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The Highwayman Come Riding

M. Bennardo lives in Kent, Ohio. His short stories appear in Asimov's Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and many others. This is his eighth story for Daily Science Fiction. Find him online at mbennardo.com.

Great-great-grandmother is receiving her doctorate in Japanese literature. Great-great-granddaughter is renewing her marriage to Marjaana Leskinen.
Sister is working as a sewage engineer in Buenos Aires now. Great-aunt is vacationing in Manila.
Some woman whose name I don't even recognize has written a book of poetry. A cousin? A niece? Or a lover or wife of some distant relation? (In my life I've smiled and shaken hands with heaps of those lovers and spouses and somehow have stayed connected to them all, our secondary links forged from mere politeness but persisting for the same reason long after the break-up or divorce, hanging on sometimes for centuries like a shelf of rotten ice clinging to a riverbank after the waters have fallen away, unable to bear any load but not crumbling until tested.)
Or is this woman just a glitch in the social network, a mistyped name, a misplaced click--an accidental stranger who has merged with my feed?
Either way, it's nice to know that life still goes on. Nice--or maybe enraging.
I've read a dozen books of poetry in the past century, and lied about reading a dozen more. I'm suddenly certain that I couldn't quote a line from any of them. (Not a line, not an image from any of them, even though some were the works of lifetimes, yes lifetimes of what we would have once called dilettantism, hobbyism, amateurism... but after a hundred years of doodling and noodling surely anybody could be called a poet if they wanted, and surely their verse could not be any worse than those old scraps of doggerel from childhood treasuries that somehow did successfully lodge in my mind uncalculated eons ago and which still stubbornly rise up unbidden and unexpected like highwaymen come riding--riding--riding--like highwaymen come riding, up to the old inn door.)
But this new book, written by whoever she is--there will be no need now to read it, no need even to pretend that I did.
Carla is my case worker. She's chatbot nice and hologram pretty, but she'll never be anybody's Thousand Year Face. Not even anybody's Hundred Year Face. (Not that she would care or know what that meant, for if I ever let the accusation slip she would only knit her brows quizzically and draw her legs underneath her curled-up body in the cushioned rattan chair, curious, not offended, not even noticing the personal nature of the remark, but merely interested on my behalf as one is interested in a puzzle piece unexpectedly retrieved from under the couch, eager to see where it fits.)
A Thousand Year Face, I'd explain. Given enough time, given enough interactions with enough people, we were all sure to be something to somebody, eventually. (Not forever, and not for real, I don't mean that, for real things are always too messy to last.)
But rather a thousand years from now, some beautiful stranger who had passed by briefly just once, who had blinked by for a moment and no longer, would suddenly bolt up in her bed and say, "My God, I still remember her face!"
My face, yes. And why not?
After all, everyone is someone's Thousand Year Face--or so I used to believe, until I saw Carla. A Five Day Face, if ever there was one. (A face like an ideal of beauty carved into Roman marble, dug up after millennia in the earth, the bare cheeks, the blank staring eyes, the pale expanse of the forehead--and any subtlety or fineness long since eroded away, only the flat outline of the proportions remaining now, dull in their regularity and bland in their conformity.)
A face that would have enchanted and fascinated the men, I suddenly remember--a face like a my-last-duchess-painted-on-the-wall.
And still chatbot nice and hologram pretty! How ridiculous to keep holding their tastes up like a yardstick after all this time, how ridiculous we can't forget what compliments they once murmured in the dark!
"I'm here," says Carla, "to help you accept what's happening, and to help you find out what you want from the process."
I fold my hands on my lap and stare down at them, at the unfamiliar appendages they have recently become. (I can't remember my woman's hands--my working hands, my loving hands, my invisible everyday hands--only my girl's hands, swollen on too-slight wrists, ungainly and tender with growing pains, bearing chewed nails and scabbed cuticles and orderly rows of wispy hair upon the back, like a field of sprouting wheat--)
But now my skin has grown ever thinner and ever more translucent, my veins green and cold around the thick knobs of my knuckles. They are the hands of an alien, a bodysnatcher, ungainly and tender in different ways.
Is Carla old enough to remember the men we left behind, I wonder? The men whose lifespans we outstripped, and then doubled, and trebled, and more--until they were mere dots on the speeding freeway, mere raindrops in the rushing air?
Until at last we said, Enough, sisters! and judged it cruel to keep bringing them forth, for their brief threescore-and-ten years of life, while we--their mothers and sisters and lovers and daughters--lived on and on and on, forever and ever, never aging or failing or dying. (Shall I chant a list of men I've known in my life, all of them gone--but no, better to remember one perhaps, my last son who was later grown into one of the last men, the child of my hundreds-years-old middle life, who once fell hard from an apple tree and disappeared behind the woodpile as I raced across the backyard, my face ashen in terror, though the fall was not even an especially bad one, not even the worst of his life, but still it triggered the fast-expanding lump in my chest as I saw suddenly his entire life rushing past me as he fell, rushing so fast that it would be gone before I could grab hold of him.)
Knowing what would come and what it would mean, was it any surprise we finally couldn't stand to bear them anymore?
"Some people find a peace or a meaning in their last days," says Carla. "Some people come to appreciate dying."
I wonder who these people are. Do they appreciate the liver spots, the thinning hair, the aching joints? Do they appreciate the incontinence and the wracking coughs in the night? The do-I-dare-to-eat-a-peaches? (Probably they do appreciate the failing memory, the slow fraying and snapping of so many unsatisfactorily unfinished threads as the fabric of life warps back to the beginning, where the shortest possible way always feels like a step toward the past, toward closed systems and solitary fantasies, toward the structured passing of time.)
But what of the biggest indignity of all? Do they also appreciate that this slow decline turns them into a list of ailments, an ever-growing catalog of incurable complaints? Do they appreciate their own morbid mounting obsession with the failing of their bodies, as involuntary and as unavoidable as any other natural reflex?
And so we let them all wink one-by-one into the night--those aging fathers and brothers and lovers and sons, who did nothing but gripe and complain and vainly recall their vanished youths. (Oh but if only there were any of them left now, still somewhere out there, a line of the dead and dying preceding me into the void into whose ranks I might shuffle at last, content to know that in the moment before and the moment after my death, another and another will blink out of existence almost alongside me!)
My hair is grey, but not with years, nor grew it white in a single night--
Grandmother is competing in shotput in the Olympics again this year. Niece is playing piano at Carnegie Hall.
Daughter has discovered a new species of deep sea arthropod. Mother is wondering why I haven't answered an email or posted an update in ages?
And I am dying of a rare degenerative disorder called old age, which is really nothing more than an accumulated immunity to our longevity drugs. An immunity that might be partly genetic and might kill grandmother and mother and daughter and niece as well one day, or one that might be unique among our family to me.
"You've lived an accomplished life," says Carla. "And you've outlived your own grandsons by thousands of years."
Yes, is all I can say. Yes, yes, yes, I know.
Some never took the drugs at all--those long-ago women who could not bear to watch their men wither and die while they sailed on serenely in youth and vigor. But not I.
In truth, I could not chain myself to the men I had known--to their limitations, to their single human life. I was sorry for them, so I stayed, I cared, I helped them pass. Then afterwards, I lived a hundred lives more.
I could not refuse life.
I could not welcome death.
But we were all still so young then. We all still orbited our original suns. I don't know if there's gravity enough now to bring anyone back if I call. From Buenos Aires or Manila, from the Olympic Village or the Marianas Trench--can I bring to my side the sister I haven't seen in a century, or the great-granddaughter whose face I've forgotten?
(Will they remember me if I ask them, or will they stare in befuddlement at their feeds, wondering who this fantastically dying woman is with the name they don't recognize, this unknown intruder that breaks their peace, this cackling harbinger of possible genetic inadequacy who rasps and asks:
when shall we meet again
in thunder, lightning, or in rain?)
Will they call each other up, after years of not talking, and ask breathlessly who I am, and what web of relations ties us all together? Will they count the generations and the once-removeds, calculating if they'd be within their rights to simply ignore me?
For in coming to my aid now--wouldn't that mean a tacit admission, a silent agreement, a hushed avowal that eternity may not be theirs either? That their bodies too may one day--(It's nothing, it's nothing, just a cough I can't shake--just a twinge in my back from sleeping on the couch--of course I've always had dizzy spells, even as a very young girl--oh but please shut the door, I get such a chill with the draft!)
I'm sorry now that I called Carla a Five Day Face. I won't be waking for anybody's memory a thousand, or a hundred, or even ten years from now. Perhaps five days is all I should be planning for.
"Being remembered is nice," says Carla when I try to bargain with her about how long she'll remember me. "But that's for the living survivors, for the people you leave behind."
I'm going on ahead, says Carla. I don't have to worry about that. All I should worry about is making my remaining time count for me.
All I should worry about is living, reaching, growing. Life is for living, not for remembering.
Or something like that. It's some cliché that makes me cry.
Then I clasp my hands around hers, my arthritic hands with the fiery rings around each knuckle, with slack and aching tendons. Then I close my quivering eyelids against the afternoon sun, and deep into that darkness peering, long I sit there, wondering, fearing--
Dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before--
I open that book of poetry after all, the one by the woman whose name I don't recognize. It can't take more than five days to read one book, even one that may be the work of a decade of stolen moments, scribblings in margins and tinkerings on napkins. To read it the right way, I mean. Surely I have time enough yet for that.
(Not to read it in the way that I have always read as an adult, as though checking off boxes or filling in a worksheet, reading to pass time or to build credentials, but rather to read it in the way I read as a child, poring intently over one book, one poem, one line, burning the words into my brain, because for the moment what I read was all that there was, the extent of the universe, the limit of creation, as it was in the beginning, as it is now, forever and ever, ever and ever, forever and ever, and world without end, without any end, the world without any men, the end--)
Yes, even if all my other horizons are shrinking, even if all my other tides are pouring out to sea. Even if the highwayman has come riding at last, tapping his whip impatiently against the shutters as I struggle numb-fingered to plait my grey and thinning hair--
Even now, perhaps I can still be transported. Even now I can still be kidnapped by life.
Show me a ghostly galleon. Show me a ribbon of moonlight. Make me wonder at anything for the next five days (no matter how trite! no matter how obvious!) and in exchange I'll remember you for life.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 3rd, 2014

Author Comments

As a young and indiscriminate reader, I recall plowing through thick compendiums of classic poems. My readings were hardly careful, and I probably failed to really understand most of what I read. But decades later I found I could still recall isolated snatches that had somehow struck me as especially evocative. Luckily, the invention of the Internet has made it easy for me to find out that I was really remembering bits of Alfred Noyes' "The Highwayman," or Lord Byron's "The Prisoner of Chillon," or Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven."

Thanks also to Robert Browning, T.S. Eliot, and William Shakespeare (among countless others who I couldn't fit into this story) for providing some of the other dried-up little memory beans that still rattle around my skull at strange times.

- M. Bennardo
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