Martin saw a spartan meal on a barren table. And the people that sat around it were old. The oldest was Cornelius, an old man with thin white hair and clouded eyes, who did not speak but waited for death with a solemn patience as though willing to wait another lifetime if that was what was needed.
The youngest was his son, Theodore, with hair that was thicker but no less white. And eyes that were still clear, though tired and dull to look upon. He had greeted Martin at the door with no surprise for, as he later said, many strangers came to the city, escaping from the plains outside. In fact this place was by far the largest city in all of Acheron. For it offered truth, where other settlements offered only delusion. And in that truth was hope.
Martin had asked what hope it offered, though by then he could have made a guess by himself.
“Why,” the old man replied, “the hope of immortality. Not life forever like other places for that can never be. No, the only hope is to be remembered. That something of yourself touched this earth and will never perish. That your descendants and your friends will remember you, that you were a man, who lived and died. What more can we hope for, for such brief things are we.”
And Martin had taken this and nodded. For in his journey he had discovered nothing else that could be hoped for.
And as they sat before their bread and cheese they made signs of thanks and closed their eyes and spoke the names of their fathers. A brief recitation, of only seven generations back. The full litany would be performed later on. And Martin would sit and listen as the monotonous drone of names washed over him, the endless tide of men and women, who lived and died.
And what was known of them now? Some had deeds attached to their names, Justin, who fought and defeated a great host of men, Catherine, who rode a chariot faster than the sun, Gregory, who built a city and burned another. Who were these people, whose lives were summed up with so little? They were men, and women, who lived and died. And they were remembered as such. They were remembered and not forgotten.
And were they the sum of their deeds, these ancestors, were even these deeds true. Who was Gregory and did he really burn a city by himself? Or were these deeds attached to his name just another ritual, like the hands touching the shoulders, elbows and knees as his name was spoken.
What would be said of the people at this table, what deeds would Theodore attach to the name of his father. Would it be ‘Cornelius, who tended the dead, and remembered their names’. Or ‘Cornelius, who defeated his enemies, and led hosts’. And which would be truer?
The food was plain, with little flavour, pale cheese and doughy bread. Water was drunk, cloudy and warm. They ate perfunctorily, a chore to be done, like all the others. But as he ate, Martin felt revived. The heavy food lined his stomach, the solidity of the food grounding him. His mind stopped shifting, the city became one place rather than many. He took into himself that which was offered and made it part of himself. The faces of his hosts became clearer, seven of them, old men and women, not one younger than sixty. They moved slowly, chewing each mouthful with steady rolling of the jaw, their eyes elsewhere.
And as they ate Martin raised his face to his companions and spoke. “This place, what is its name?”
Theodore replied, “We call it Necropolis now, for the dead reside here more so than the living. Once it may have been different, but now, now we are outnumbered.”
“And the tombs, you tend them?”
“We do. That is our task. We believe in remembering those who once lived like us. Our ancestors, our friends, our family. We cannot forget for if we do then it is as though they never lived.”
“Other places,” Martin told him, “they do not care so much for the dead as you. The first place I came to, they discarded the dead like soiled cloth. They thought anything that once used it had woken up and it was so much useless meat.”
“That is other places. It was smaller than here I take it?”
“Yes. It was large but only a town, not a great city like this.”
“Of course,” Theodore nodded, his beliefs confirmed. “For it sounds unnatural. It takes a certain person to treat the dead like that. You would need to have some reason for making yourself think in that way. Perhaps to protect yourself, prevent yourself from feeling pain.”
Martin looked down at the table, retreating from his memories of that time.
“We naturally care for others though and wish, in our hearts, to be treated alike. We wish to be remembered, and so we remember others in the hope that those who follow us will do alike.”
“Yet some people deny death, or try to.” Cornelius spoke. “And others cannot bear it. And so they ignore it, or pretend life is a game. Or a struggle to avoid the end.”
“And perhaps,” Theodore responded, “for those people, it is. For us though, and for so many who come here, it is the opposite. You cannot avoid that which must be. Look about you. The many houses, the many rooms, the many graves and tombs. All these people once were alive and now are not and never shall be again. For the rest of time they shall be dead, our lives are such brief flames, flickers in the dark. And once out they cannot be relit. This is truth, this cannot be fought, or prevented, or avoided or denied. And so we accept it. And we prepare for our demise.”
“Then what is the purpose of life?” Martin asked.
“Life. The purpose of life is to dig your own grave. And for speaking the words, for reciting the lineage, For making the signs, for tending the graves of others. We repeat the words that our fathers spoke before us, and pass them on to our sons and daughters. The brief comforts that keep us going, the rituals of breath and birth, of eating and of speaking. We keep ourselves alive just long enough to pass the baton, the always failing torch, caught just long enough for those who follow to get ready and catch it in their turn. What else can be expected from this place. What else can we give, what else can we do.”
“But how, how does that mean anything?”
“It means that when we die our names remain. We remain, whether good or bad, whether we died old or died young, our names are spoken, we are not forgotten. We remain among the living.”
Martin paused. Once, desperate for sanctuary, he would have nodded and agreed with the man, wholeheartedly accepting his philosophy. But now, now he had more questions than answers and he could not give them up so easily. He opened his mouth to speak but Orleanna, Theodore’s wife, spoke up first.
“Theo, do not plague your guest with such dreary words. Life is more than just a repetition of the dead.”
“Repetition is the most important.” Theodore repeated stubbornly.
“No, you old fool, that is the simplest. I’m sorry,” she turned to Martin, “He does get so gloomy at times. But he is right in a way, the repetition is important. But there is so much more to it than just dry ritual.” She sighed. And tried to explain.
“I lost a child,” she said. “A long time ago. It’s what brought me here, to this city. I needed comfort, not just his name to be known. And known after I died as well. No, I needed to do something, I needed…” She stopped, trying to explain. “I cared for my child, I washed his little feet, I fed him and clothed him. And it brought me joy to do so. And when he left…when he was gone I…I was empty, I needed…some connection. I kept his room exactly as he left it. His toys where they lay, I didn’t even pick them off the floor. I preserved him as best I could. And for me…that was a comfort.” She spoke to Martin. “Come, let me show you. I still have it here.”
She rose from the table and Martin followed, and Orleanna led him out of the bare dining room and up a thin wooden staircase. The banisters were rough and unpainted, rickety and wormed. Yet as the steps underfoot sagged they held and Martin followed the old woman to the top and across the landing. The door was opened and she led him in.
Martin entered a room that should have surprised him, if anything could after so he’d seen so much. From the old, wooden house he stepped out and into a modern, brightly decorated room, with Postman Pat wallpaper and a bed covered with Thundercats bedding. A young boy had slept here, and he had played with the plastic figures and metal trucks that lay strewn where he had dropped them after his final game.
The carpet was thin yet still soft, cleaned regularly, as was everything. And as Martin stood in the doorway and ran his eyes slowly about the room, the bedside lamp, the stuffed lion dropped haphazardly across the pillow, the children’s books that were so familiar, from his own past as well. It was as though he was back, back in the real world, not Acheron, not this vapid dreamscape of fears and imaginings. This was real, the only reality, more real than himself, more real than the woman. Mr Men books and the Famous Five, a history undiscarded and preserved. A history cut short.
There should be other books, schoolbooks, magazines stuffed under the bed, the Thundercats bedding should be long gone, the Postman Pat wallpaper, the child who had slept here would soon have wanted it taken down, replaced with He-Man, or Thunderbirds, or the next craze. Maybe he had been wanting it gone for a while, embarrassed by its childishness. Now his unspoken request would never be fulfilled. And Martin watched the tears run down the face of his mother, old now but still clutching her unseen baby close to her breast.
“How, how is it here?” Martin asked softly.
“I carried it with me.” She replied. “Though I left this house twenty years ago. But when I came here, I found it waiting for me. Just as I remembered. I never forgot. I could not. You don’t understand, you think we tend these tombs because they demand it. No, we demand it, we need it. We would be nothing without them.”
“I don’t believe that.” Martin said.
“Belief? Belief can’t hold a torch to need. It never has. They told me I needed belief. They told me he was in Heaven. They told me I needed to let go, they told me I needed to move on. They told me I should try again.” She spat. “They had no idea. No idea what I needed.”
There was nothing Martin could say. No words that could close this room, that could take the wallpaper from the walls or put the toys away. There was nothing that could be said to the fierce, wet eyes that faced him, daring him to utter another platitude, one she’d heard so many times.
And Martin knew then that this wasn’t a dream. This wasn’t in his head. He knew this couldn’t be, not this, this too-real scene. This woman, she was like him perhaps, a traveler, lost in Acheron. Perhaps they all were. All the people he’d met, who’d taken him into their worlds and shared their truths with him. He had been thinking they were creations of his mind, thrown up to torment him. But perhaps they weren’t. Not all of them. Perhaps not any.
Martin left the room, as Orleanna fell to her knees, picking up the stuffed lion tenderly and holding it in her hands, gently stroking its mane. Tears beaded her cheeks though her face was set like marble and she made no sound, for no sound was left to be made. And her knuckles went white where she clutched the old cloth of her child’s favourite toy.
And Martin quietly left, and as he crossed the threshold he knew the door would be closed tight behind him, locked in, shutting the woman in with her memories.
And the house closed in around him again, the bright room just a glimpse of another’s dream, a memory of something that had been described to him. Necropolis was real, a dry and dusty place. A place of shifting streets and too many buildings for its size. A place that seemed so cold compared to that bright room Orleanna had brought with her. A place of corridors and doorways between the tombs that other people made.
Did Martin have his own tomb here? Had he brought it with him? He shuddered. He could not imagine it. Turning the corner, opening a door, to be suddenly face with…what? What had he brought? What room was he holding, what tomb was he tending? Could he face that place – should he? He clutched the banisters hard enough to make them shake and stumbled the last few steps, breathing hard and realising with shock that he was sweating with fear.
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