; he was 59 years old. My daughter, Janey, died of pneumonia at the age of 92. Janey’s death was the most recent, occurring just over a decade ago. It was at that time, after I’d lost my last known living relative, that I’d brought, at an uncalculated expense of time and effort—both mine and Peter’s— the giant sequoias to the Pocono mountains, that I exhumed the graves of these five individuals I’d loved, and brought them here to this calming place and buried each of them beneath one of the great trees. Five trees, five graves.
The sixth tree I’ve reserved for myself.
Only my continued survival is keeping the circle from becoming complete, from achieving closure. I’ve already dug the grave—my grave. I lie in it at night on occasion, partially burying myself in the damp, cold earth. The spiders and earth worms are unobtrusive companions who unselfishly share their world with me; I in turn, try not to disturb their home. There is an unparalleled tranquility here at night, in the cold ground, with the earth worms and spiders by my side. I sleep and dream dreams of death. But in the morning I awake; the tranquility is fleeting. The dreams remain only dreams. Existence has no ending to a man who cannot die.
It is not to say I am impervious to pain. No. I can hurt, bleed, and suffer inflictions the same as anyone else. But I have never felt, never experienced, the pain associated with aging—with growing old. The aching back pain that worsens with each passing winter. The tightness of one’s knee joints that causes the simple act of descending a stairwell to become a daily challenge. The numbness of fingers while performing a simple task such as writing a letter, or mending a damaged sock. The increasing reliance on stronger and more powerful corrective lenses.
These physical sensations are denied me and inasmuch, I suppose I am fortunate. But I am a man who knows well the emotional pain of isolation, of denial. I am an individual who has the physical appearance of a man in his late 30s or, at most, early 40s. Yet, in 2000 I turned 150. One-hundred fifty years. Two—perhaps three—lifetimes.
Too long. Too long for anyone.
It is shortly before the dawn of the 20th century, I am 40 years old and am employed by the Charles Brothers Mining Company of Wheeling, West Virginia. I live with my wife and our two children in a small, run-down home owned by the mining company. I work 12-hour shifts, six days per week. On Sundays I work 6 or more hours. The mines are dark and perilous. My son, Joshua, age six, works the mines also. Ten hours per day, every day, from 8:00 pm to 6:00 am. I see my boy perhaps 8 hours per week, often less. Our combined incomes are barely enough to pay for the company house—which is small and dirty—and the groceries, clothing, water, and other small amenities needed.
June 23, 1882: The southern most shaft of the Hawkingsworth mine collapses, the result of an ill-planted explosive device. There are 17 fatalities including four children. I am thankful Joshua is not among the dead or trapped. I am among the lost. We are buried alive nearly a half-mile below the earth’s surface. In darkness. The death surrounds us. There is precious little air. We do not speak to one another but for the occasional cry for help. Lanterns are quickly extinguished to conserve oxygen.
One of the miners, a fat, mountain of a man named Collingshead—who joined the mining company just one week earlier—wheezes heavily. There are five of us, including Collingshead. In the enclosed area of our entrapment, his breathing is amplified, a constant reminder of our predicament. I cannot see. None of us can see. There is only darkness and death and the heavy wheezing of a frightened, obese man. Time has little meaning, and I begin praying in silence, knowing that my time of death is near. The air will soon be gone and we will, all of us, suffocate in the darkness beneath the earth.
As the minutes drag and ascend into hours, the others begin to lose patience with Collingshead. Yet despite their threats the portly man continues to wheeze in the darkness. There is movement as the three men trapped with me descend violently upon Collingshead like an angered mob. Shortly thereafter he wheezes no more. They continue to pummel the felled man, oblivious to my actions. I am digging on hands and knees through the rubble and the darkness. I stop momentarily and tie a handkerchief over my nose and mouth before proceeding. I dig frantically, yet with a sense of reason and calm logic. My trapped coworkers continue to beat their associate. There is a sound that may or may not be breaking bone and then silence except for the digging. The other men hear me but are too spent with exhaustion to speak, much less help. Further, I fear their anger may next be targeted toward me. I continue to dig in silence and when, at last, I’ve fashioned a small escape route, I slide through it mere seconds before it collapses upon itself, forever separating me from my murderous colleagues.
I am still far from freedom—still buried alive. The skin of my fingernails has separated from my fingers. The pain is intense. My fear begins to overshadow my former calmness as the urgency of my situation mounts. My hands are wet with blood. I bite the cloth of the handkerchief to help withstand the pain and continue digging like a dog searching desperately for a bone. I become frantic. So much so that at first I do not notice the green glowing rocks through which I dig. Suddenly, I stop. I hold one of the strange luminescent stones close to my face. Despite the radiance of the stone, my hands—covered as they are in blood and soot—are like two massive silhouettes. The rock is no larger than my palm, yet is unlike any stone I’ve previously seen. I can neither explain why it glows nor what significance, if any, the glow has. The instinct to survive soon replaces my bewildered curiosity, and I resume the task of digging toward freedom.
Yet as I continue I find more glowing stones. The layers of green radiant rock appear to be never ending. The glow lights up the blackness of the mine shaft, and I see the bodies of colleagues, none of whom, having been crushed by falling debris, are among the living, and still I continue to dig through coal and glowing green stones.
I emerge, like Lazarus, from the cold earth not hours but days later. Days. All hope of recovering survivors had been abandoned. Aside from weight loss and surface injuries on my hands and fingernails, I am unharmed. The local newspaper reports my survival as “miraculous.” I do not speak to the news staff regarding my survival aside to say “I’m lucky, I guess.” I do not speak of glowing stones,
Collingshead’s murder, or the horror of clawing through the wet, cold earth. I am not asked nor do I explain how I was able to claw through a half-mile of rock-hard earth barehanded. I am not asked nor do I explicate how I survived without food, air, or water for three consecutive days.
But I think of these things. I think of them often, particularly at night, when the darkness surrounds me. Though even the darkest room on the most starless of nights is but a fraction of the darkness I recall from my ordeal, and in the deepest recesses of my mind I see the glowing green. I hear the wheezing of Collingshead grow ever fainter. I hear the splintering of bone. There are bodies on the floor of the collapsed mine shaft. There is blood and soot on my hands as I scrape the cold, unforgiving earth.
I will never again descend into the mines.
Astonishingly, the Charles Brothers offer me a job at the company store. I can only attribute their kindness to either a feeling of guilt or, most likely, a token gesture to demonstrate their compassion. The pay rate is the same as my former wage and the work is infinitely easier. The widows of the miners who died in the Hawkingsworth mine receive no compensation for their loss.
NEXT: The Man Who Could Not Die continues.
cool sites to visit:
Dragonberry's Comic Art Links Directory
Paul D. Storrie online!
Sean McKeever online!
Comic Shop News online!
firstworldwar.com, an extensive and highly detailed site featuring a chronology of the "War to end all wars."