Wotan shuffled out into a rain-washed morning and realized that he hated his garden.
Last evening, the garden had looked tired and aged, like Wotan himself. Gazing at the shrivelled leaves and pinched flowers, he had been overwhelmed by a sense of fellow feeling toward his garden.
The long drought had ended a few hours later. Rain came, unheralded by lightning, unaccompanied by thunder.
For Wotan, sleep was an eel, despite the soporifics dispensed by his physicians with a generous hand. It was not ghosts from his blood-drenched past that kept him awake but his own malfunctioning body. In the eternity between going to bed and falling asleep, he had listened to the changing pace of the rain, from a sedate patter to a tempestuous drumming.
This morning the garden was transformed, no longer a debilitated octogenarian but a strong-limbed stripling. Yet Wotan remained as he was, shackled by old age, battered by illness, and hounded by death. For him there would be no life-giving shower, no rejuvenation, just death.
Yesterday he had felt at one with his garden in its depletion. Today he regarded its recovered virility with a searing hatred.
A gentle tickle on his ankle brought him to an angry stop. He glared at the intruder, a small plant with a starburst of flowers, the green and yellow strident against the gray of the paving stones. Ignoring his protesting back, he pulled it out with one heave and threw it as far as his sagging arm could manage. Then he looked back at the torn earth, a dark, savage pleasure engulfing him.
Wotan turned around, a smile breaking out. The little girl ran to him, pigtails flying, arms waving, a laughing cannonball. He hugged her to him, staggering a little at the impact of her tiny body.
“How’s my Tiggy-nut this morning?” The smile covered his face. His voice was a lullaby.
She giggled and pulled at his hand, her bright brown eyes shining with hope.
Lifting her would make his back feel like a mouthful of sore-teeth. He hesitated, not wanting that pain again.
“Are you angry with me, Grampa?” The voice was small.
Wotan’s heart lurched. He lifted her up, murmuring, “Never angry with you, Tiggy-nut.”
Her thin arms circled his neck, a warm soft garland. “Never ever, Grampa?”
He smiled at her. “Never ever.”
Tiggy covered his face with kisses. He rubbed noses with her. She squealed. He joined in her laughter. He put her down. They walked back to the house hand in hand, she regaling him with the happenings in her four-year-old universe.
Tiggy had been taken away by a uniformed maid, and the light went with her.
Wotan sat in the sun shrouded breakfast room, trying to dissipate the gloom by playing his usual morning game.
Should he breakfast facing the gem-inlaid portrait of himself or should he fix his gaze on his gold bust?
That morning he picked the life-sized portrait: onyx-haired, topaz-skinned, the shirt done in rubies, the trousers in black opals, sapphires forming the background. The portrait bore one of the many titles Kismetia had bestowed on its president for life: The Universally Renowned Lord.
Until a few years ago, before his malfunctioning body turned travel into torture, Wotan enjoyed visiting the distant outposts of Kismetia. He would arrive at a provincial town or an isolated hamlet unannounced, striding into a marketplace, a school or a farmer’s tumbledown home. At first, he would be greeted with confusion and fear, obsequious smiles and worshipful gestures masking terror, even hate. He’d ignore the dilated eyes, and slack mouths, and start working his magic. He’d smile and laugh, kiss a baby’s sunken cheek, make a remark about a toddler’s protruding stomach, pat a hollow-eyed woman on her back and place his arm, with friendly familiarity, round the gaunt shoulders of an old man.
And he would watch for terror and hate to dissipate, for shy smiles to dawn. They’d edge closer, even touch his hand, timidly yet eagerly, as if it was a holy relic.
He’d ask questions. They’d confide their problems to him. He’d bristle with indignation on their behalf and make them promises he forgot the moment he got back into his SUV, and poured himself a single malt.
Nowadays, Wotan forgot simple things, the name of an aide, someone’s birthday, a wedding invitation. But the past was etched in his mind, a stone-painting immune to ravages of time.
The past was no utopia, he knew. When his plan to rule for life and to nominate his elder son as his successor became known, there had been an outcry. He had relished the challenge, and approached it problem with the precision of a surgeon. The perfect murder rather than messy massacres had been his way. A traffic pileup, an armed robbery gone wrong, a hit-and-run accident, an impromptu quarrel spiralling into a full blown fight, a club-brawl, a fight in a car park in the dead of the night….common or garden crimes, incidents so random, that any attempt to connect them seemed incredible to normal people.
At the end of that long spell of contrived confusion, his most vocal critics and his most active opponents had vanished from the scene; many dead, some incapacitated, others vegetating in foreign lands. He bore them no hatred. A man did not set out rat poison because he was angry with the rats; he just wanted to remove them, before they infected healthy people with their contagion.
Wotan thrust the silver knife into the low-fat butter. That glorious ride has brought him to this destination, old and alone, surrounded by men who in the safety of their minds were praying for him to die.
Ashes, thought Wotan, as he pushed away the mangled breakfast and set off for his first meeting of the day, why do I think of ashes?
The conference room echoed with flowery words. Wotan heard them and didn’t. He was remembering a story he’d read as a schoolboy, about an ancient emperor who was determined to delay death.
That emperor had built a great wall. The wall lasted through the times. He didn’t. He died even as his minions were searching far and wide for the secret of longevity.
“Excellency, I think gold would be better than marble for the statue.”
Wotan’s eyes snaked round the table until they found the speaker, an acolyte of his elder son. The man wriggled in his chair and reached for the nearest glass of water.
“But the cost would be prohibitive. Perhaps gold-plated…” The speaker was the architect responsible for the venture under discussion, a hanging garden that would replace a shanty town, the last piece of prime real estate occupied by the city’s poor.
“Gold-plated!” Wotan’s second son made the word sound blasphemous. “Professor, are you implying gold is unsuitable for a statue of my father?”
Wotan caught his second son’s eyes, and held them, until the younger man grabbed a glass of water and downed it, spilling pearly drops on the dark mahogany of the table. His eyes moved toward his elder son, who was immersed in architectural drawings. Wotan noticed the hand holding the paper shaking and felt a warm glow of satisfaction.
He had trusted his sons, believed they and he were a team, until that day three years ago. The heart attack was a flutter according to the doctors, but for Wotan, it had been a cyclone. Laid out on a hospital bed, surrounded by life-prolonging machines, he had glanced at his sons and discerned in their eyes a shadow of disappointment.
They had wanted his heart attack to be fatal.
The shock forced the machines into an orgy of beeping. His sons rushed out. The doctors rushed in.
Later that night, Wotan studied his new reality. He had given his sons everything; they wanted him to die. He had taken their loyalty as an axiom; they had betrayed him. As the sleepless hours crawled towards a new dawn, Wotan graduated from numbing self-pity through burning anger to freezing hatred.
Once back in command, he had ordered his agents to spy on his sons. They had failed to uncover any incriminating evidence. That didn’t matter. He knew. He had seen the truth in his sons’ eyes.
Strife swirled round him. He looked around the table once again, this time his eyes stopping by the architect.
The man’s face turned corpse-pale.
Wotan banged on the table with a clenched fist. “Iron,” he hissed, his eyes moving from face to face with deliberate slowness. “Depict me in iron. Let no one forgets what I am.”
The voices rebounded, praising his choice.
Wotan pushed back the chair and strode out, leaving silence behind. As he closed the door, he thought he heard a titter at the edge of that silence. Then he remembered the hidden microphones and felt comforted.
That night was no different from every other night. Wotan lay still, in hope of surprising sleep. But his efforts were in vain. Sleep continued to be an eel, eluding his desperate attempts to catch it.
Lying still had turned his back into a highway of pain. He twisted and turned, trying to find a less uncomfortable position, wondering what the time was. There were no clocks in the room. Clocks made the sleepless night-hours seem longer.
Wotan switched on the bedside lamp. As he reached for the crystal water tumbler, his eyes fell on the life-sized painting of himself looming over the bed. His early middle-aged face started back at him, eyes keen, muscles tight, moustache jaunty.
The fleshy lips parted in a smile.
. Wotan screamed. No sound emerged from his tinder-dry throat.
The figure’s lips moved. ‘You don’t recognize me?’ It was his own voice, but on a much younger timbre. ‘I am your life…and death.’
A rattling sound came from Wotan’s gaping mouth. His brain was seething with frantic questions and incoherent thoughts, but they would not pass his flaming throat.
‘Thirsty?’ The figure smiled. ‘Get yourself a drink, a strong one’
Wotan shook his head. This time he said no; though the words had a shape and they did not have a sound.
‘Why not? Who can deny you anything anymore?’
‘I will die.’ The words came out in a mumble, though Wotan had shouted them from the depth of his being.
‘But you have nothing to worry. The succession is assured’. The figure held up a strong muscular hand, which Wotan remembered from another life vaguely, the result of a carefully supervised exercise regimen. ‘You have done well, very well.’
Wotan hardly heard. Bitterness had lent his voice wings. ‘I don’t want to die’. His words rushed like a torrent over the carcass of a broken dam. ‘They are waiting for me to die….’
‘My sons. My sons. Every morning I see them looking at me and asking themselves whether I’ll make it through the day. Every night they must be hoping that by morning I’d be gone’. Anger made his voice as steely as a rapier. ‘They pretend’, he spat; ‘they pretend. But I know. They think I am an old fool. An old fool…’
‘Once you are dead, their perfidy won’t matter.’
‘I don’t want to die.’ Grief tore at Wotan’s heart. Tears invaded his eyes and trickled down his cheeks. He sobbed.
‘Everyone must die.’
‘Not yet,’ Wotan croaked through his tears. ‘Not yet.’
‘‘You are eighty-seven. It is time to go. Immortality is overrated. One can get tired of life.’
Wotan tried to say he’d never get tired of life, but the words came slurred. The soporifics were beginning to work. His eyes were heavy, his body felt weighted down.
The figure spoke, its voice sounding as if was coming from another existence. ‘There is an old tale about a bargain. A young king was slated to die. He didn’t want to. Death gave him a choice. If he could find someone willing to die in his stead, he’d be spared.’
Wotan could feel the dawn of a smile. ‘That would’ve been easy. He could have just ordered and ordered…’
‘No,’ the voice was a talon. ‘The sacrifice had to be a willing one. He asked everyone, his parents, his friends, his subjects…. They all refused.’
Wotan could see himself in the desperate king’s place. Of course they wouldn’t agree, not if they had a choice.
Ashes; everything tasted like ashes in the end.
‘Then his wife offered to die for him in his place.’
Wotan said nothing. What was there to say? The apparition told him a story. In stories impossibly wonderful things happened. He remembered another old story, about a father who ate his sons to save his throne.
Real life was different. In real life, kings and fathers died, and sons won.
Wotan wanted to sleep, now, forever. He didn’t want to wake up tomorrow with his malfunctioning body.
The creature was speaking, its voice a hiss in his ear. ‘There are other choices. A young lamp for an old lamp. A young life for an old life. The life of a descendant for your life. Their consent is not needed. They won’t even know. But you must consent. If you do, they’ll die and you’ll get to live the years remaining to them. So you buy time. So you defer death.’
Wotan opened his mouth to shout a yes, but the glint in the figure’s eyes silenced him.
‘Your gem crusted portrait. How many varieties of gems are there?’
‘Five,’ he said without hesitation.
‘Pick one. Each is a symbol for your direct descendants.’
‘Rubies,’ Wotan cried. His least favourite gem. It had to symbolize his eldest son.
The figure nodded.
‘Who is it? Who is it?’ His voice rose, full of elation.
‘You’ll know in the morning.’ The figure smiled. ‘You will be given twenty four hours to experience the deal and make your final decision. A day to weigh the costs, to extricate yourself, or go ahead.’ The figure’s voice dropped to a near whisper. ‘Remember, what you reap comes from what you sow. Whatever that is really theirs will be yours.’
Wotan smiled, feeling like a toddler told a bedtime tale ending with the favourite character overcoming all odds and living happily ever after.
Wotan woke up to the sound of a knock, soft, but repeated endlessly.
He wanted to return to sleep; but the knock wouldn’t let him.
Eyes half closed against the light streaking through the wide window, he moved instinctively to sit up on the bed, and froze. He was already sitting up, his back against the bedstead, a knee drawn up. The bedside lamp glowed, a firefly in the streaming sunlight.
He put out a hand to switch off the light and jerked it back, confounded by the ease of the movement.
For years, mornings had been Wotan’s bane: a head that felt heavy enough to weigh him down, a back that creaked like an old door and limbs stiffer than deadwood.
This morning was a blessing. His head was clear, his back supple and his limbs agile.
Wotan closed his eyes, wondering if this was a dream.
Outside, the knocking continued.
Wotan opened his eyes, and saw the painting of his middle-aged self.
Remembrance of last night slashed at him. Against that alien memory, he clung to familiar things: the warm morning, the feel of rumpled bed linen… But once remembered, the memory refused to relent. It clung to him, half menace, half promise, demanding acknowledgement.
He chided himself. Immortality, even in dribbles, was fiction. Old age was his reality, death his fate.
The knocking was relentless. Wotan cursed and got up.
This time there was no defence against the memory of last night. His body no longer creaked like an old, un-oiled machine; it moved with youthful suppleness.
Wotan’s eyes darted across the room searching for any telltale presence. The room seemed the way it always did, but he saw it better. Every line was sharper, every colour brighter.
Last night had not been a nightmare; it had been a dream come true. He had crossed the threshold. Darkness was defeated, and banished from life. The light will burn bright for a long time.
A very long time.
Wotan bounded toward the door and stopped, reminding himself of the need to maintain appearances. He adjusted his shoulders to imitate its usual sag and opened the door in a slow, arthritic motion, screwing his eyes at the same time.
His secretary stood outside, with his doctor.
“What’s it?” He made his voice sound irritated. He allowed a moment to pass and asked, “Is anything wrong?” injecting a note of anxiety into his voice.
His secretary answered him; words and phrases: a car crash, hospital, coma… He caught the name of his older son.
A savage pleasure engulfed him. Once again the perfect murder had been committed, more perfect than anything that went before. A murder that could never be traced back to him, not even if every detective in the world investigated it until the end of time.
A laugh of pure joy bubbled in his throat. He swallowed it. He’d rejoice later. Now he had a role to play. The bereaved father of a beloved son.
He shrank back as if an invisible blow had hit him. They caught him tenderly and led into a nearby chair. He shook off the ministering hands, staggered to the window and gripped the frame with both hands. It was a good pose, one he had seen in many movies.
It would be a state funeral of course, and a grand one. Would anything else suffice for an heir-apparent?
He would not grudge any of them that final pageant, a memorable send-off.
For a second his memory escaped his grip and flew back to the day he became a father for the first time. He had been so happy, happy and proud, determined to do his best for the boy and for the others who would follow.
Where did that father go? How did that love turn into hate?
Past is not just another country, he thought. Past is also another person. He changed because they changed. He had given them everything. They betrayed him. He owed them nothing.
He turned around, shouting he must go to the hospital. By the time he reached the front door, his cavalcade was waiting for him.
The short distance to Kismetia’s best hospital took only a few minutes on roads closed to normal traffic. The doctors huddled at the entrance. Wotan listened to them, hearing a word here, a phrase there, his mind focused on keeping his expression under control. They guided him to an elevator and then a door. He wondered how long he could keep in the laughter.
The door opened. He walked into a room filled with machines, a bed, and a figure on it, eyes closed, curls hidden by bandages, an oxygen mask covering the soft lips that had kissed his cheek and mouthed the usual, “G’night, Grampa, don’t let the beddy-bugs bite you,” just last night.
When Wotan regained his senses, he was standing outside the intensive care unit. He touched his throbbing forehead, felt a sticky wetness and noticed a reddish mark on the pastel pink wall.
His secretary stammered, “Excellency, your forehead…”
Wotan pushed the man aside and ran, as if every devil in every hell was after him.
The clocks were back.
Wotan huddled on the bed and listened to their beat, waiting for the night to peak.
One moment the painting was a s till life; the next moment it wasn’t.
Wotan’s throat felt like sandpaper. He realized he had not eaten or drunk anything all day. ‘My granddaughter, Tiggy, she was in the car with her uncle and her cousins.’
The painting smiled.
Wotan started shivering.
The figure raised an eyebrow.
‘I don’t want her to die.’ Wotan’s voice rattled almost as much as his teeth did. ‘Not her. Take anyone else. Not her.’
The apparition continued to smile.
‘Please…’ he could feel the tears coursing down his cheeks.
The words fell like lashes. Wotan cowered on the bed. ‘You can’t bargain. You have no choice. Neither do I. Think of it as a roulette wheel.’
The figure waited, smiling Wotan’s old smile.
The clocks ticked the seconds, the minutes, the hours.
Somewhere, a cock crowed, loud and guttural. The painting began to fade.
Wotan tried to speak and failed. But his mouth formed the word.
Wotan woke up to the sound of a knock, soft, but repeated endlessly.
He wanted to return to sleep; but the knock wouldn’t let him. He slurred an expletive and sat up. And remembered.
The pain started in his head and coursed through his body. He doubled down and fell off the bed. He clawed at the carpet, sobbing, wishing for death.
The knocking persisted.
A ray of sunlight fell into the room, filling it with life and warmth. Wotan gazed around, his eyes sucking in the glow of another morning.
There was no darkness like the darkness of one’s own tomb. Anything was better than that.
For a moment, he felt the feather-softness of a kiss on his cheek. Then it was over. Only relief remained. He had managed to defer the evening that came for everyone. He could do it again and again.
Longevity beyond measure was his. Young lamps for old; with so many young lamps around, the old need never die.
Wotan walked up to the window and leaned out. Below him, the garden vibrated with colours. Two chaste-white butterflies flittered around leisurely. A soft wind stirred the leaves and the flowers.
He smiled. How alive life becomes when the ephemeral is transformed into eternal. A sky with no end.
He longed to be in his garden, to whisper his happiness to the rejuvenated trees.
Not now, he thought. Later. He could afford to wait. There was no urgency anymore. Time was the most precious commodity in the world; now he had it in unlimited measure.
His sons were young. Perhaps they could give him another granddaughter, a better Tiggy.
The pain came suddenly, a pinpoint that grew until it felt as if an invisible hand had struck a knife into his head, and was turning it with exquisite slowness.
Then it was gone, as suddenly as it arrived.
Wotan wiped the beads of sweat off his brow. Nerves, he thought, taking in deep breaths of rain-freshened air; nothing but nerves.
He turned around to head to the door.
The pain came again, swift and sharp, catching him with iron claws. He clutched at a table, trying to breathe.
The pain receded into a patch of discomfiture, and stayed, as if it was in no hurry, as if it too had all the time in the world.
Pressure, Wotan thought. With all these happenings. He needed to relax, get himself a drink. He imagined downing that drink, sitting under a tree, feeling at one with his garden.
Later. One more later to look forward to.
Now he had a task to perform, a drama to direct, a role to act.
He made his shoulders sag, walked to the door with slow steps, and opened it.
They were solicitous with him, tender even. He allowed them to do as they will.
His physician knelt by his chair, holding a piece of paper. “Excellency…”
He waved a hand, weakly, a gesture that could mean anything.
“Excellency, your granddaughter, I know there’s no comfort, but this might help you, she was…the doctors discovered…she was…”
Wotan staggered to the window, stray words pursuing him. Cerebellum… Tissues… Malignant… Fluid… Malignant.
He clutched the window frame with fingers that felt like lead.
He retched, eyes closed against the rising heat. Outside, the balmy morning was turning into a brutally hot day.
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