Content Warning: self-harm, religious trauma, murder
The main obstacle to immortality is not in the body, but in the mind.
Allow me to explain. Science has advanced far in the past few decades; the neuron doctrine, microbe theory, the discovery of the X-ray, all have moved us closer to understanding the human condition. Professor Grigg, my close friend and advisor, has been at the forefront of research on the infirmities that plague the end of our lives, attempting to discover the natural, uninterrupted course of human life when one is kept free of disease and injury. I believe the experiment was passed down to him from his predecessor, Professor Sharp, and consists primarily of an old man in the University basement, fed three times a day by graduate students and kept free from all potentially injurious circumstance as Professor Grigg carefully measures his physiological signs, writes them in a thick, ruled notebook, and waits for him to die. As far as I know, he is still alive as I write this, and is quite a pleasant conversationalist, especially on the topics of horse-racing and Tolstoy. But this is not a story about him.
Through sifting through Professor Grigg’s notes and the vast reserve of biometric information he collected, I stumbled upon a small inconsistency — a correlation that should not have been there, an odd implication, that upon examination unfolded into a delicious secret, maddeningly simple but containing far-reaching consequences. It was what every scientist hopes to find. The problem in Professor Grigg’s notes led me deep into the library and through the catacombs of the city, into the University’s laboratories and surgical theatres, until I had what I believed to be the secret to eternal life: a combinatorial approach, tracing back directly to Plato’s Symposium — a way to preserve, not just the physical health, but the will to live, beyond the natural life span and potentially into infinity.
The basic premise is as follows: two people’s essences, united and feeding off of each other, sustaining one another. Immortality, in a sense, as long as the two are combined. It was a daring hypothesis, though not entirely unselfish, for at the time I was thinking of Hector Kingsley, my husband of five years. Although we were prevented from legal union, we lived as though we were married, and had exchanged silver cufflinks in lieu of wedding rings just after we graduated in 1879. I remember it as the happiest year of my life.
It feels false to even speak his name now, after everything that happened, but for much of my life those were the most beloved syllables I could utter. I don’t think I ever truly understood Hector, and I know he didn’t understand me, but we once had a blissful domestic life near the University where I was pursuing my doctoral studies — the immortality project, of course, being my crowning discovery. I still find it difficult to imagine what I was thinking back then, all of the delicate designs we had drawn on the future, the careful complacency of an eternity combined with the desperate rush towards it. If I could do it all over again, I would start with this: I would never have brought the boy into our house.
It was an unfortunate incident, on that Hector and I agreed. I had not yet discovered my combinatorial hypothesis, foolishly believing that merely preserving the body would allow one to achieve the desired longevity, without provisions for the exchange and multiplication of life energy. I acquired a boy from a local poorhouse, knowing that his youth would give me the greatest chance of success, and perhaps morbidly aware of the fact that nobody would come looking for him.
“I’ve always loved last names as first names,” was the first thing Hector said when I brought the boy home. The boy was a strange little sprite of 12 years, with black hair that looked like it had been burnt off in places and a round nose that seemed to be perpetually red with some kind of cold. I had asked Hector beforehand not to name him, remembering how Hector got so attached to that old balding pair of kid gloves or that hideous green moulding on the edge of the drawing-room — anything that was uselessly sentimental. Nevertheless, within the week he greeted me over breakfast with a matter-of-fact “Piaget would like an extra blanket in his room.” When I asked him whether he meant the boy, he gave me a halfhearted shrug, as though that had always been the boy’s name and I was stupid to have forgotten it. The boy never talked to me, only to Hector. Most of what I remember about him before the experiments is the uncomfortable feeling that as soon as I left the room something would start to breathe again.
As I began my experiments, a slight miscalculation on my part sent the boy into a deep coma, unresponsive to pain and pleasure alike. To an untrained eye like Hector’s, he appeared to be in a deep slumber. I transferred him to the upper bedroom to see if he would recover, and, to be honest, quite forgot about him. Several months later, at the beginning of winter, I discovered that Hector had been feeding the boy, and the pale thing was still alive at the top of the stairs — more than that, he hadn’t aged a day. It was a thrilling confirmation of my preservation technique, but Hector seemed quite offended that I hadn’t known that someone was feeding him, and we had a terrible argument that I hesitate to repeat here. I said some unwise things about his family, he insulted my empathy, and he left to go on a walk, as he often does when we argue.
When Hector’s family formally ended relations with him, he was engaged to some flighty girl who was always away — away in Nice, away in Florence, trying to ‘find herself.’ His parents wanted him to tie her down and have a big, robust family, one to carry on his father’s business. I think some part of him still hears his mother’s waspish voice harping in his ears, and that is why he displayed that feminine partiality for children. In fact, one of his ideas for my thesis topic was some way for us to have children — “boys with brown curls and girls with your green eyes!” — his smile wide and open in that way that always made me feel guilty without being aware of why. Of course, he eventually agreed that a true immortality would be far superior than entering the genetic lottery and risking a mewling crop of dullards that might combine the worst of both of our qualities. Intelligence, I reminded him, is hardly reliably heritable, and what is the point of making copies to send into an uncertain future when we could see it ourselves?
Nevertheless, I think that is why Hector grew attached to the boy — why he sat by his bedside to write all through that winter, and tended to his material needs, such as they were. It was clear that despite all my cautionary urgings, Hector had believed that I would be successful on the first try — that nothing worse could happen to the boy than a comma in the wrong place or a dangling article. Hector’s craft has no unintended casualties, no unexpected outcomes. The only thing it consumed was time, and far too much of it, in my opinion. I often heard the scratching of his pen permeating the walls, like the mouse-feet that scurried over us at night, but was only rarely permitted to glimpse his work – and when I did it was often too obtuse for me. I like practicalities, things you can touch and change. Hector’s writing was like an intangible ghost-world, diaphanous and vague. Nevertheless, he kept getting published, and as long as he kept getting published, he would continue to write.
There is a fundamental difference, Hector writes, between a relationship in which one can distinguish the first time one said I Love You and a relationship in which one cannot. The beginning of my acquaintance with Edmond was easy and natural, like water falling to the lowest point and beginning to carve a canyon — we lived in the same dormitory in our first year at school. I remember watching him during commencement — the way he flicked hair out of his eyes, then winced, as though hearing someone scold him for indulging in a bad habit.
Maybe it was said one evening when a drop of candle-wax threatened to dribble over my Cicero and his chilblained hand darted out to catch it, and he insisted so stridently that it didn’t hurt that I could tell it hurt a great deal. Maybe it was after a roaring party in the common room, when he told me my hair looked like the fields of his hometown and buried his face in it, assuring me it smelled like fresh cut hay and meadowfloss. First moments blend together like that; all that keeps them in order is a growing headiness, something like what my mother says she feels in church — an encounter with something so much bigger than oneself it inspires a mix of mindless happiness and mindless terror, and you are suddenly aware that you are an animal, trying to focus on the warm spots of his fingers on the back of your neck and the one hair above his silvery lips that scratches your nose when he kisses you and the way your breathing never quite seems to line up, the way his lungs are smaller than yours, the way you can go up four more stairs than he can on the way to chapel.
But there is a horror, too, in this — in the feeling of slowly, piece by piece, losing your ability to be yourself, of twining your life together with someone else’s as intimately and irrevocably as the sides of a wound, held in limbo between separation and union like the place on the horizon where the sky and sea meet — two reflections, two great bowls of sky, containing the same substance but unable to break that last fragile barrier and become one. It is a joyful, almost gleeful self-maiming, becoming a new self that does not belong to you.
When you truly fall in love, it is something like this: you will never again be anything but beloved or ex-beloved.
I think it all would have ended differently were it not for the matching writing desk and endtable set.
When Hector and I got our first flat together at the end of our second year, we knew that we would want a handsome writing desk, the kind that my father had in his study, with secret compartments and little brass keys that he kept on his watch fob. And we knew that we would want a set of endtables, the kind one might set their teacup on in the evenings. Both of us sharing an affinity for unique, unusual aesthetics, and irresistibly tempted by the low price set by a carpenter trying to get rid of them, we got them in a hideous pattern of blond and brushed-maple wood — myself purchasing the end tables, and Hector the writing desk, as he was still largely financed by his parents and could afford the greater portion.
When I began to suspect that he was hiding things from me, I considered confronting him about it, but I never did. It wasn’t because I feared him leaving me. By running it through my mind over and over, I eventually convinced myself that I would be perfectly fine if he leveled his dark brows at me and told me that I had to choose between my work and him — that afterwards I would have my ambitions, and my resolve, and really, couldn’t I find someone as good as he was, with a mind like mine, and my looks — not handsome, perhaps, but striking, with a certain lopsided charm?
But every time I fell too far down this gyre, to the point where I was itemizing our house and trying to remember who had bought those ivory cameos on the mantle, I came upon the problem of the endtables. I had purchased them, of course, so I would take them, and Hector would take the writing-desk, as was his due. But somehow the thought of being the sole owner of half of a matching writing desk and endtable set struck me as so hopelessly and desperately sad that I would abandon the thought at once and go into Hector’s room to lean my head against his thigh, so he would twine his fingers through my hair while he thought up his next paragraph.
Perhaps it is easier to separate oneself from one’s worries because there is no way to purchase a matching writing desk and endtable set with them.
As the greyish slush of December turned into crisp January evenings, Hector began to warm up to my research again. At the time, I interpreted it as a sort of apology: he knew he had been in the wrong about the boy, and wanted to make it up to me. After I came home from Professor Grigg’s office, we would eat dinner together and he would ask me about what I had done during the day. I was terribly isolated from my fellow doctoral candidates at the time, many of whom had heard only the barest summary of my work — a situation which, I’ll admit, was partially my fault, as I was attempting to keep my project under wraps as long as possible. The half-baked hearsay passed around the lab seemed sensational and easy to mock — immortality! They must have seen me like some misguided alchemist searching for his philosopher’s stone. Hector’s interest in my work came as a welcome antidote to the suspicious looks and indulgent smiles I received every day. Sometimes he even wrote down what I was saying, in his messy half-scrawled handwriting, and interspersed it with his own stories.
Of course, I was foolish to think he had a selfless interest in my work, even if I was conducting it for his benefit. One evening, he called me up to the boy’s room. When I walked in, I was horrified to discover many of my home laboratory materials arranged haphazardly around his bed, with microscopes and magnifying glasses strewn across our chairs and chests of drawers. Hector’s hair was in a cloud around his head, and the whites of his eyes seemed red-tinted in the firelight.
“He can hear us,” Hector said breathlessly, and pointed me towards a spindly contraption of brass and wire that was poised over the boy’s finger.
“Why did you touch my instruments?” I said.
“Listen,” Hector said. The contraption didn’t move. His voice grew soft and tender as he knelt next to the bed. “It’s alright, Piaget, you can show him. Show him what we practiced.”
The image of Hector’s soft eyes turned towards the half-corpse on the bed was too much for me to bear, and I felt my face grow hot.
“This has gone far enough,” I said. “It’s ridiculous. Hector, he’s just a… an unfortunate casualty of an experiment gone awry. I should have gotten rid of him after the first week.”
“Gotten rid of him?” Hector’s eyes flared. “Like he’s a used pipette, or a cracked lens! Gotten rid of him!”
“A poor choice of words,” I said, lowering my voice. “But there’s no use in this… this obsession. You don’t have the proper training– you’re as likely to hurt him as help him.”
Hector was still watching the contraption, but the enthusiasm seemed to have gone out of him. He nudged the instrument, and it made a single pathetic mark on a notebook below it.
“I suppose I don’t. But you do. Can’t this be your thesis? Undoing it?”
“Instead of immortality for the both of us? Instead of eternal life? Wouldn’t you rather live forever with me than heal some strange boy?”
Hector’s face was still, but after another few moments, he nodded.
“You’re right. Of course. That must be better.”
He was always a wonderful liar. I put a hand on the small of his back.
“He won’t be like this forever. Once I’ve perfected the technique for the two of us, I’ll be able to set him right again. We’ll have all the time in the world.”
He didn’t respond, moving to start cleaning up the lenses and notes on the floor. He spent more time in the boy’s room after that argument, working on a story that he wouldn’t let me see. Sometimes, late at night, I felt the bed shift beneath me and knew he was going upstairs to check on him. I didn’t like thinking about the cold body of the boy, and Hector writing next to him, as the candles burned low and the fire smoldered in the grate. Usually I would turn over and go to sleep, but sometimes I heard him talking quietly, and imagined I could hear the boy answer back.
A few weeks later, Hector stirred from our bed early in the morning. When he didn’t climb back in after his usual trip to stoke the fire, I opened my eyes and saw him standing by the window of our room, the watery grey light from an impending dawn picking out the wrinkles in his face more than usual. For the first time in a while, I remembered that we were growing older, that I had a constant ache in my spine from lifting too many files in my days as an undergraduate and a half-mangled earlobe from my sister’s youthful enthusiasm for settling arguments through biting. Hector was not without his own physical infirmities either— a whitish scar on his forehead and a chronic rash on his shoulders, imperfections that would plague us into eternity. How many more injuries would we sustain before I finished? I resolved to spend the day in my study, but padded over to him to indulge in a moment’s calm. I took in the dreary street outside, the fishmonger beginning to set out his wares, clutching his oilskin tighter against a constant light drizzle that tinted the air white. Hector’s eyes were unfocused, as though he was looking at the glass instead of through it.
“What are you afraid of?” he said, his voice still morning-thick.
“I don’t particularly care for those new trolley mechanisms — the ones that sound like they’re going to fall apart any second? Ghastly things. Occasionally I have nightmares about going to a dinner party and not being able to find my seat.” I let my question go unspoken, and Hector picked up on it easily, a well-used conversation.
“No, with your work. Death. Why are you so afraid of it?”
I scoffed. “I’m hardly the first man to be afraid of death. I’d argue the opposite outlook is far more concerning.”
“Enlighten me. It’s for a story.”
This was a game Hector liked to play, one of the first things about him that truly charmed me — he liked listening to me explain things in their minute detail, even the most obvious facts. Why did women wear corsets? What were the stars made out of? Why were humans superior to animals? I hadn’t seen any of my explanations work their way into his writing, but he insisted that they were valuable context. I smiled at him and leaned my shoulder against the window, though his eyes were still on the street outside.
“So much of mankind’s folly and mistakes come from a lack of time. The wasted expense of rearing children, petty academic squabbles over publication, the infighting and backstabbing of family politics — all of them are directed towards one goal: making something that will reach the future. By evading this most essential flaw, I will be able to dedicate my life fully to my work, and my ideas will benefit future generations, not as a cold and lifeless manuscript, but through my own flesh and blood.”
“That’s not a fear.”
Hector’s distant gaze was beginning to frighten me. When I took his hand in mine, his skin felt colder than the remaining splinters from the firewood.
“Alright, if you’ll force it from me. I’m afraid for whichever one of us dies last.” I pressed my fingers into the spaces between his knuckles. “You must have thought about it. Being the last one left behind, living half of a life? At least the dead can slip off into oblivion, but the other has to stay and feel their loss.”
Hector finally took his eyes away from the window, and smiled at me, the cold grey light making his lips seem more vividly red than ever, as though they were seeping into the skin around them.
“Me, too. I wouldn’t want to be left behind.” He paused, drawing me closer. “Is that really what you think happens after we die? Just… nothing?”
“I’ve never seen any evidence to the contrary. Have you?”
Hector pressed his lips together, a habit of his when he was formulating words he didn’t want to say. He told me once that I kiss his hands when I’m doing the same thing. Finally, he said, “I sometimes get nightmares about falling.”
“So do I!” I said. “I always wake up just as I hit the ground.”
Hector was shaking his head. “They don’t end when I hit the ground. The dream keeps going. I watch you wake up and realize I’m dead, and see you leave the room, and come back with a pair of strong men who wrap me up in a bedsheet, but I get pulled away as soon as they touch me, to some deep dark place where someone tells me every time I’ve ever hurt another person. I realize I’m in hell, and I’ll be there forever, feeling every moment of happiness I felt on earth multiplied a hundredfold and turned into pain.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said, as comfortingly as I could manage.
Hector nodded slowly, pressing his fingers against mine.
“I know. Forget I said anything.”
At the time, I couldn’t come up with why it was so ridiculous, only that it was. I was an expert in medicine and chemistry, not theology, and my parents had raised me in a kind of loose Protestantism that involved more breezy Christmastimes in the countryside than firm moral edicts. Hector and I had discussed religion, of course, but usually in the same way we discussed any number of things we both had vague experience with but no particular interest in, like botany and astronomy. I knew he attributed a sense of guilt and shame — or perhaps obligation would be the better word — to his Catholic upbringing. He described it to me once in our undergraduate years, when he failed an examination and he came back to our dorm room hours later, a bloody rag pressed to his forehead where he had smashed it into the flagstones of Hertford Bridge. “Over and over,” he said smugly, as I tried to get him to let me see the extent of the damage. “Until I made up for it.”
He said it was like two parts of his mind were connected that shouldn’t be, like the path that forms across the corner of a lawn when people don’t feel like walking the extra five feet to the intersection. He had a fever that night in University, and as he twisted the sheets around himself, he murmured that he wanted a priest with soft white hands to settle a crown of thorns onto his head and force it through his skull, or someone with a kind, firm voice to tell him that his sin is just too great this time and he must be sacrificed. He pulled up his shirt in the greasy tallow-light, and showed me where he wanted them to cut him open, indicated the places on his face where he wanted the motes of color from the stained glass to fall as the blood drained from his body. He knew, by the time we were married, that this self-destruction is not an apology, that it doesn’t fix anything — it had been many years since he’d manifested this particular madness. I didn’t understand it then, and still don’t, but I do wonder if perhaps during those long, winter months in the study he was attempting to find another way to kill his guilt, to exchange pain for his peace of mind.
Love is not a static state. Happiness is. This is one of the great tragedies of life, Hector writes. To fall in love is to know a person completely while keeping him a complete stranger, to construct the perfect combination of flaws and virtues and believe in it more fervently than any religion. You can never know someone, not completely, nor can you possess them — and they, too, know you without knowing you, so that the two of you shudder and waver like two ships attempting to bring themselves into alignment on the water, making endless, minute adjustments and compromises in an attempt to fit together, while knowing any carelessness could capsize you both. You decide that you must have disliked cinnamon all this time, or that you really don’t mind giving up your trips to the Continent, or that you never wanted children in the first place. You slice away bits of your life until one day you open your eyes and realize that the person you loved has become someone new, and you have also become someone new, and these new, strange people may not even like each other, much less love each other.
Sometimes this happens all at once, instead of in pieces. Sometimes you really believed in the way he lectured, with a slight jutting-out of his lower lip in a way that evokes a Roman scholar and flying hands that hang ideas in the air as though he is seeing a vast constellation of connections that the rest of us can only guess at, the way he stumbles over his words when he’s too excited. Sometimes you saw yourself the way he saw you, an inseparable but slightly inferior part of him, a morning glory wrapped around a yew branch. Sometimes you see all of his flaws at once, the way a log hides its fractures until the last strike splits it, and you decide that you must do something even if it will hurt you more than him. This is another of the great tragedies of life. Sometimes it is the person who will be hurt the most who must strike first.
I believe I wouldn’t have done it if the fire hadn’t gone out.
Hector was in town, purchasing a new set of covers for the armchairs in the dining room. My work was at its completion, almost at the point of being submitted to Griggs for review, and we had both decided it was time to address some of the many irritating but not urgent problems with our living space. I was in my study, trying the finishing touches on the procedure, when the fire went out. I had been so absorbed in my work that I had barely noticed the cooling, and when I went to add more wood, I realized that there was none in the usual scuttle. The closest room was the boy’s, so I decided with distaste to enter it and borrow a log or two.
The upstairs bedroom was always slightly too small for the furniture in it — like most married couples, we called it a ‘guest room’ when it was really a repository for anything that didn’t match the rest of the house — and I felt like I had to pass uncomfortably close to the boy in order to get to the fireplace. He looked as ghastly pale as usual, though otherwise unchanged, and I again congratulated myself on the success of my physical preservation. However, as I passed by the side of his bed, I noticed that Hector had left a draft of his story on the side table. It included a fair amount of mediocre philosophizing on the nature of love, though there were misgivings about my character that I was surprised to see he hadn’t told me about. However, near the end, the pages took a more concerning bent, with detailed notes on my activities in the lab and my study, and row after row of entries about the boy’s condition. With dread, I realized that he had been formulating my technique without me — not for me and him to partake of, but him and the boy, united in immortality. He seemed not to relish the idea, but to view it as his moral obligation, and hardly made a mention of where that would leave his devoted husband.
What I did next was rash, I’ll admit. On some measure I regretted not getting rid of the boy earlier, when it was clear that he was no longer useful to my research, and viewed his removal as long overdue. Without speaking a word, he had drawn some wedge between Hector and I that I didn’t know how to remove, and as such had potentially destroyed years of my research. I didn’t know whether our newfound disagreements would impact my procedure or the delicate fusion it entailed. I crossed to the head of the bed, to where his smudgy preteen face rested against the pillows. He breathed softly and evenly, a piece of stringy black hair resting on his lips and floating back and forth in the breeze. I leaned on his neck, just slightly, and in just a few moments the piece of hair had stilled.
Afterwards, I lit the fire and sat in my study for a long time, watching the strange, dancing shapes move over the coals. When Hector returned from the carpenter’s, we had a lovely evening, drinking a new whiskey that one of my friends had bought me as a present for nearly finishing my thesis and telling stories of the places we were going to see once my research was done — Rome and Amsterdam and Moscow. His eyes shone in the firelight, and it felt like a night when we were younger, stealing our laughter from the next day’s exhaustion. I retired early, and heard the click of the doorknob to the boy’s room. It was only late that night that I felt his side of the bed shaking with sobs.
The next day, I returned from the University to find Hector’s apartment key left in the lock. When I entered, there was some indefinable difference in the air. I now recognize it as all the fireplaces having burnt out. My experimental apparati were gone, as were my notes, and the boy’s body. The writing desk, fortunately, had been left behind.
I haven’t seen Hector since. I don’t believe he would have been able to figure out the immortality problem without me, but he has not contacted me for further instructions, and my inquiries were unsuccessful in acquiring more knowledge of his whereabouts. I worked with Professor Grigg on reconstructing my thesis into something less ambitious, ignoring the smirks of my self-righteous colleagues, and secured a cozy if less prestigious fellowship in Scotland that has served me well for pursuing my other avenues of research. For a time, I believed that I was not aging, and Hector had somehow bound us together using his own ingenuity. At times, passing myself in shop windows, I still believe it.
I have tried to find other partners for my procedure, but they end up leaving, citing that I am less interesting now, less exciting, too preoccupied with the past. They see me as something like the hole left behind when one removes a rock from a riverbed — not half of a whole, but something’s shadow. I don’t think they see me as anything but Hector’s absence.
And so, perhaps, I am.