The Four-thousand-year-old Boy
a short story by Lawrence Dyer
'When I was small,' Metheusus said, 'in the springtime I would lie beside the Euphrates and watch the mayflies rising from the reed-beds.' His voice was hollow inside the glass walls of the giant terrarium.
Through the glass Ana saw his spindly arms struggle briefly against their constraints.
He became still. 'Once I captured a mayfly. I watched it and loved it all day, but by the evening it was dead.'
'You didn't feed it?' Ana said into the burnt-earth smell of the leather speak-tube. Her voice was carried along the tube into the terrarium.
'Yes, I stole honey for it, but I didn't know that mayflies can't eat and that they are born, they mate and they die in a single day. I cried because my mayfly was lost forever.' His eyes closed, the translucent lids straining, as if he relived the memory. 'And the next day I couldn't bear to think that I had to go on without my beautiful mayfly... I was only a child.'
A curtain at the end of the tent chamber stirred. The girl employed to collect the money from Metheusus' visitors appeared. Urgently she beckoned Ana to her. 'He's here, the agent of the Prince--in with your uncle now. I would've come sooner, but your uncle made me stay.'
Both Ana and the girl knew that Metheusus, inside the giant terrarium, could not hear them. Ana went back to the speak-tube. 'I have to go now,' she told the boy, concealing her agitation.
Silently but swiftly, she followed the girl along the connecting tent corridor which linked Metheusus' chamber to her uncle's. The girl stood aside and Ana stepped past her into the chamber where she knew the sale of the boy was being negotiated. The smell of spiced goat-meat met her as conversation faded; a chuckle was dying on her Uncle Valket's lips like water disappearing into the sand of the desert.
Three men sat cross-legged opposite Valket. One, who was dressed in voluminous white robes, had thin moustaches and swollen self-satisfied eyes which regarded Ana serenely. He held an advertising poster of Metheusus. It had a picture of the boy rising up hideously like a spectre, and words dripping-blood which screamed: Dare you visit the four-thousand-year-old boy?
Ana was not sure which of the three strangers was the Prince's agent and which his attendants, but she guessed that the agent was the one with the poster--the one who, with one waxed eyebrow hitched up, was now looking to her uncle for an explanation of her sudden appearance.
Adjusting his thread-bare, embroidered waistcoat, Valket told him: 'My dead brother's daughter,'
Ana wanted to demand that Valket should not even think of going ahead with the sale of Metheusus, but now that she was in the tent chamber she felt suddenly uncertain. The moustached one's confident perusal of her had been unsettling. Unsure what to do, she strode to the other side of the chamber and looked out through a gap where the worn, leather-thonged canvas barely closed the opening it was stretched across. The canvas flapped tautly now and again in the warm wind; Ana stared through the gap until the draught made her eyes water. Outside, on the slope which led down to the river, the bazaar was already crowded with people. And they were still coming: below the mountains Ana could see another caravan approaching along the path that the people in Chalapur called the Silk Road. Milling about down in the bazaar, the people seemed like rats to Ana, rats with bulging eyes that feasted upon the sight of human deformity, feasted upon the jars of extraordinary foetuses pickled in alcohol, the fantastic animals brought from the other side of the world, the skeletons of giants and dwarves. Such were the side-show exhibits of the bazaar.
Despite her disgust at the bazaar visitors, Ana felt a complicity in what they did. Before she had known Metheusus well she had not objected to his slavery, and now, though she had argued with Valket over it, she had left it too late to do anything about--the guilt she felt about what would happen to her family without their main source of income had stalled her.
She felt hot breath on her neck and caught a whiff of spice. The Prince's agent was behind her. She stared back at the crowds, ignoring him.
'So many people,' he said.
She had no intention of making conversation.
Valket's voice came from further back in the chamber. 'Tomorrow Ahlek-Sur begins.'
'Our ceremony of the Time of Enlightenment.'
The agent's voice came soft and close beside Ana's ear, making her gold earring tremble. 'And why does it trouble you that we should purchase the so-called four-thousand-year-old-boy?'
She set her lips.
'Sometimes they chat together,' Valket answered for her when she didn't speak.
Ana sprang around. 'We are friends!'
Valket did not meet her glare, but took a swallow from a leather bottle.
'She'll get over it,' he said at last, wiping a trickle of liquid from his chin.
Ana continued to glare at him. 'Metheusus has given his life to this family for two hundred and fifty years! How can you do this to him?'
'It's for the family, for you, that I'm doing it.'
'With the property you will receive you will all have a more secure life,' the agent agreed, 'not subject to the vagaries of trade in the bazaar.'
Ana strode up close to Valket. 'And you will ignore my bundwat? It gives me the right to demand the boy's release.'
'It's not meant for such things,' Valket told her, shifting uncomfortably on the floor mat. 'Your father didn't mean you to use the right-of-gift for that.'
'He granted it to me on his death bed so I can use it for what I want! Will you ignore my right?'
Valket twisted his fleshy lips once or twice, then his eyes lowered and he said nothing.
Ana caught the eye of her cousin, Pavane, who with her mother was eating off a stub-legged table in the corner, separate from the one laid out before the men. With lips drawn back, Pavane nibbled at a steaming chunk of meat on the end of a wooden skewer. Her neat white teeth were decoratively capped with gold, and the ring piercing one nostril was gold too. As she bit and chewed, her eyes in their caves of dark make-up didn't leave Ana. From the narrowing of those cold eyes alone it was clear where Pavane's loyalties lay. In the sound of her chewing Ana could almost hear her thoughts: 'Ana is a traitor... a traitor!'
The Prince's agent clapped his hands once in a business-like way as if used to having others always pay attention to him. 'Well I might have agreed the sale, but I haven't personally seen the property...'
A worried frown appeared on Valket's long fleshy face. 'But your own emissary said--'
'Oh don't worry, I'm expressing a purely casual interest. The specimen has already been found authentic. Pure curiosity on my part, I'm afraid.' He beamed at Ana.
Valket led the way to Metheusus' chamber. The moustached agent and his attendants followed, and Ana took up the rear. At the entrance to the chamber Ana saw the agent stop and turn away, his hand up to his mouth and nose, face compressed in disgust. One of his attendants passed him a kerchief, no doubt highly perfumed. Clutching it to his mouth he followed Valket into the chamber. Furious at the way they were treating the boy, and at herself for not doing anything about it, Ana marched behind.
Inside the chamber the agent stood before the boy's huge, wheeled terrarium, staring. Ana stared too, conscious that this was one of the last times she would see it, and its strange inhabitant. Made of wood-framed glass panels, the terrarium looked like a vast, stained version of the little fish tanks that the leaders of the Ynoi people people kept up in the mountains.
The agent regarded the glass walls blankly then passed along the side of the terrarium, trying to see through the encrusted glass. He disappeared around the back. He was coming around the other side, a frown wrinkling his features, when Ana saw him look up and catch sight of the boy. His eyes flared in surprise and he stepped back.
Ana smiled to herself, savouring his fear.
The agent gestured nervously at the dark fibrous mass which entirely filled the bottom half of the terrarium. 'But is all this...?'
Valket nodded, wringing his fleshy hands together.
The agent peered closer at the mass, then up at Metheusus lying on top. Still holding the kerchief to his nose, the agent seemed to be searching for something, as if he suspected a trick of some kind, but Ana knew there was no trick to discover. She remembered how she had doubted her own senses when she had first seen the boy. She had been nine years old; her father was still alive and had judged her of an age to meet the source of their income.
She remembered how she had tried to hold her breath against the stench from the huge terrarium. She had stared wide-eyed and afraid through the glass and had, like the agent, seen at first only a mass of what appeared to be horsehair, caked with green towards the bottom--an algae which also obscured the glass panes in places. Then she had picked out thin, almost-bony filaments twisting through the 'horsehair': flat, convoluted ribbons of something unidentifiable. Higher up there were air pockets in the hair where these filaments broke free of their matrix, but still she could not see them for what they really were. Her father had drawn her attention to the boy himself. As now, he was up on the top of the hairy mass, half way to the roof of his terrarium and just below the opening of the chimney--which had the function of allowing fresh air to enter from the open sky. Submerged in the horsehair from the waist down, the boy had seemed a pathetic human form, a naked and sickly male in his mid-teens with a soft, hairless face and pale, translucent skin. His legs were not visible, but his slender arms were weak and twisted. The horror of the realisation which then followed had lived with Ana for weeks afterwards: she had suddenly noticed that the hair which was his bed attached itself to his head. It was his hair. The flat bony filaments which spiralled around him finally joined onto the ends of his fingers...
Valket uncoiled the leather speak-tube from the side of the cage. 'You can talk to him, Excellency.'
The agent looked even more confused. 'He will understand?'
'He'll talk to you.'
'He speaks? I thought he might be interpreted by a system of signs or such devices, but you say he speaks?'
Taking hold of the speak-tube uncertainly, the man bent forward until his moustache brushed the end. 'CAN. YOU. HEAR. ME?'
Like a lizard's, the boy's eyes flicked open. 'Only too well,' came his high-pitched, hollow voice from inside. He looked at the agent's attendants, at Valket, at Ana, then his eyes slid back to the agent. 'Who are you?'
Valket stepped close to the dignitary and with a respectful nod took the speak-tube from him. 'Just a visitor to see you,' he told the boy.
'He's no ordinary customer.'
'Shouldn't we tell him?' Ana whispered to Valket.
Valket gave a shake of his head.
Uncertain what to do, Ana said nothing.
During the brief exchange between Valket and the boy, the agent's eyes had opened wide. 'Remarkable,' he muttered.
He took the speak-tube from Valket. Although it prevented the access of infected air from outside the terrarium which might bring illness to the boy, Ana knew that the speak-tube was efficient as a sound carrier. This time, having observed Valket's use of it, the agent spoke more softly. 'And how old are you?'
The boy's eyes closed in practised recollection. 'I remember being an apprentice gardener in Akkad in the days of Sargon. I saw Nebuchadnezzar the First of Babylonia too, but my memories of such far off times are not good. There are periods of hundreds of years which I have forgotten. More recent things, like being inside the library at Alexandria, I remember more clearly. I was in Rome in the Emperor Augustus' time. That memory is as clear to me as yesterday--clearer!'
The speak-tube had gone slack in the agent's hands. 'How long ago is the first you spoke of...?'
'King Sargon--the one he said--was a bit more than four thousand years ago,' Valket explained, 'So that's why we call him that.' He drew up a chair for the dignitary.
The agent ignored the chair and shook his head in disbelief. 'And does he never come out of there?'
'Not in two hundred and fifty years. We clean his dirt tray daily...'
Glancing at Valket with disgust, the agent strolled along the side of the terrarium, then went back to the speak-tube. He grasped it firmly and asked the boy, 'I hope, that in such an extended life, you have developed great skills in music and poetry?' He put his hand over the end of the tube and turned to Valket. 'Apart from his value as an oracle, such skills would entertain his Highness the Prince greatly.'
Ana winced when she heard this. The question Metheusus had been asked was the kind he disliked because it was always the awkward, persistent customers, the ones who seemed to regard his existence as a personal affront to them, who asked if he had accumulated amazing skills or abilities. And as for the idea that the boy would spend his time singing for the Prince...
'If you knew you had only a year or two to live,' came Metheusus' oft-repeated reply from behind the glass, 'then you would travel the world, read the finest books. You would learn music and poetry and much more; you would live. But if you knew that you would never die... If you knew that then you would attempt nothing, do nothing at all.'
The agent blinked in surprise.
'You would do nothing,' Metheusus went on, 'because you would know that eventually you must do all these things. An infinite life must eventually be filled with all things, all knowledge, all abilities.' He sighed heavily. 'Eventually I will achieve everything there is to achieve within human powers, at least. I need only wait. I have the time...'
Valket chuckled nervously at this.
'Then you've languished idly?' the agent said. 'All your long life has been wasted, despite your inflated talk! You might have been greater than all men, but as it is you are much less.' He regarded the boy's physical plight with disgust.
Metheusus' eyes narrowed. 'Mortals such as you are as transitory to me as fleas; I snap my fingers and you are gone!' His angry declaration was rendered ineffective by the fact that--attached to his self-grown bed by endless nails as his fingers were--he could never snap them.
'If I am a flea, why speak to me at all?' the agent demanded.
Ana watched as from watery, sunken eyes clogged with yellow rheum, the boy regarded the man impassively through the algae-patched walls of his terrarium.
'The opium they give me if I cooperate is a pleasure outside time, a respite from eternity, you might say, for eternity is a long time to have to be a side-show freak.'
'Then I am sorry for you.'
Ana turned to the agent to object.
'The way you see me now is but a daguerreotype,' Metheusus told the man before Ana could speak, 'a mere captive instant in an endless life.'
The agent's waxed eyebrows shot up. 'I have seen a photographic daguerreotype. A remarkable thing. But I'm surprised you know of the process.'
Metheusus looked him up and down, then said, 'I learn much from my more educated visitors. But allow me to continue: no doubt a passing beetle observing you asleep in your bed would judge that you have always been like that and will be so until you die, which would no doubt seem an intolerable life to the beetle. Such a beetle you are to me.'
'Excellent,' the agent muttered, smiling faintly at Metheusus.
Metheusus sighed heavily, seemed disappointed he had not succeeded in insulting the man. Finally he told him: 'Life is only worth living if you know you are going to die. Life followed by life followed by life... ceases to be life.'
Ana had heard many variations of this assertion in the time she had known Metheusus, but one thing she knew which was rarely revealed to others was that the boy had once had a sister. There had been two of them blessed with immortality--as a result, Metheusus had told Ana, of what he called a 'mutation'. In other people, inherited factors in the cells of their body triggered ageing--so he had explained it to her--but with he and his sister these factors were entirely absent, so that, just as the skin renews itself when it is cut, so their whole bodies were forever renewing themselves. However, Metheusus' sister had died in an accident a thousand or so years ago--an accident beyond the bounds of bodily renewal. There was a man in Europe or America--Ana could not remember which Metheusus had said--who had worked out how mutations worked. The boy had heard about this man from his more educated visitors. Ana remembered that the man's name was Darwin.
She was relieved when the agent now clapped his hands and said, 'I have seen enough.' He turned on his heel without another word and left the chamber.
She ran past the agent's attendants to catch up with him as he passed through the further chamber where her aunt and cousin were still eating.
'Despicable creature,' the agent was muttering when Ana caught him by the arm.
He stopped and his eyes flared a warning.
Ana dropped her hand from his arm. 'I'm sorry, I wanted to ask... Is there a chance I could go as well--to look after Metheusus in his new home?'
'We have our own skivvies for that.'
The agent brushed past her. 'My attendants will return for the property the day after tomorrow,' he called to Valket. 'We will deliver payment then. Have the creature's tank ready to load onto a flat cart.'
With a flourish of his cloak, the agent was gone.
Tears pricking her eyes, Ana turned to Valket. 'How could you?'
'It's for the sake of the family, daughter-of-my-brother.' He wrung his hands urgently. 'It's hard but it's the best for all of us.'
'Not for Metheusus,' Ana said. 'Not for him!'
The dawn made the insides of the tent-complex glow with amber light. As Ana entered Metheusus' chamber she could hear the distant sound of thousands of people chanting mantras in the foothills behind the bazaar. She went straight to the speak-tube. Metheusus was still asleep, but he stirred when she unhooked the tube. He blinked in surprise.
'Everyone's at the Enlightenment festival,' she told him. 'We've a chance to get you free.'
He didn't respond.
'Don't you understand?'
Metheusus gave a long sigh. 'It's impossible... Free me? How?'
Ana had to remind herself that he had been in this terrarium for two hundred and fifty years. 'You want to be free don't you?' she asked, dragging a chair close to the glass walls.
'I must have release from this existence.'
She climbed up onto the chair and reached for the top of the wall--first she had to find a way inside. Pulling herself up onto the terrarium's roof, she began at once to wrench at the base of the breathing chimney.
'What are you doing?' Metheusus's hollow voice came from below.
With a groan the chimney broke away from its corroded mount.
Thrusting it aside, Ana looked down at the boy through the round hole. She turned away, guilt filling her. 'I couldn't tell you before, but I must now... They want to... sell you.'
Metheusus tilted his head back enough to look up at her. Faintly, in his normally impassive eyes, she could see alarm.
She could not meet his gaze. 'The rich customer yesterday. He's... the agent of the ruler of Ynoi. He has bought you. They're coming for you tonight.'
The boy received the news silently.
Ana lowered her legs through the chimney hole, her long robe catching on the edges, then she dropped with a thud onto the bed of hair, right beside the boy. She had expected the hair to be spongy, but it was hard and compacted. Though used to the boy's smell, being so close to him in the steamy atmosphere was like drinking in the stench and dung of a great sweating jungle beast. It made her head swim.
She looked at him as if for the first time. She had known him for a long time, yet close to he looked different, as if the glass of his cage had distorted his image all those years. Close up he was even more fragile and pale, as if made of wax.
She did not delay but turned to the locked door of the terrarium. She kicked at it several times with the flat of her foot, but slipped on the slick surface of solid hair. She tried again and the door panes began to buckle outwards. The old, brittle wood splintered and she forced the door open, splitting several of the panes into jagged shards.
Reaching in her pocket, Ana brought out a big pair of scissors. She looked at the boy, held down as he was at the extremities by thick sweeps of hair and coiling nails.
'Ready?' she asked.
Again he sighed, then nodded. 'I'm ready.' His voice was clear and sharp now that Ana was inside the terrarium.
She began to hack at his finger nails, snapping and chopping through them as if they were bamboo strips. When his black nails were only inch-long stubs, she began to slash with the scissors into his thick greasy hair. She drew back in horror for a moment as hundreds of tiny creatures flew out and ran across her hands, then she went back to her task with renewed vigour.
His hair shorn to his shoulders, she hooked her hands under his arms and tried to haul him free of the mass in which his sore-covered legs were buried from the thighs down. This was difficult, held in place as his feet were by roots which were his own toe nails. She hacked and gouged at the surrounding mats of hairy matrix, but this took time, and the threat of discovery was ever near, for surely her family would have noticed by now that she had left the festival.
Eventually, tired and sweating, Ana managed to drag Metheusus sufficiently free of the matted hair to begin to slash through his green, slimy toe-nails. She was frantic by now, fearing discovery at any moment, but at last his self-grown bonds were all severed. She dragged him to the shattered door, climbed out first then dragged him out backwards past the broken glass and onto the dusty floor of the chamber.
She was surprised how light he was. His skin came off in thin papery sheets on her hands and arms.
'Do you think you can stand?' Ana knew that for months he had been doing muscle-tensioning exercises in an attempt to regrow his muscles and be ready for the release he had always trusted she would one day bring about: I must have the strength I will need to do what I have to do, he had told her repeatedly.
Now he didn't answer her, but seemed disorientated by being outside the terrarium. He struggled to stand, and with Ana's help managed to lean upright against the side of his prison.
He was completely naked apart from some wires hooped around his hips, which Ana realised with a start were the inner structure of a pair of chambulots--the trouser-like garb of all males in the bazaar. The fabric of the chambulots must have rotted on his body long ago.
Conscious of his nakedness, Ana took off her loose outer gown and draped it around him, pulling the draw-strings tight. 'I'm going to take you to Chalapur,' she whispered. 'I have friends there who'll help us.'
The boy placed a warty hand on her shoulder. 'Thank you, Ana, my little mayfly.'
Ana was briefly aware that he had paid her a compliment of some kind, but she had to concentrate on getting him out of there. Wrapping her arms firmly around him, she half-carried him across the chamber. She flung out a hand to scoop aside the curtain ahead of them. Valket was coming along the corridor towards them.
'God preserve us!' he cried when he saw what was happening.
With a sinking feeling Ana watched from her seat in the mule-drawn wagon as the bazaar grew closer. The wagon came to a halt on the road beside the stalls which laid their wares out on the edges of the hoof-beaten silk route. The dust cloud which had followed her transport caught up. Coughing, Ana paused only to thank the wagon-owner for the ride, before she hurried out of the cloud of dust into the bazaar.
When Valket had caught her trying to liberate Metheusus two days before she had argued vehemently with her uncle. Finally, as Valket remained unwilling to allow Metheusus to leave with her, Ana had gone alone to Chalapur in an attempt to obtain help from the authorities there to get the boy released, or at least to prevent his sale to what was the ruler of a neighbouring state. Now, as she made her way from the road up through the quiet, half-empty bazaar, she wished desperately that she had thought of something better, for her plan had failed. She had not received the support she had hoped for. And now she feared they would already have taken Metheusus.
It was almost dusk. In the distance, hidden by the approaching night, came the singing of the people up in the hills, celebrating Ahlek-Sur. When she got close to the tents of her family, Ana peered into the dusk. Instantly she knew something had changed, though at first she could not say what. Then she saw that the green flags with their elephant insignia were missing from the tent tops. Fear lent her speed and she ran to the tents. Pavane was just outside, recklessly trying to set alight some rubbish too close to the flapping canvas. Flames suddenly blossomed intensely orange against the darkness.
Pavane looked up from her task and regarded her cousin coldly as the flicker of flame was reflected in her eyes and nose-ring. 'It's all your fault, you are a traitor to this family.'
Ana had expected some such greeting, but she couldn't understand why the flags had gone from the tents. 'What's happened? Have they taken Metheusus?'
Valket's daughter did not answer but glared at the side of the tent as if her eyes could burn a hole in it. Finally she said, 'Father has accepted your bundwat.' She turned and stared hard into Ana's eyes. 'He has agreed your right-of-gift!'
Ana gasped. 'But I don't understand, I thought he would never-- '
'Then you were wrong. He says the family is the most important thing in his life and that's why he must honour your bundwat, but he is weak, like you. The fool has destroyed the family.'
'So the sale didn't go through? Metheusus is free?'
'They're all down by the river,' Pavane told her dismissively.
She threw Ana a final accusative look before disappearing into the tent.
Gasping for breath, Ana made her way down between the dark tents towards the river. Across the foothills which led up towards the mountains thousands of specks of light stood out in ranks: the torches of the festival-goers.
Down at the river the sluggish water was brighter than the surrounding land, reflecting the sky. A breeze blew off it, wrinkling the surface and scattering sparks from a bonfire into the air. Ana could smell the smoke from the fire before she got close. It didn't smell right. It had a distinctive taint which she had smelt once before.
She ran towards the fire. The silhouettes of two figures sitting beside it were thrown into and out of view as the flames twisted in the wind. Chanting came from the figures--the chanting of prayers, not festival mantras. She recognised the people sitting by the fire--her uncle and aunt--but where was Metheusus? She knew the smell from the fire: it was the smell of her father's funeral pyre.
Choking on the smoke, tears sparking from her eyes, she threw herself down upon the seated figures. She found herself in Valket's arms. 'I'm sorry child,' he told her hoarsely as she struggled against him.
'You killed Metheusus,' she screamed in her confusion.
Her uncle gripped her arms tightly. 'No! He killed himself. I released him and he killed himself.' Valket burst into tears, hugging Ana to him.
Like a child she buried her head in his chest. 'No...'
Valket smoothed Ana's hair away from her face. 'I washed him myself. I tried to make up for all the years...'
Through bleary eyes Ana watched as her aunt launched the little wooden raft, on which Metheusus' remains burned, out onto the river.
'Why did he do it?' Valket muttered. 'I offered him a partnership...'
Ana rubbed the tears and smoke from her eyes. 'He called me his little mayfly,' she said.
The raft drifted slowly into the stronger currents near the centre of the river, spiralling peacefully away from the onlookers. The flames had died down and all that Ana could see as it swept into the darkness of river and night was a clump of glowing embers. The embers became a speck of gold slipping downstream, a speck that flickered once, then merged forever into the peace of night.
© Lawrence Dyer 1993, 1999
This story first appeared in Interzone #73, July 1993.
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