Aerternum: A Novel.


Our only health is the disease

If we obey the dying nurse

Whose constant care  is not to please

But to remind of our and Adams curse, 

And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Sarah sat alone staring at the casket, her eyes fixed forward, her cold hands face down under her thighs. She felt nothing except the pony tail on the back of her neck, an odd comfort as if someone was behind her consoling her. It’s just my hair she told herself. There is no one. Occasionally the feeling of nothing and no one was interrupted by the cold sweat of her hands, an irritant of life she thought when the only thing she wanted to think about was death.

Sarah hated the plastic chairs in this church. She liked pews better but those had been gone for years, sold on web sites, refashioned as antiques or bid on for high dollars at Global Union or “GU” Auctions. This church was as dead as the man who lay in front of her. Plastic chairs replaced pews for town hall meetings. Paint worn walls behind the coffin bore water marks from a dilapidated roof that was old and in need of repair. Tears, Sarah said to herself, the walls are crying. She smelled dust, and longed for animation. Few if any restorations on churches were attempted anymore. The building was cold, a shell or casing that held her captive like the coffin held this man who lay dead in front of her. The only sound was the furnace’s random, labored attempts at its own resuscitation.

Sarah was alone with a dead man and the dead man was alone. There were no church bulletins, eulogies, Pastors, Priests, Elders, no lingering testimonies, anecdotes, vignettes of a life. There was no church secretary to greet mourners in the narthex. No music, no tears, no mourners. There was only Sarah, the dead man, the furnace, the sweat of her palms, and her thoughts waging war inside her head about how and why this man chose to die when people today live longer than Methuselah. Death and churches were relics of the past. Now people lived forever, and Berger, Sagan, The Economist and many others were right.  There was less and less for God to do. After a long career, God had passed into history.

Death and any sign of death was gone. Moses warned of it in Genesis, but no one anticipated it or took it seriously. Eat of the fruit and you will become like God and live forever.  Today, with the breakthrough development of a pharmaceutical drug called Aerternum people lived forever. Colloquially, Aerternum was known as the “God Drug.” Sarah learned about it in school in English class when she studied Swift’s struldbrugs in Luggnagg. Her teacher told the class when Aerternum was discovered it was larger than the invention of the wheel. A small biotech firm, billions of dollars and a couple of young bioengineers. The human genome sequence, three billion individual base pairs, gene codes and proteins mapped and illness, disease, suffering and death were no more. Human beings were freed from the curse. Sarah, envying the dead man in front of her, thought to herself, Oscar Wilde was right. Now the curse was immortality.

The vaccine had been on the market for years and solved the world’s one eternal quest to conquer death. Some countries mandated the vaccine for its citizens at birth because science proved people who lived forever are far more productive, generous, kind, and wealthy. Eternity offered the chance for self-reinvention, multiple careers, advanced degrees. Beneath the same skin, a person could become a new creation. Not everyone though chose eternity. The United States did not mandate the vaccine. Congress concluded, for now, that choice afforded a nation population control, necessary for the advancement of its people and global presence. People who chose to not be vaccinated chose what came to be known as The Alternative or death. The dead man in front of Sarah chose the alternative. Sarah was vaccinated.

The furnace screamed as it grasped another chance at life. Now jolted from the terror of her thoughts Sarah thought she heard someone outside. Staring down the dead man one last time she realized she learned nothing about death. With the feeling of nothing boring her, she decided to leave. As she stood up, her eyes caught the worn inscription on the book that lay wrinkled and lifeless on the floor beneath her feet. It read:

To Ryan. Remember The Captain.  


She picked up the book, blew off the dust and left.

Chapter 1.

“I tempered the storm
Though your faith was small
I prayed while you slept
And the night waged war
We stood in the fire
And we walked on sea
And we drank of the wine
That was made of Me”
 – H.U.
“I need to go to work.” She slowly lifted her worn eyelids, looked up at her husband,  and said nothing. She lay still on her back in their bed, her arms across her chest, her body swaddled in blankets like a newborn. He looked down at her and said,”We don’t need to talk about this,” and left.
She closed her eyes and returned to the universe that was her body. In the vastness of her mind, she saw waves begin to rise and fall within her and with each mount and descent she counted first her eyes and then her shoulders and arms and she realized she couldn’t move. She was sore. She started to cry. One by one, tears fell down the side of her face as if in a race to get to her neck and wet the bed and be the first to announce she still had skin and bones. “What happened?,” she asked herself. She opened her eyes and looked around the room for an answer but as soon as she did she closed them. She didn’t want one.
She couldn’t think. In fact the only thing she could do was to utter simple directions to herself like Get up. Take a shower. Get the mail.  and obey each one as if she was at someone else’s command. With each obsequious act she moved as if she was in a trance held by someone else now tethered to her and with a voice that spoke to her and changed her. In the shower, the voice said, “My water” and she was made clean. At the mailbox, the voice said, “My wind” and she was healed. She was no longer sore. And when she sat down later that morning to write, she titled the top of her page “Miracles” and then she heard the voice say, “My word” and she erased it and gave it a new title, “My Wind, My Water and My Word” and started to write about how miracles are not extraordinary but only extraordinary to human beings because human beings don’t see what is true. She wrote at least a page of Truth and when she finished writing, she threw it out.
The last time she had been at her desk was the morning after she’d suffered a miscarriage. They’d been at a friend’s house for dinner and before dinner was even served, she’d ran to the bathroom only to bleed a sea of red, flush the toilet and announce abruptly to her husband, “We need to go home.” She was 14 weeks pregnant when she arrived for dinner and one hour later left barren. She lay in bed that night thinking about her dead baby in her neighbor’s toilet and one thought raged inside her over and over again, “Why was I allowed to breathe?” She was angry she couldn’t save the child in her, and even angrier she was alive and it was dead instead of the other way around. The next morning she sat at her desk as if in a spell and wrote Why was I allowed to breathe. Why was I allowed to breathe. Why was I allowed to breathe.
She called her friend to tell him what happened. He told her she’d seen Paradise. She told him maybe, but Paradise answered her question “Why was I allowed to breathe” and all he said was “because.”


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