I am aware of what death does or should do to a body. In one manual I read, half buried in the Dust, sometime after a body falls slack, losing heartbeat and brain function, rigor mortis sets in. The manual featured pictures of cadavers in varying stages of death, before and after rigor mortis. It described the breakdown of muscles through enzymes, the slow loss of body temperature before an increase during decomposition, the development of bluish hues beneath skin depending upon how a body is arranged after death, and even the practical usage of rigor mortis in the preparation of meat.
We no longer have words for much of this. We no longer discuss enzymes. We no longer discuss rigor mortis. In fact, if we even saw a body with bluish skin, walking or no, we would assume it was either painted or being used as a model for a demonstration.
In the fifty years since the world ended, we have lost all grasp of the mechanics of death. What recollections we possessed as different cultures were pitched into the sea when the land reformed, making up our unnamed nation that we live in today. This nation is fraught with oddities--vast jungles that change shape in our sleep, icy tundra that no true light will touch due to a sun that never moves, and creatures that haunt our dreams. Our cities tremble with madness, each city bearing a different blight: Coburntown scorns knowledge, and Vaust rejects creation, for example. We are reminded that life is impermanent and fickle. At any moment, the world could end again and forever.
Now, rather than becoming gradually rigid or slowly decaying, bodies stand up and return to work. Why do they do that? Men die, but it doesn't bother them for very long. We grow old to a point, and then some kind of clock stops ticking inside--we become semi-permanent.
I met a lighthouse keeper in the early years of the new world, before I also stopped aging. I met him again, tangled in brine in the shallows of his own beach. His body was turning blue. I guessed it might have been a combination of hypothermia and asphyxiation. Now, I'm not so sure.
I dragged him into his house. I didn’t see his wife around. I did see a strange note on his kitchen table. He seemed conscious, so I boiled water for him and made soup with what ingredients I could scrounge together. I wrapped him in blankets and coats, talking to him to see if I could solicit any kind of reaction at all. I sat with him for hours, following the path of his vision to a slight twist in the right kitchen table leg nearest to him. He stared at it incessantly, never blinking. From time to time, I would lay a hand on his algae and dirt covered skin; he was cold and clammy, sweating even as I tried to warm him up, never gaining in temperature. I knew he had died, for whatever functional purpose such a designation might carry.
I knew I had to watch him.
Just as I began to grow tired from my watch, his eyes twitched and flickered, jolting to the letter on the table. The envelope had a fishy aroma--a fileting knife sat next to it. He opened this envelope recently, I thought briefly, interrupted when the lighthouse keeper stood up and began to walk out.
Find me in the Silent City, the letter read. It was not the first time I had heard of that place, but I had always assumed it was simply another name for one of the eight cities and towns. I also knew that the Silent City was somehow linked to death; the wordlessly trudging fisherman would lead me there, I guessed, and I began to follow him.
Animals and plants die. People do not. Some factor of the new world inhibits human death. I suspect that the presence of the soul requires death as a device. If true death is denied, then the soul gradually corrupts the physical body, leading people to become different. Inevitably, people who die more than once become increasingly twisted, estranging themselves from family in pursuit of something more final. I told myself that they would never find it.
That day, following a drowned fisherman on the roads running east of Coburntown and around Mount Aramis, I wondered if true death would find me.
There is a hole. The hole lies, I would guess, roughly ten miles north and east of Coburntown. It is deep. It is deep enough that stones make no echo when tossed inside. The hole sits at the mouth of a town that I have never seen and dared not approach. Steel structures gleam underneath a coating of rust, illuminated by the thin glare of sunlight cracking through the surrounding mountains. It is hard to look at them, hard to know if there are predators between those structures.
As for the fisherman: he kept walking until he fell into that hole. I watched the flecks of seaweed rush away from his body as he plummeted, the wind whipping them away, rippling the cloth of his shirt and the hair on his face. I watched him disappear into the darkness.
As I watched, they watched. In the distant city, hundreds of dark eyes looked upon me. I could feel their hostility and their hunger. I walked away, knowing nothing more about the nature of death.
Did the void call out to me, then? Would I need to be dead in order to hear it properly? I hope to know some day. There are few questions more worth answering in this new, dangerous world.