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  • 25. Immortal

    By Alex Burrett

    Alex Burrett’s wildly inventive debut collection, My Goat Ate Its Own Legs, doesn’t go on sale in the United States until next week—but here’s a stolen glimpse. Burrett fills his stories with extraordinary characters: a brown rat named Genghis; Death, the Devil, and the ex-wife of God; and the titular Goat. Yet perhaps most haunting is the Immortal of this story—a shadowy figure who seems torn from some ancient Welsh legend, yet seems oddly modern in Burrett’s telling.

    If you’re lucky enough to own a piece of land, whether it’s just enough for two folding chairs and a wine bottle, or expansive enough for herds of buffalo, there’s one thing I can guarantee you: things will happen in your corner of the Earth about which you’ll never know anything. Land is like time—it holds many secrets.

    Our land comprised twelve acres of mainly pasture—that’s enough real estate to keep a dozen or so cattle, a couple of ponies, a dog and a handful of cats. Which is what we kept. At the center, the heart of the territory, was our home: a centuries-old stone cottage. It had grown, like a hollow granite cancer, in spits and spats, since the foundation rock was laid. When it was still small, it was one of several stone cottages that once formed a thriving hamlet. For a reason I’ll reveal later, although the rest withered, ours grew. Evidence of the hamlet’s former glory was easy to find. The remains of two other dwellings, ravaged by neglect, stood in our fields. Further multi-cell stone outlines could be found under leaf mold in the woods beyond the pasture. All were remnants of once-cherished manmade growths, rendered useless by the neutralization of their human nuclei. In themselves, these earth-covered granite floor plans are nothing particularly special—the world is tattooed all over with the markings of lost micro and macro civilizations. But there’s more to this tale than archaeology.

    Every hundred years or so, someone on this planet doesn’t die when they should. They get to a certain age, then stop aging. Our immortal is one of them. He lives under the remains of the cottage in the North Field. That ruin is distinctively, noticeably, different from all the rest. It stands out. There is a lot more left of it than the cottages in the East Field, the West Field, or among the trees beyond. When we lived on the farm, his cottage still had four impressive walls, three of which were almost complete along their lengths, standing their full height of seven feet. The dwellings in the other two fields, once equal in stature, had shriveled to buried stumps—grass-covered mounds indicating where proud walls once stood. They looked liked elongated grave mounds concealing a past they were ashamed of.

    The cottage in the North Field had been the Immortal’s home before he retreated to subterranean security. If he’d lived a normal lifespan, it would be in the same state of disrepair as the rest of the relics. For a while, he thought that if he kept himself to himself, he’d be able to carry on residing there. He did so, living in it well into his hundred and thirties. Up to the point he abandoned it, he’d spent those thirteen decades (except for periods during the occasional foreign war or two) sheltering between its four walls. But he was deluded thinking that the simple country folk would let him carry on forever, and local prejudice eventually drove him underground. Resist the aging process for a decade or two, and people think you’re lucky. Resist it for a generation longer, and they start to think you’re evil incarnate. As The Immortal refused to grow old, spooked, jealous mortals grew first restless, then aggressive. Under assault from all sides, like a First World War shell dodger, or a Vietcong fighter with an aversion to napalm, he dug in.

    He now lives in a bunker, underneath his old home. He didn’t relocate—or “run off,” as he always described that option to me. He stayed where his home was, because when all his friends and family had died, all he had left was where he was from. His geographic identity is the lifebelt he’s clung to through subsequent ever-shifting tides of humanity. Initially, although he no longer lived inside, out of pride and loyalty, he kept the old house in perfect order. It took considerable effort to do so—to stop it from falling apart without being caught. He had to work at night like a miserable thief—which he resented. But even that surreptitious mission had to be abandoned when, a century or so after he’d retreated underground, he finally accepted that the pristine condition of his residence was fueling rumors of his continued existence. He was creating anti-camouflage with an empty dwelling that refused to fall into disrepair. If he was found out, he’d be forced to leave the land he loves. So, with echoes of his presence inspiring local legends, eventually, reluctantly, he allowed his precious abode to begin slowly crumbling above him. He switched from a policy of repairing every bit of damage to just repairing some, slowing down rather than holding back the ravages of time. Even part-deserting the home he was born and raised in hurt. A lot. It was the last time he let anything upset him, and that was nearly two hundred years ago.

    Immortals aren’t invincible, by the way. They can feel physical pain. Cut them and they bleed, bash them and they bruise. They just don’t age. When they get injured, they repair more quickly than us—though, like us, it takes them longer to overcome bigger injuries. The Marvel character Wolverine is actually based on a real immortal. The Immortal has no idea whether or not he could be killed. For all he knows, he might actually die if he suffered a serious enough injury. In fact, he’s wished for one many times, even contemplated suicidal actions. The only thing that prevents him from attempting to take his own life is the fear that he’d continue to exist but be permanently incapacitated. If the curse of eternal life wasn’t bad enough, imagine enduring it in a state of total paralysis. He wonders what that would be like; lying alive, undecaying, undiscovered as fresh soil slowly creeps over him, like it has over the stunted ruins of the cottages. Thousands and thousands of years of sentience could follow while he was, by infinitesimal degrees, buried ever more deeply. Buried alive. Then he’d move into geological time, still trapped, still aware. If being an irreparably injured immortal means being bound to perfectly preserved remains, he wonders when that attachment would end. When would he finally slip his immortal coil? Would it be when he became fossilized, at one with the rock, or would he remain in that mineralized state for millions of years until an imprint of his broken body became exposed by geological shifts, and then dissipated by erosion? Or perhaps, worse still, his mortal flesh might resist fossilization in his journey through geological time and he’d reemerge from the rock to be eaten alive by the next dinosaurs. It’s bewildering to contemplate the point at which he’d cease to be, but when you’ve been living a reclusive, lonely existence for hundreds of years, you spend a lot of time thinking about how and when it will end.

    I first encountered The Immortal when he was wandering around inside our house at about three in the morning. I was seven years old. We lived in splendid rural isolation and never locked our exterior doors at night. This suited the curiosity of The Immortal, who liked to keep a close eye on his only neighbors. Our home was the last occupied shell of what had once been his thriving community. I’ve no idea why ours was the only property selected for reinhabitation. Perhaps it was the biggest. During my family’s tenure, it grew bigger still—with my father making changes to the farmhouse he bought pretty much from the moment we moved in. Dad was a serial extender. He’d just finished building an extra room downstairs, which we called the Sun Room because it was over-eagerly fitted with huge windows and captured an abundance of sunlight. The interior door that opened into the Sun Room was placed where the back door of the house had been when we moved in. The Sun Room had no exterior door; there wasn’t space for one between all the windows.

    I was sleeping in the Sun Room because my gran was staying with us and she was in my bed. I woke just before three in the morning and felt a bit spooked. I went over to this new internal door, which had been left open on my request while I fell asleep, and pushed it firmly shut. Feeling safer having sealed myself off from the dark downstairs, I got back into bed, pulled the top sheet and blankets up to my chin, and snuggled down. A few minutes later the door opened and The Immortal was there. He had one hand on the door handle, and one on the door frame. He was frozen in shock—bewildered by my presence; and saddened by the relentless changes in the house since we’d moved in. His expression clearly telegraphed a thought: that back door had served several generations. It had been fine for many families; why not mine? I went in an instant from drowsy and disoriented to hysterically alert. My behavior set him even further aback. Some kid, screaming like he’d seen a ghost, was lying on a camp bed in the middle of a glass-obsessed, seemingly functionless room. A mature, bountiful greengage tree had until recently stood exactly where I lay. The immortal had feasted off that greengage tree for more autumn nights than he cared to count. He had planted it himself one night forty or so years earlier, shoving a sprouting greengage stone into an unused patch of overgrown garden. Concealed by the dark, he’d nurtured that tree to bountiful wonderment. It was no more. Rumbled and afraid of being caught, he fled. I raced upstairs and refused to ever sleep in the Sun Room again.

    For years after that incident, I was petrified of supernatural beings. At the age of eleven, when school friends were happily watching 18-Rated horrors on VHS and Betamax, I still couldn’t watch Dr. Who without periodically retreating behind the sofa or a large cushion. My sister taunted me about that. Then, six years after I had, she saw The Immortal. Within two further years, my gran and a babysitter had also caught him carrying out his late-night patrols. They all wrote him off as a ghost. He never looked like a ghost to me. I knew ghosts from my dreams. I’d also been a lot closer to him than anyone else. I saw the complex expression that appeared on his face in response to seeing me. Ghosts don’t respond to circumstances they come across. Ghosts are locked into one emotional state—usually morbid, self-obsessed misery. And there was other evidence that led me to conclude that The Immortal was more than pure spirit. He’d opened a door. He ran off, frightened of closer contact with everyday folk. He was afraid of the day. In addition to the evidence gleaned from my encounter, all other reports of his behavior sounded like he was someone carefully curious of the present, rather than trapped in the past.

    Once I’d arrived at the conclusion that he wasn’t an apparition, I set out to confront him. Even then it took me eighteen months to find him. Or, to be more accurate, it was not until eighteen months of searching that he deemed me worthy of meeting him. I always searched at night—it didn’t take the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes to realize that his modus operandi was bumming round in the wee hours. At first, my journeys into the dark outdoors were terrifying. After sundown in the countryside, background noise drops significantly in level. This absence of sound becomes a blank canvas onto which vibrant crunches and crackles are painted. Tiny nocturnal footsteps are amplified a thousand times. In the starlit almost-dark, a young mind hears psychopaths and imagines ghosts when badgers bumble and owls orate. Clarity of vision is lost too. Moonlight transmogrifies hedges and rocks into monsters and demons. Night in the country is no longer the realm of mortal man—our mastery of the planet is undermined by weakened senses. But once you’ve got used to the sensory difference of darkness, you become part bat, and your ears become your greatest weapon. You can see round corners and through trees. After a year and a half of wandering around in blurred blacks and heavy imposing grays, my night senses, although a pale imitation of The Immortal’s, were tuned-in enough to earn me my second encounter. We met at midnight, both supping chuckling water from a tiny waterfall in an abandoned cider apple orchard. We’ve stayed in contact ever since.

    I’m the only living person in The Immortal’s life right now—have been since Stuttering Eric died three years ago. Like The Immortal, Stuttering Eric was prone to wandering the local countryside late at night. He lived three miles down the road in a little village that had escaped the trauma that shriveled ours. He walked everywhere. He had to walk. He wasn’t capable of passing a driving test—he wouldn’t have been capable of doing much more than applying and releasing a handbrake. And he had no money to pay for taxis because he didn’t work. He wasn’t lazy, he just never expected to earn a living—growing-up in an era when “simple” people were expected to while away their lives sitting on a bench somewhere, watching the more capable world go by. That given role affected him hugely. He had no regard whatsoever for normality. Or time. He was immune to the vagaries of night and day. It always seemed apt to me, therefore, that he
    was the only regular in the local pub who was as unintelligible at closing time as he was at opening time. Stuttering Eric.

    Stumbling around that drinking den was one of the two situations in which you’d find Eric. The other was when he was wandering the countryside—something he did at all times of day and night. His most regular routes were: heading into town, where he collected out-of-date newspapers; off to meet his “girlfriend’ in the ivy-covered house next to the old church by the river (she made him cups of tea); heading home from town; and to and from the pub. He was a mobile local landmark and, as with all recognized local landmarks, the extent of most people’s interaction with him was staring at him from a distance. Stuttering Eric had five things in his life; his home, free newspapers, the Star, his girlfriend (who was as old and as simple as he was) and his best mate—The Immortal. The Immortal is an incredibly intelligent man. Stuttering Eric, as I’ve just explained, wasn’t. But they got on like a silver spoon-fed aristocrat gets on with his brawling, working-class gamekeeper. Their obvious differences were so contradictory that they attracted zero consideration. What mattered was their commonalities. They would sit enjoying one another’s company for hours at a time. I would marvel at how they could look at the moon together, without talking, for hours on end. One would grunt in appreciation at its beauty, the other would grunt back in acknowledgment. Intellectually they were a billion miles apart; spiritually they were joined at the hip.

    I visited The Immortal last week. It’s the first time I’ve seen him since Stuttering Eric died. Stuttering Eric was killed when a terrapin, caught from a local aquatic center by a buzzard, was dropped from an immense height. It is speculated that the raptor released it when the reptile nipped one of its claws with its razor-sharp beak. The terrapin struck Eric on the top of his skull, and a shard of its shell was driven through his cranium into his lethargic, cross-wired brain. They found him three days later in the middle of a pea field. He’d probably been scrumping. The police left that suspicion out of their report for the sake of his relatives.

    I presumed that Stuttering Eric’s death would have badly affected The Immortal. It didn’t. Not in the slightest. A long time ago he told me that a death is like a pile of dog shit on a pavement. If you see it for what it is, all you need do is make a slight alteration in your short-term journey and, before you know it, you’ve forgotten all about it. But if you stumble into it, put your foot it in, it’ll be with you for ages—a nauseating stench you can’t seem to get rid of. And even after you’ve washed it away, the impression it’s made upon your senses will still linger. Although I knew The Immortal was phlegmatic, I’d previously assumed it was just that he’d seen enough of life not to be disturbed by its highs and lows. It wasn’t until we toasted goodbye to that cheery simpleton, and I saw his calm, coldhearted gaze, that I realized The Immortal had an impregnable heart. He told me he felt no emotion at the loss of his long-term companion. It was when he saw my bewilderment that he explained to me the secret of immortality: while time is a constant, aging is not; you age when something upsets you. Each little droplet of distress is moisture extracted from a once-full ripe fruit; the more that evaporates, the more diminished you become. We perceive this process as aging. When you die of old age, you are a battered, miserable, shriveled-up prune; the life sucked out of you.

    The Immortal lost his entire family, and his close friends and neighbors, to The Plague. He was one of the lucky few who were immune to the disease. By the age of nine, he was the only one left alive in the thriving hamlet that once spanned our land and the wood that surrounds it. When he buried the last corpse—his mother—he promised he’d never let himself feel loss again. Never be a victim. It took him many years of effort to isolate himself from emotional pain, but he achieved it in the end. As I mentioned before, the last time he felt a glimmer of distress, the last time he aged, was when he abandoned the complete upkeep of his family home.

    The Immortal’s defeat of emotional vulnerability was completed more than two centuries ago. He purged himself of it so completely that he is unable to feel any kind of heartache whatsoever. I asked him if I should attempt to sever myself from human emotion and become immortal too, so that we could be mates forever. He strongly advised against it.


    From My Goat Ate Its Own Legs: Tales for Adults. © by Alex Burrett.

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