Even as he clung to the face of the cliff his greatest fear was not of falling. Though the ground lay a thousand feet distant, he moved with the patient decisiveness that accompanies long practice. Although it seemed many times he must surely fall to his death, his hands found handholds, his feet found footholds. He climbed down. Down into the valley where memory waited like a beast ready to pounce.
He had lived here once and returned now not from nostalgia, but from the force of a habit so strong it was ritual. The fact that he had performed this ritual longer than he could remember had made taking the journey a reflex more than a decision. Down and down he climbed. Down where the rock walls had stood in patient abeyance for the last hundred million years. Down to where he had climbed he knew not how many times. When at last he stood on the valley floor, he took off his pack and sat down, panting. He faced the rock wall only a moment before turning away. The rock wall made the fear turn his guts.
Every year, he came to the wall when the seasons changed and the land grew warm. He came because the valley was the place where the words lived. Carved onto the rock wall were the most important words. The only words that mattered anymore. He wished he could remember having written them. Or any of the countless times he must have done maintenance on them by sharpening the grooves in the stone.
“I AM JOHN FOSTER HENDERSON AND I CANNOT DIE”
The letters were taller than a man and John Foster Henderson had no idea how long it must have taken him to write them with nothing more than a stone to scrape into the side of the cliff. Years maybe. Underneath the words were a series of serial marks. Each cluster containing four in a row, crossed by a fifth. One mark for every year of his life. The marks extended far off into the distance as far as the eye could see, stacked taller than a man, like a wall of pictures.
Today he would settle into the valley and make camp. Tomorrow he would begin the trek to the place where the marks ended. Once there he would make a new mark. The journey would take the better part of three days. He knew it in his bones without having to recall his last trip.
With shaking hands, John Foster Henderson took his journal from out of his pack. The journal was made of tanned animal hides sloppily bound together and written with ink made from blood and berries. The fear returned as he held the journal.
It was hard not to think about it. The unending fear. The fear that seemed more real than ever here in the valley.
John Foster Henderson was the last man on Earth. Maybe the last sentient being in the universe. He did his best to ignore the fear, but still… there wasn’t much else to do but think.
“I am John Foster Henderson and I cannot die.”
The journal began with the same sentence as the one he had written on the wall. He read the journal every year when he came to make his mark. Every five years he copied it word for word and checked it against the old copy. A single copy would never have lasted his lifetime. That was one of the lessons his immortality had taught him. Keeping anything constant required constant work.
“I write this because I do not believe I will be able to remember much longer. My name. My family. Human history. Or even that there was such a thing as human history.
“I have lived longer than any man was ever meant to live and my mind is filling up. Every day I live to take in new experiences is a day that my mind has to make a decision about what is important to remember. We had a saying once, when there were enough of us that speaking was important: Use it or lose it.
“In enough time, when the inertia of solitary days becomes greater than the memory of all the beautiful things, I will lose everything.
“I am the last survivor of the human race. The humans were a vast people. They had different faces and different skin colors and different genders, as do the animals. I have come now to accept that one day I will wake up and not be able to remember a face that is not my own. I can bear that as long as I remember that there were faces not my own.
“I had a woman once. A she. If I have forgotten gender, I remind myself to look at the animals and think on how they pair with one another. That is gender. Her name was Sarah. If I close my eyes and think very hard I remember that her hair was black. Her eyes were blue. But I may be imagining that. I do remember blue eyes though. People had blue eyes once. Blue like the sky is blue.”
This part always fascinated John Foster Henderson. His hair and eyes were brown. The color of dirt. He liked to think what it must have been like to see someone with eyes the color of the sky. It was one of the few thoughts that made him smile when he came to the valley. One of a very few thoughts.
“I do not know exactly what happened to the rest of the world. I was a scientist in my old life. A geologist, a man who knew things about the Earth, and I was deep in the Earth when catastrophe struck. Whatever it was came all at once, and all people but me were dead on the instant.
“I lived for years in the dark, unable to leave. The skies were black and the sun gave no light for the longest time. I ate lizards and bugs, and drank water that had lain still in subterranean pools since the dawn of time. It tasted of sulfur. I despaired for what I felt was eternity, but I persisted.
“There was something once called suicide. It meant the willful termination of one’s own life. They took that out of us when they took death away from us. Maybe that’s why we blew each other up. Life stopped meaning anything when it stopped ending. Maybe we just lit up all the bombs we had. We could kill one another. They never took that away. I don’t know. I could never piece together what happened after I left the cave.
“All I dared think about was how I lived. Deep in the Earth. For years. Maybe a hundred. Probably more. I kept no count. When it was safe to leave I had become so accustomed to the dark that it hurt to stand in the light. It was a long time before I made the full transition and once more became a creature of the sun.
“And when I left to see what remained, there were no more buildings. No more people. I saw my reflection in a clear pool, and realized that I was all that was left. And so my suffering began.”
He thumbed to the back of the book. It was filled with definitions of human things based upon a world without humans or any of their inventions. If he read them for long enough and closed his eyes, he could imagine what such things must have looked like.
“Buildings: giant cubes made of stone and metal for people to live inside.
“Streets: Flat rectangles of stone that laid on the ground for people to walk upon.
“Machines: Things made of metal and stone that did things to make life either. Knives and spears are simple machines.
“People: Others like us, who had different minds we could not touch. There were as many people on the Earth as there are stars in the sky.”
John Foster Henderson closed his eyes and murmured the words. Then he flipped back to his previous place in the journal.
“I will remember this. You, my un-remembering self, will remember this. For they are gone now and only the memory of their memory will live with us. Remember their memory, because there is now nothing else we can do.”
John Foster Henderson made a fire. He made a shelter. He had done these tasks many times and they presented him with no difficulty. Buildings, he thought. These were the things men like him had made like giant shelters for many people to live inside. Machines. These were the things like his flint knife that men had made to make building things like buildings easier. Streets… for moving people and machines from building to building.
John Foster Henderson sat down and tried to imagine all of it. It was almost too much to think about. And then there was that fear again. He spoke aloud the writing on the wall.
“I am John Foster Henderson and I cannot die.”
And although his voice was reassuring, there was a small terror living inside it. Did he speak his own language anymore? Would anyone be able to recognize the sounds he made? Or had it changed little by little over the years? Had he made so many vocal shifts that his language was unrecognizable?
John Foster Henderson slept by his fire and shivered in the night. Around him the sky and earth moved in their destined courses, and were as empty of life as they were full of possibility.
He spoke aloud all the first day. From the journal, without bothering to read it. Use it or lose it. He had used the journal many times. His mind knew the words now like his leg knew to kick when he bumped his knee. The words like the journey were a reflex. He lived long enough everything felt like a reflex.
“Her name was Sarah Foster. We met in college. College was a building where people gathered and told each other everything they knew. Sarah had black hair and blue eyes. I’m sure of that now. Black like night and blue like day. She had the coloring of the sky, and she was the most beautiful woman in the world to me.
“I asked her for a year to be mine. A year is the amount of time it takes for winter to go away and come back. She said no every time. Then, after a year she said yes.
“I smiled every day after that. She was mine and I was hers. We were in love.”
The next part made John Foster Henderson feel something in his chest. Something that twisted and seemed to hurt but for which he had no word. He did not have to move to another place in the journal to find the words for these confusing feelings, for they were so important they had been written in the middle of the journal.
“Love: The most wonderful thing in all the world. The thing that makes life worth living. Love is the reason hearts beat and the reason people get up in the morning. We can love ourselves, we can love others, we can love the world. Love is warmer than fire. Love is bigger than the mountains. Love is more forever than the sun.
“I loved Sarah. She loved me. It made us warm and big and protected. One time we went on a picnic. A picnic is a meal you eat outside of a building with someone you love. It started to rain. But we did not run for shelter. We sat and held each others hands. Because our love kept us warm and big and protected.”
John Foster Henderson’s voice caught in his throat.
“I can already feel it fading. The feelings I felt for other people. I think about it and I get the emotion without the reason. In time, that too will be gone. My head will be empty of all but words and some of their meanings.
“Remember love, John Foster Henderson. Remember it for as long as you are compelled to walk the Earth, for it is the one thing which will make the loneliness bearable. Love yourself and the Earth and the memory of all those who are now gone. Fill the empty places with love and you can endure without suffering. Cry if you must.”
He spoke the definition to the word he could not remember.
“Crying: You will know this is what you are doing when water comes out of your eyes, but this is not the only reason you do it. You will know the other reasons for they will twist in your heart always.”
John Foster sat down in his shelter after he made camp that night and cried for a very long time. He held himself and rocked in the cold night, and found when he fell asleep he felt better. Like he had lanced a wound and squeezed out part of the infection.
On the second day, John Foster Henderson thought about family. He walked along the wall, the marks becoming cleaner and more distinct. These were not so old as those he had passed yesterday. The years had not yet had a chance to be so unkind. He wondered if there were as many marks now as there had been people on the Earth. He didn’t know. His mind had lost much of the use of numbers.
“Family: These are kin folk. They are related to you as animals are related to one another.”
There were red flower petals hanging in some of the etchings. It must have been the wind, sweeping them up off the valley floor. John Foster Henderson was the only person in the world who could have placed them there intentionally, and he had not done so. He kept walking.
“My father’s name was George. My mother’s name was Corrine. I had one brother named Jacob and one sister named Karen. One Christmas (Christmas is a special day when everyone does their best to love one another) Karen told us she was pregnant. She was seventeen. My mother started to cry. My brother and I sat still as my father disowned her. I never saw her again after that. Not even when my father died. Not even when everyone became immortal.
“I was only twenty-one, and had no money, but I should have helped her. I can see everything so much more clearly now that there are no more people. I should have helped her because family is important. No matter what you do you can never change where you came from. Karen. Her name was Karen and I should have run to her and protected her when she was alone and afraid.
“Jacob went away to war. One time when we were young he took one of my toys from me and tied a ribbon around it. He hid it for a week and gave it back to me for a birthday present. I was angry, but I can see now that he loved me. Someone put a bullet through his eye. A bullet is a small metal knife that people throw at each other with machines.
“My dad got cancer and wasted away. Cancer was a sickness people had when their bodies just got tired of living. He wasn’t the same after he disowned Karen. He didn’t fight it too hard when the end came. He tried very hard to do what he thought was right, but he should never have let Karen go away. That was wrong. He loved her so much and he let her go away. That was the real sin in the world. That we all loved each other but couldn’t stop hurting.
“Mom lived with Sarah and I for a while. She lived to see the birth of the twins. Twins are when a woman gives birth to two babies at the same time. I named them Karen and Jacob, after the siblings I had lost. Mom died very shortly after that. I think she felt it was time to go, like something that had been broken had been restored.”
John Foster Henderson, whispered as he went about setting up camp. He whispered words that cut deeper than knives because he could not rightly recall why they should cut him at all.
“We were all going to live forever. That was they said. Me, Sarah, Jacob, and Karen. All of us, forever. Bright and happy. I would see my children have children. Sarah and I would let them play on our knees knowing that we would never grow too old to care for them. All of us forever, loving each other.”
He was sobbing by the time he was sitting in front of the fire. Sobbing as if to wet out the flames, and his words were broken and came in great rasping heaves. He knew the words should mean more to him than they did, and that hurt more than anything else.
“We had a house on the hill. It was white and we had a picket fence. We had a dog named Scratch that loved everyone but me. He used to tear my shoes to bits. Sarah and I fought sometimes, but almost every day was good, and neither of us would have chosen to live on without the other even at our angriest moment. I loved them all so much.
“I’m just going to go away this once, honey. That’s what I said. We had forever, after all. Forever and ever. So I said, hey I want to go this new place they found. Deepest cave in the country. And she said yes, even though she was scared. There was talk about people wanting to go to war again, even though nobody was hungry or sick. Some people wanted to stop living forever, and some people didn’t think that was okay. But I went anyway.
“So I was in that cave. In that dark deep cave. With the still pools that tasted like sulfur, and the lizards I had to eat uncooked. And the bat skeletons I had to crush and choke down so my bones wouldn’t atrophy. And my beautiful family, Sarah, and the white house on the hill, and Jacob, and Karen, they all went kaboom! Now there’s just me. In all of the whole world, there’s just me.
“And if I could wish myself to be dead and take my own life, I would.”
John Foster Henderson fell asleep looking at his knife, and knowing that he could not even if he wanted to. That part of him had been taken out with death. The journal told him so. Still, he looked at the knife and felt a hunger which could never be satisfied.
On the third day John Foster Henderson thought about time. He thought about time a lot. He could add time. He could subtract it, but somewhere along the way he had forced himself to unlearn the act of counting. Even now he shivered when he thought of counting. Counting was the biggest part of the fear. When you started counting, and thinking about counting, then anything was possible.
“A Day: The time it takes for the Earth to revolve from dawn to new dawn.
“A Year: The time it takes for the Earth to make one revolution around the sun. A year is made of 365 days.
“A decade: Ten years
“A century: One hundred years
“A millenium: One thousand years
“That’s how old I was when the world ended. When I was finally able to leave the cave I had been living in it far longer than I had lived outside of it. After all the time in that cave, when I came out all that was left of human civilization was a few mounds. You could find some stone or metal scraps in some of the mounds if you dug deep enough. That was it.
“I tried to figure out where my house was as best I could, but there was a crater there. A giant god-damned crater. I don’t know why, but I stayed there a long time, even though there wasn’t much to eat. It was hard to find food in those first days. The water was still dirty and the plants hadn’t made their comeback.
“I stayed there for a long while. It was miserable and I looked like a skeleton, although I looked like a skeleton anyway from living in that cave for so long. Some of the dust there was my house and my family. Even if it was only one particle, then it was one particle I could be sure of. So I stayed there a long meaningless time. And I started to count.
“One and two and three and four and five… and on and on and on. Do you remember what happened? Every number we said. Every number we uttered. There was another number after it, and when we got to ten billion we could not stop screaming because we had been counting for almost a hundred years and we still hadn’t run out of numbers. And that’s when we knew that what had happened to us was forever. That there would be no dying. That we would wander the Earth all the days of our shared life and it would never end. And we were furious!
“So we climbed, fingers digging into stone, and with nothing but a little rock we carved into the stone of the canyon the one thing which we now knew. Which we knew as men had known gravity, and atoms, and space, and love, and death.
“I AM JOHN FOSTER HENDERSON AND I CANNOT DIE
“We wanted it there forever, but knew it would fade. Knew it would fade as the buildings had faded, knew it would fade because life, ever-adapting life, is the only thing that lasts forever and if we wanted the universe to know the awfulness of our fate then we would have to make it the duty of our life to speak our fate every waking hour. And we started to mark the time. Every year. A mark in the stone. Every five years, a bundle. Keeping tally like a prisoner, except that our prison was the whole of the Earth.
“And when we could bear the sight of the writing on the wall and the marks no longer, we began to wander. Further and further afield. As if we could run away from our confinement. I don’t know how many years later we stopped. We don’t know because the one thing we wish never to do again is count the passage of time. Because when we count we can see infinity and it is horrible beyond words.
“We stopped when we couldn’t remember the color of Sarah’s eyes. We couldn’t remember if they were blue, or green, or gray. Or if they were just a very blue shade of green, or if they were a very blue kind of gray. And that’s when we realized. That’s when we realized it was worse than we could have ever imagined. Our mind was filling up. Second by second. Blink by blink. Heartbeat by heartbeat.
“A ream of paper, and one pen. That was all. That was all we had ever found in our travels. So we sat down, and wrote out all of my memories before they could vanish like smoke on the wind. I was dying even then, and you were being born from my forgetfulness. We wrote down everything we could, and then we realized that the paper too would erode in time. We knew e must find ways to preserve this journal for all of time, for it was all of me that was left. And so I did. And so you did. And so we did, for we are one and the same although you cannot remember me. And I love you, and you love me, because we, sharing this skin although my mind has gone away with the rebirth of each new cell, are all we have in this empty world.
“So as time wears on, and the horrible clock of the universe continues to count, know this John Foster Henderson. Love yourself. Love yourself as much as you can as long as you can. You are all you have left in the world. You and me. Forever.”
He spotted the end of the marks, and he ran to them so fast his thighs began to burn. When he collapsed before the marks he took out his flint knife and began to scratch. Over and over in the same spot. This scratch was the fourth of a bundle. One two three four… and forever and infinity. Always and eternal.
John Foster Henderson tried very hard not to look to his right. Because if he looked to his right he would see the remnants of faded marks he had made in the past. The marks were so old they had all but vanished back into the stone, as he knew the mark he now made would fade. How many times? The fear came when he counted. He wondered and grew dizzy with the possibility of it. How many times had he covered the length of the valley with scratches from end to end? How many? One two three four five… and forever and infinity. Always and eternal.
He hoped that his journal was real. That’s what made him so afraid. That was why he hated the valley. Oh how that fear ate at him. That great fear that only returned when he was in this place. He hoped beyond hope that he had once been John Foster Henderson. He hoped that he had not been delusional when he wrote that journal. He hoped that he knew who he was because if he was not himself, then he was nobody. And if he was nobody then he was truly and completely alone.
So he scratched, and when he was done he crawled out of the valley as though he were being chased, and while he clung to the side of the cliff his greatest fear was not of falling. His greatest fear was the memories and uncertainties that lay waiting below him. The memories that would call him back year after year. When you start counting, when you even start thinking about counting, then anything is possible. One two three four. Forever and infinity. Always and eternal.
“Please let me have been myself,” John Foster Henderson whispered as he reached the top. Then he ran, and ran, and forced himself not to think.