Life Had Begun to Be Tedious, Until I Took It in Hand—and Strangled It
by Daniel David Froid
I dislike life, which is to say that I find the experience of living unpleasant, the whole disorderly mess of worry and anxiety and neurosis, of wondering, for instance, whether one’s health is good or not, whether one is financially and emotionally solvent or not—do I have the means, when the times comes, to pay my debts to those I owe?—whether one’s material and moral resources are sufficient, in order, and readily available, whether one eats right, dresses right, reads and speaks well, thinks carefully and judiciously about situations that arise, remains sufficiently apprised of the news and scandals of the day, in quantities proportionate to their significance, and whether one has, still, friends to call on when it becomes necessary to do so, whether because one is lonely or exuberant, hateful or mournful, or in need of mere communication. I dislike every bit of it.
Yes, it all displeases and alarms and unnerves me, for, it seems, my potential for a well-ordered personality was shattered, as it were, in my youth, or circumvented at the least, by causes beyond my control, and by people to whom it seemed reasonable, at the time, to give my loyalty and trust. Hm: may I blame my defection from life not just on persons and forces in my youth but on my melancholic disposition, my saturnine temperament? Are humorous fluids, or the alignment of the planets at the time of my birth, truly to blame? I am loathe to say they are not; it would be easier by far to blame them.
At any rate, I find that the problem does come down, in the end, to liability: Do I have the means, when the time comes, to pay my debts to those I owe? I am afraid that I do not.
But is this to say that my preference is for Death? No.
This is the tale of how Death came for me and how I tried very hard to outrun it. My success in the matter—however lamentable it is to admit—is perhaps not for me to judge.
My life is well-ordered, which means that it does not require thought. Its contours or boundaries are known, I established them years ago and, now, feel safe within those bounds. This is not to say I dislike it, for repetition is comfort; my mind can go elsewhere, dwell on other things, not the dreary indignity of schedule, obligation, commerce, relations, and so on. I eat the same meals every day; they vary a little, but only a little, all according to a plan devised years ago which varies only to ensure physiological harmony, energy, bodily endurance—in other words, good health. Taste is malleable and easily subject to control, and I have by this point suppressed any such inclinations. They no longer matter. Besides water I drink only one other beverage—my vice—which is coffee, very dark, very strong, and I call it a vice because I drink it so strong, and in quantities purposefully too great, because it excites my nerves, puts them into a frenzy, makes my heart beat fast, and because I like this feeling so much every morning I make a full pot, drink about half, and then save the rest for the long, long stretch of the rest of the day. Beyond this excitement, my meals are mechanical, and I like them that way. I know when it is time to have a meal and a snack and I know what it will consist of and how to prepare it.
At one time I enjoyed the process of cooking and became quite good at it. The preparation of food for others is generally held to be a sign of sociability, indicative of interest in good feelings for one’s fellows; to break bread is a symbolic act. I once knew a friend, who became, later, an enemy, who once offered, after I moved from one place to another, to bring bread, salt, and wine—a gift that signals, according to tradition, prosperity, vitality, and joy for those sheltered beneath a new roof. Humans need shelter, it is certainly one of our oldest needs, but the compulsion to celebrate the alteration of one’s shelter must be a recent development, unless (stupid thought) it is not, and my historical imagination has failed me yet again; for it could be that, whenever a human claims a new patch of territory, it is worth celebration, as a sign of accomplishment and skill and the ability to thrive. After all, did we not celebrate to an almost appalling degree when we—our species—at last colonized the moon?
Yet I should think it a thing not worth the celebration; it is merely a fact of life, a mundane alteration of the backdrop of one’s doings. All our lunar colony has turned out to be good for is a change of backdrop: no blue sky but, instead, a thickness of black like a heavy woolen blanket. Those of us who have found ourselves squirreled away here may openly admit our disappointment. Anyway, the friend-turned-enemy offered, but failed to deliver, the trio of symbolic gifts. She was one who could not thrive, let alone behave in such a way as to earn the moniker of friend; she lacked the resources, above all emotional, to do so; and the gift was neither prepared nor given.
It occurs to me now that one’s initial judgments of others are very often correct. Mine are. It is true that I—to speak for myself, which is likely all I’m truly capable of doing—make judgments upon first meeting a person that one might call snap: impetuous or hasty, ill-reasoned, founded on insufficient evidence. Yet it seems truer still that a person’s real character, the hard nut that coheres within—within the soul if soul exists—emerges in first meetings. Take, for instance, the friend whose delivery (the bread, the salt, the wine) failed to transpire. Our first meeting was fraught, for she was vivacious, forthright, too forward by far, and I found her appalling, unnerving, and I judged her too much and not for me. And this judgment turned out to be correct. But I must return to the topic at hand, which is myself.
Prosperity, vitality, society, and joy. I have now no need of these things, as I have by now eschewed attachment, too, which is, on the whole, unpleasant. Yes, attachment is tiresome, sociability taxing, but I have moved to this place where we, its inhabitants, have uniformly agreed to keep to ourselves. Sharing a mutual disinclination to disturb, we choose not to drop in, bother, pester, molest, inquire, or in any way socialize with other persons. We leave well enough alone here on the nonexistent shore of our empty gray lake. We could gaze at the earth and wonder what it is our fellows are up to; but mostly we do not. This is a superior system. And to my many debtors, emotional and otherwise, I might as well be dead—for which I feel at ease and remain most grateful.
In short, life had begun to be tedious until I took it in hand—and strangled it.
I have now and then wondered what variety of doom might await us here on the moon. Allow me to take one more moment, now, for a personal reflection. I am certain of the advent of apocalypse, but I do wonder in what form it might arise now that I have left behind our earth. We, the species to which I regretfully belong, are of few days and full of trouble, and we are all of us unclean. And who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not a one. Of few days! And full of trouble. And all of us unclean, and cleansing impossible, and judgment inescapable, and Death inevitable. That is, to be sure, the story. That’s all there is. (All this from a passage in Job, which, once fixed in my memory, has never left. For its successful memorization in my youth I received, I believe, a small piece of candy. I was nine years old at the time. Such small pleasure, long since faded, in the face of what has become a satisfying lifelong conviction.)
O thundering judgment, when will you bear down upon us? When will you deliver our fates? Well do I remember those long-ago days of terror. We lurked always in the shadow of Death, but not only Death: we cowered in the face of mortality but did not, at first, try to flee it. For we knew it would come, as I said: judgment inescapable, &c. And what comes after Death? We might speculate but still not know for certain. We could hope and pray and pledge to be better, to better ourselves, to work diligently and act benevolently in all situations to all persons (in some situations, to certain persons, for we would withhold our love, our devotion, our goodness if we had determined already that those persons did not merit it). We speculated whenever we could manage it or muster up the moral courage. And gossip, the greatest of our few diversions, occupied the rest of our time. In fact it structured our time. What is prayer but an excuse for the airing of others’ dirty laundry?
But I no longer speculate, for I have no one with which to do so. No one can reach me now, and of course I would prefer that they do not. Yes, I have eschewed attachment. And I must no longer work, for which, I must admit, I had lost what was called my knack, for I was once quite good at it, though I came to despise it as impediment to the truth I was seeking. And that is not the only attachment I have relinquished. Of romance I have none, for I ended that pursuit long ago. My most recent lover was, I hate to say, not without a cruel streak—as I myself possess, and we came to hate each other very much. But I will not speak of my own peccadilloes any more than I have. I left my lover. And did more than that, come to think of it. But that was some years ago. I am alone, and not unhappy, and in fact quite pleased to be rid of attachments that plagued me. I live in peace alone as does my cohort. My digressive preamble was all to say: Life had begun to be tedious &c.
I live in a small village on the moon in a place where nobody dies. We, all of us, share a mutual disinclination toward Death and Death has forgotten to follow us here. It is, after all, a very long way. Indeed I chose to move here precisely because I discovered that this was a place where nobody died. I dislike life, but I also dislike Death. Not that Death presents terror or frightening mystery, not for me, not any longer. The fact of the matter is merely that I prefer, instead, to continue with my tasks, my interests and comforts, such as they are, unimpeded. This is, then, quite the perfect situation. Here I—we—do not die, and nor do we exactly live, and we may persist in not-living indefinitely.
I had heard from an acquaintance that up here, far away from it all, Death had never made his way. Here one could find a home of stark mundanity and simplicity, where one may look out upon the vast expanse of gray and black from within the shelter of our dome and rest assured that the encumbrance of Death has been forsworn; nobody here had died, nor would they ever. There was no cemetery, no funeral parlor, no talk of the afterlife even. There was little talk at all. For this was a place—and it was at this moment that, if you’ll forgive the flight into fancy, my heart swelled, it soared, and I knew that this was where I must spend all the rest of my days—O, this was a place where people rarely spoke or showed themselves at all. An anhedonic paradise. For in not-living there is no Death.
I heard the news. I packed my things. There were few affairs to arrange, besides doing my utmost to secure the remains of that one whom I used to love, the one who died so mysteriously. I readied myself and contacted the one who could effect my passage. And I took the journey, which was quite long and rather arduous, on a ship I was sure would never make it and would fail to free itself from gravity’s powerful clutch.
Yet now it seems to me right and just and correct that it would be a troubling journey, for not all may take it. Not all deserve or desire to reside in such a place as this. It is, rather, only for us very few, us few malcontents and misanthropes. The ship’s pilot bundled us in and informed us that we would know when we got there and not a moment sooner, commanded us not to say a word, to ask no questions, even to restrict our thinking for the duration of the journey.
Before departure, I took my acquaintance aside and asked, because I was told to ask nothing of the pilot, what debt this would accrue. What would I owe to the one who took me there, or to the one who told of the place where I would go? My acquaintance answered that I bore no debts or obligations, that I should sit in the ship and embrace the silence and the dark. And so I did.
The driver was mysterious and quite beautiful—even if I do not wish for acquaintance or for love or for erotic stimulation I can, even so, admire the beauty of particular forms—in an altogether disarming way. Tall, very tall, with hair long and straight like silver threads and eyes as black as wells, and he spoke in a deep booming voice that seemed to penetrate my skin. He spoke very little, mentioning a catch, to which I paid heed and made certain resolutions. He flew the ship, and then he took his leave. And when we landed on our distant colony, I departed the ship and entered the dome and I could feel a great relief within me that he was gone from me.
I could feel, too, a change descend upon me, I swear it, feeling utter satisfaction and peace that here, in this tiny domed village, I would live (or not-live) forever.
The weather in the colony is always moderate. As the weather is managed by artificial means, it is never too cold or too hot, nor is there ever too much light or too little. Little disrupts our endless nights. The grass is green and trim, because it is not real. The buildings are all alike; the horizon, dotted by such squat squares, is therefore bland. It does not excite the eye, but nothing does here. Everything, everything, is bland and blank and boring.
Here we continue to not-live, to go about our busy days. Busy with what? With whatsoever we choose. I read; I study; I write, write sentences like this that, I presume, nobody will ever read; I take long walks when I begin to feel a strain in my back from all the long hours of sitting, hunched, at my desk. Best of all, I speak to nobody unless I choose to do so. And that is rare. Even my errands are solitary, as are everybody else’s. I walk to the grocer’s in silence, pick up the things that I need, put them in my basket, and take them home. There is no need of someone to mind the store, for nobody pays for things here but simply take our bounties, and the stockist makes a record of what we have taken.
We go about our lives in the most luxurious quiet and the purest solitude that, I think, is possible while persisting within a society. For it seems that we cannot abandon the idea altogether; it is far too useful. The infrastructure alone seems to be quite necessary. Yet I will note here that the maintenance of the infrastructure (like the stocking of the grocer’s or the payments for the electricity and water and gas that we all of us consume, and on occasion in quantities that might be called excessive) is utterly mysterious to me. I do not know who runs or owns our little dome. I suppose I do not care deeply about this either, although my natural curiosity inclines me to wonder. When will I be called upon to pay the debts that I accrue, and to whom? That is the one matter that causes some slight worry in my mind. Whether such doubts can be answered is not at all clear.
For as all of us know—and here, the catch!—there is a voice, which one day finds us all and which beckons, irresistibly. If one chooses to follow, one vanishes forever.
None of us knows where it leads, but I intend not to find out, for when the voice comes for me I shall ignore it. This is how each of us thinks, here, but I suspect that only I possess the requisite strength of mind, the conviction, not to heed the voice. I have chosen to eschew weakness and shall not pay attention when the voice comes to call. I have no need of the chatter of voices as I have no need of Death.
Yes, of course every one of us believes, in a collective flight of madness perhaps, that the voice will beckon everybody else. Somehow I—I and my neighbors—think, all alike, that we will have the inner resources to resist the voice, which none of us have heard and about which none of us can claim to know a thing. What is the source of my own resistance? Could I provide an inventory of the resources at my disposal? Well, I have said I dislike life, and that is it. I cling to nothing and wish only to continue what I do; I have no desperation, no yearning for some great feat or fame or anything of that kind. No. And my curiosity too can be subdued. I simply do not care. And so when the voice comes to call, it will not provoke me, will stir neither rage nor sorrow nor the pangs of curiosity. Instead I will merely sit, ignore the voice, and get on with it. My life, that is, such as it is. There shall be no temptation for me. The others, they will go where it leads, and for that I am glad.
If I could kill them all, I would. If I had the resolve, not to mention the means, the physical strength and the requisite equipment, a knife or a gun, or a bomb, or the means to start a fire perhaps, a path of escape for myself. I do not wish to leave this place, which is my home in only a technical or literal sense, and which is a haven, as I have said, from Death. But I have grown sick of the others, for there are some who have begun to grow afraid—have begun to fear the voice. If I were to see my dream come true, come to fruition, well—should that create new debts? Should I feel guilt, or a sense of responsibility, for the ending of the lives of those thus deluded? I believe I should not, no. All I wish for is peace and the retreat of my burdens as well as the eternal abeyance of my end.
Once, very recently, as I walked through the town, on my way to the grocer’s to buy myself lunch, I began to notice that it was quite hot. I found myself parched, an experience I am loathe to endure more than absolutely necessary. O, it was hot, and I balked; I thought, What is this? I expect much more tolerable weather in this place. I expect not to feel so burdened by heat. I walked on—it was an asphalt path on which I walked—and, suddenly, slammed into an obstacle and nearly fell over. It was as though I had run into a wall, yet, after I’d regained composure and looked about, I couldn’t see anything at all. I attempted to move onward but found I was blocked: it really was like there was a wall before me, invisible but definitely there. I peered in front of me and could see nothing. I had come to some peculiar barrier within the dome. And then I peered again; I squinted; and I saw very dimly the shape of a man, very tall, with shining hair and long, like silver threads—a detail that, as soon as I noticed it, made me gasp. It reminded me of someone else., filled me with fear. Scared now, and anxious—two now-unfamiliar feelings—I turned on my heel and went home.
Another one of us left last week; another of my inveterate enemies. She heeded the voice’s call, and she could not but follow. I laughed in my sleeve, believing, it is true, that yet another fool had revealed her sad mortal weakness to us all.
We were told of the voice on the flight here: the voice that calls from nowhere, the voice that beckons us toward unknown quarters. Our pilot told us, but he said very little, and once we arrived we learned very soon that he was right.
I remain still unencumbered, unattached. The woman who left us left behind a man—her husband—who, like all of us, bears a most powerful conviction in his strength to resist. His wife has already followed the voice to parts unknown and yet he believes that he will resist and will get along without her. I hear him speak of it to whomever will listen, but he is of course mistaken. Perhaps his greatest mistake was to form an attachment, to become so cumbered.
In order to test his resolve, I tricked him. I trodded softly to his door and said aloud his name, my voice disguised but full of assurance and strength. He made, I must say, a great mistake: he screamed. In his great devotion to resistance, his great and flawed conviction to his own resilience, he had built up a vast reserve of fear. And when the voice, mine, began to speak his name, he felt a fear—I imagine—greater than any he had ever known. And so he screamed, and fled his house, and began to run.
And then I moved as swiftly and as softly as my feet could carry me, and hid, and watched from my invisible vantage as he fled. He made a great commotion, which in turn roused my fellows, and as he ran we glanced at each other and, coming to a silent consensus, began to follow in his path. Why, why? Who can say? He was so loud, so persistent in his screams, that we were all of us struck by curiosity. Even I could not help but join them, especially since I knew the voice’s source. (So I stayed in the back, behind the others, my treading slow. Let the others, I reasoned, put themselves in the way of unknown harm—to go wherever they must, to follow this idiot who would now leave us.)
He ran and ran, not once looking behind him. It was as though the cities of the plain lay at his back, and if he should once turn back his gaze be struck by the wrath of the lord, made into a pillar of salt. He would stop, pause, cast glances left and right, but not once would he look behind him, instead always finding a new direction in which to run. As for the others, they chattered to themselves and began to convince themselves that they could hear a voice that called their names, too.
Our village is small, and it has borders that are impregnable: the walls of the dome. But on he moved. We must have walked for hours, or so it felt to me. Had the dome ever seemed so vast? But, at long last, the journey seemed to come to an end: we all of us arrived at a precipice, still within the dome, but the likes of which I had never seen.
I will admit I was astonished. I had thought that I had seen every square meter that lay beneath the dome. I had no inkling that a valley of such vastness was there, just beyond us, just very slightly past land’s end. A valley, here! Was it a former lunar sea? It could scarcely be, but valley there was when we reached the cliff’s edge, a valley that proceeded for miles and miles in all directions, and all of it green, and full of vitality, green of the richest imaginable hue, stretching on and on for miles. And in the very far distance could be seen soft mounds of hills, also green. Green! Beneath our impenetrable dome on the moon.
And when we reached that high sharp edge, we found that our compatriot had gone, and whither he went we shall never know. He has vanished. All we saw, when we peered beyond the edge, was vast greenness that seemed to go on forever. Scarcely could we glimpse the dome’s transparent gleaming walls, far far away, past the hills. What I felt then, when I looked past the cliff, was a sense of my debts and their burden, and the observation that they would only dissolve with my passage to parts unknown. Death, of course, my final debt, loomed in the dark. Death, a debt that very soon, I realized with a sharp pang of anguish, I should have to pay.
I peered down the cliff’s sheer face, deep into the heart of the valley, and thought I saw a figure there: a beautiful man with hair like silver threads, with eyes as black as wells.
We all turned tail and went back to the village; we returned to our sorry little lives.
From that day on, all of us have died like everyone else. What a pity to have worked so hard and flown so far to find that I have reentered the orbit of the same dim star that joins us all. No voice beckons, nor do wanderers disappear from view. And even I, the canniest among us, the wisest and most resilient, have come to acknowledge the situation, however dire and maddening it be. Death has made his way even to this distant clime, this far-off dome; yes, Death comes on his swift wings—unless he has always been here. I can see him as he comes, with his hair like silver threads, with eyes as black as wells and twice as deep. Death makes his way to our village. And so now I wait for mine, unless some unknown inner resources prevail, and, somehow, I outwit my way out of it.
Shall I? Shall I have my way yet again?
Daniel David Froid is a writer who lives in Arizona. His fiction appears in Lightspeed, Weird Horror, Black Warrior Review, and Post Road, among others.