Javier’s first child was born before he became immortal. He was thirty-three and lying in bed, noticing that he got winded quicker than he used to, when Zelda returned from her morning walk through downtown Concord with her hands pressed against the waistband of her sweat shorts.
“Everything is going to hell,” she whispered. “I was watching the nature channel at the techno park. Or maybe it was the news. Ninety-seven pilot whales beached down in Tasmania.”
Pilot whales, sperm whales, beaked whales. Tasmania, the Bahamas, Iceland. He counted enough variables at work. “Can we not talk about suicide cults today?”
“You know how hard it is for a whale to find another whale? I wonder if any of them had babies before they died.” She scratched her dirty-blonde hair, wiped her eyes, and eventually came back to bed and drummed on his kneecaps. Leaned over, leaned down. She felt ashen and wet from the fumes of the Gilgamesh Steamstack. “I want something to survive, Jav.”
June, short for Juniper, was born full-term at Mercy Hospital–second-lowest mortality rate in the city, the “biggest bang for your buck”–two weeks after a blackout. The doctor chopped off her placenta and returned her to Zelda’s folded body, and everyone was happy for a little while. Javier stayed happier for longer; June had his dark features, his mad laugh.
“You see?” he said to Zelda as they sat on their damp porch on Reagan Road, watching June build castles of mud. “She’s our future. She’ll take care of us when we’re old.”
Zelda sighed. “She can’t fight deforestation,” she said. “She can’t fight acid rain.”
Two winters later, the EPA found potassium permanganate in the city water supply, and Zelda did not come home from one of her morning walks. A neighbor said he’d seen her at the edge of the estuary, staring at the silt that passed for water. Apparently Zelda hadn’t answered the neighbor’s calls. “I thought maybe she was drunk,” the neighbor said. “I thought I’d better leave her be.” The years that followed the muted funeral slipped on past like water, because while silt was flooding Zelda’s lungs, Javier had stopped aging.
One day June was standing in the kitchen, fifteen years old and chopping onions, and said to her father that he looked so much younger than her friends’ dads. “I think Brianna has a crush on you,” she said, laughing. Javier was so haggard from all the numbers he’d counted that he hadn’t noticed, but when he looked at himself in the steel refrigerator he saw that June was right. He still looked thirty-five. “Guess I have good genes,” he joked. “Lucky you.”
Except June got older and older, and her father did not. She had children and grandchildren but they didn’t seem worth the effort, not the way their faces blurred together. June could only stand the sight of him after she’d had a martini. She had asked him more than once if he had killed her real father and stolen his skin. “It would explain a lot,” she’d say.
His little junebug; nobody at her funeral had known who he was. The news outlets had been reporting it for years, but only after he watched his own progeny descend back into the planet did Javier realize how severely the world had changed.
Javier’s second child was accidental. Before the days started to drag like a rake against the barren world, he would have predicted that such calamities would leave him sitting in graveyards, sobbing. In practice, his body wouldn’t calcify. Instead he wandered through the skeleton of Concord, vertebrae by vertebrae. He burned his house down with his daughter’s Polaroids inside. He slept inside the data farm’s parabolic antenna, climbed the Gilgamesh Steamstack. From this height he saw a billboard for one Petrified Forest State Park: breathtaking scenery and family fun only 5 miles north of Concord! The people on the billboard were missing their faces–wind erosion, maybe. Several weeks later he ran out of bones to examine in Concord, and so left on a northbound county road. Only after he lost himself in the stalled trees did he realize that he’d probably taken that tall girl-child of his to the Forest once upon a time.
He spent most of his time sleeping in a field of mummified wood. For years he didn’t speak, until one day he woke up so fantastically lonely that he began to follow around a family of mice. They reproduced with such incredible efficiency that attachment to individual balls of fur was impossible. There would always be a family of mice in the woodchips, and to this ever-changing, everlasting family of his, he spoke. He performed monologues, pitched advertisements. He taught them history as he remembered it, recited the alphabet as best he could. He asked them questions he knew they could not answer. By the time the Spoonfellows came marching under the dilapidated welcome gates, banging pots and cans, he’d reacquainted himself with the concept of other people.
The Spoonfellows called themselves nomads. Their patriarch was a scarecrow of a man they called Old Budger, and Old Budger was devoted to a mountain god named Craikaton. “We walked all the way from the Gulf to see him,” said Old Budger, pointing at the slate-gray peaks. Javier had grown up in the shadow of those mountains and didn’t remember hearing about any Craikaton, but the existence of such a being would not have surprised him. The mountains had been growing since people had diminished. There was no reason why they shouldn’t have grown themselves a well and proper god.
He joined the Spoonfellows in their Rite of Adoration on the night of the first snowfall. They danced around a hissing fire, drunk on moonshine, calling in vain for the woodland animals of the state park–“Brother Weasel!” “Sister Crow!”–to join in their worship. At some deep hour of the night, Old Budger married Javier to his daughter Georgia. Javier remembered holding hands with Georgia and jumping over the fire, then falling in. He remembered the smell of Georgia’s skirt burning and a galling sensation of pain–the other Spoonfellows hopping over him with bare and blackened feet.
The burn on his leg gave him a more human way to measure time. He checked on its progress twice a day. It had become a numb, pink mesa when cherry-cheeked Georgia came up to him and told him she was pregnant.
“Feel,” she said with a huge smile, forcing his fingers upon her belly.
The Spoonfellows wanted to keep him in the tribe. They tried everything, from “the marital bond is sacred” to “new life must be tended” to assaults with cast iron cookware. These parlor tricks were nothing to an immortal, and Javier left the Petrified Forest feeling renewed disgust for the human race. Whether that child survived to commune with Craikaton, he did not know and did not care.
The county road was gone when he finished picking his way out of the woods. Months of crusted snow had buried the yellow lane markers and rumble strips in tundra. The Gilgamesh Steamstack did not leer over the horizon because it had fallen, because Concord was dead. Shivering little brown deer dug for frozen vegetation in the open expanse, and Javier went the other way.
Javier’s third child was born in apathy. His parents named him B.P., after the gas station where he was born. B.P.’s mother didn’t understand the purpose of gasoline, but the camp where she’d grown up had at least taught her how to read. The camp ministers had also given her a name, but she didn’t like it, so she never told Javier what it was. “I ran away,” she said, “because I was bored.” Clambering over the chain link fence and running through the witch-hazel was all right, she said, “but after I got free, sweet Mary, I was so alone.”
He ran across her in the heartland, where the grass grew tall and rough and corn-colored. She was headed east on Route 6 with a knapsack and a spear; he was slogging westward. They met at a burning junk pile. He had reached a phase in his grotesquely elongated life where he thought he no longer cared about loss, so he decided he liked the cut of her skirt and swore not to care about anything else.
“I had another baby,” she said, wiping bile off her mouth. There was pollen in her hair. “But it didn’t make it. I gave it to a coyote.”
“Why not? I wasn’t going to eat it.”
Both of them vowed not to care about B.P., to protect themselves. But of course it didn’t work that way; no matter how many times Javier pushed the squirming little thing away, it would come a-crawling, making animalistic sounds. They kept B.P. from drinking cleaning fluid for no reason they could articulate other than “I like having it around,” but when B.P. got lost in the prairie grass, his mother’s voice flared like a siren. They searched for him all night and Javier finally found him fighting off a sand crane that was nipping at his face. The urge to snap the creature’s ungainly neck bubbled up in his throat–unfamiliar, hot, something he’d forgotten how to feel. But B.P.’s mother called him home and the crane fluttered away with a glittering insect in its beak.
Eventually she got bored of waiting for the prairie to overtake the gas station, and they resumed walking Route 6. For the first time that he could remember, Javier worried. He got cold sweats when he heard hymns, or saw red-orange lights through dust clouds on the horizon. Sometimes B.P.’s mother sang “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” with her loud and trumpeting voice, and Javier always tried to shut her up. They argued about faith and vigilance–what kind of a life is this, she’d start–but once the herds moved through with scythes, calling, “Who’s that writin’? John the Revelator,” she always conceded the point. Marauders never used to scare Javier–he’d fought a few, gotten stabbed once. He’d live through anything. B.P. and his mother would not.
Javier’s fourth child was born in a ditch off Route 6, and they named him Daniel after a story that his mother had been told at camp. He had been born into a den of lions, she said, but he would be delivered. They took aching care of the baby, but two weeks into life he succumbed to an anonymous airborne germ. This one, the child’s mother didn’t feed to a coyote. “Danny was sick,” she explained, sniffling. She looked like a rusted flagpole with her bandanna flapping in the wind. “I wouldn’t want to spread that around.”
It took her a while to notice that he wasn’t getting older beneath the layers of dirt and corrosion. “Lucky you,” she said, when they washed themselves at an old water pump. “You know this means you take over hunting and gathering.” Javier ate out of comfort, not necessity, and he had learned how to catch the best quarry from all his years of being thirty-five in a world without markets. He taught their son how to hunt rabbits under rain shadows, so he could stay under a poncho with the woman he loved and cradle her shivering, withering body.
After she died, the world’s stretch was no longer room to travel in. It was a tomb. B.P. had become a young man with wild hair, but Javier saw a skull beneath his cheeks–even as the kid slept, that vacant skull he carried would stare at Javier. Sometimes it even made sounds, like the howl of wind crossing the mouth of an empty cave.
He led B.P. back the way they had come. This time he didn’t notice the way the loons’ melancholy calls or the way the wind moved the prairie. Past the gas station where B.P. had been born, the climate began to cool. “Why are we going this way?” B.P. asked.
“I’m going to find whatever made me like this, so I can give it to you too.”
B.P. looked doubtful. “How?”
“I’ll just retrace my steps.”
It sounded simpler than it was. His memory lagged, but he knew that he had first discovered his immortality in that town whose name had stuck because it was the name of other important encyclopedic things: Concord. They used grimy gas station maps to find it.
Squatters lived in the flattened ruins of the city. They worshipped the Stone God Craikaton and wore cutlery for jewelry. They were suspicious of the unadorned and even more baffled when Javier pointed at the remains of Reagan Road. “That’s ashland,” they said, waving their hands. “That’s blow-away land. You will be swept up.” But there were no tornadoes on the horizon, so Javier and his son took their chances and sifted through Javier’s charred house. They did not know what they were looking for. Something shiny, something bottled? Everything was burned. Javier rubbed ashes on B.P.’s face and fed him water from the sour estuary. Little good that would do.
“Damn it,” said Javier. B.P.’s hair was getting grayer by the second.
“Maybe it happened somewhere else,” said B.P. “Did you go anywhere special when you turned thirty-five?”
It took him a few weeks to remember. He had to draw letters and numbers in the soil to dredge it up, but he had indeed gone on a brief vacation. It had been with that woman and that girl-child, the ones whose names he could not bring himself to recall. They had gone to Rio.
B.P. became very sorry to have suggested anything. The trek to Rio was coarser and bloodier than any of the walks they had taken when he was a child. It was also much, much longer. Javier plunged ahead through volcanic lakes and wild boars, while B.P. trudged through his father’s debris. Every now and then they were sidelined by febrile diseases. Bacteria crippled B.P., but within a few days his father would be back on his feet, demanding they get moving, saying time was running out. By the time they scaled the last of the rocky overhangs, taunted by macaws, B.P. was forty, and his father thirty-five.
The last time Javier roamed the acres formerly known as Rio, the jungle had been beaten back with chainsaws, kowtowed by urban planners. It had since overrun the city. Javier could find neither the hotel they’d stayed at nor the restaurants they ate at. There were only gibbon communes and a one-eyed jaguar that lived in what looked to have been a city fountain with a host of hissing, scratching young. Javier suspected there might have been a few people living in the canopy–he heard them crossing overhead–but they never showed their faces. He had no time for them, besides. B.P.’s wrinkles were getting deeper.
What Javier finally found was a well, but the water was too shallow. B.P. sat watching his father tie half a hollowed-out coconut to a vine and said, “Dad. This is ridiculous. I don’t think that water’s going to do anything.”
Javier shook his head and dropped the coconut bowl into the well–a flock of distraught birds burst out of the dark. “You never know,” said Javier. “This might be the one.”
“You want me to stay five years older than you? So we can pretend we’re brothers?”
“You’ll still be my son, no matter how old you are.”
“And no matter if I die, too, right?”
Javier carefully pulled up the vine. “Is that what you want? You want to die?”
B.P. didn’t respond. Javier assumed he was sulking because he knew that his father was right. He retrieved the coconut and sniffed the water sloshing inside. He decided it might be magical and passed it on to his son, who was resting his sagging chin on his sunburned arms.
“I don’t want to be stuck here forever just because you want company,” said B.P.
Javier nearly threw the water at him. “Is that why you think I’m doing this? I don’t want you to have to die! What your mother went through, you want to go through that?”
“Mother wouldn’t have wanted to live forever.”
“Just drink it. Drink it before it goes bad.”
“If you don’t want to be alone then why don’t you just kill yourself?”
“Drink it. Now.”
B.P. drank from the coconut, but Javier guessed he did so only because he did not believe in the water’s power. Then Javier turned away, because looking into B.P.’s eyes was like looking into his own.
They began a rough journey home. Progress was slow. Javier’s burning drive had subsided; only time would tell if the water had worked, and he had run out of places to go. They came to a pause when B.P. got laid up with another equatorial disease, this time one with a lot of vomiting. He said he’d been feeling sick since Rio–he just didn’t want to say anything.
“I didn’t want to depress you,” B.P. said, curled in a fetal position.
Javier was mashing fruit for him. “Why would it depress me? You’re just sick.”
“Because that water tasted off.”
And then there was no home.
Javier’s fifth child was engineered.
He had spent years walking rough terrain, obsessing over what he considered to be his now nameless son’s parting gift: the idea of suicide. He used to consider suicide a waste of his immortality, but at this time in his life and that of the quiet Earth’s, he decided he was done.
The waterfalls were still running full power but even the jungles were tumbling open, falling apart at the seams. He was sure the planet was on borrowed time because the days were so short and he encountered so few people. And the animals, the animals were mutating. He was beginning to fear that when Earth did end, he would continue to float in outer space with no need for oxygen until the end of time–if indeed there was such a thing. Just the thought of this made his muscles want to atrophy. He decided to try jumping from a waterfall. To his delight, falling enlivened his blood, re-awakened fear. He felt human again and smiled before he hit the rocks, thinking he’d made himself mortal.
Not so. When he regained consciousness he was floating face-up in a gentle stream. Though he was surrounded by large carnivorous catfish, they did not gnaw at him because all his wounds had clotted. But Javier didn’t give up. He pulled himself onto the bank and walked to his next attempt spot, which turned out to be a canyon–he wanted to make sure there would be no water to cushion the blow this time. It looked like the kind of place for vultures too, even though the desert was so silent that he found himself remembering the strangest things from centuries past: the time the government recalled milk, and the time everyone was sure aliens had landed at the South Pole and were coming in on a derelict ocean liner. How excited people had been! They took to the beaches in droves.
He dove into the canyon, arms splayed like parasails. He felt himself somersaulting and couldn’t wait.
Then he woke up. A shabby woman was sitting on the other side of a cave. He was not sure if it was the paint or her bone structure, but though he recognized her as a humanoid she did not seem authentically human. Her eyes were awfully large. Her skin looked thicker than his, and when she opened her mouth to speak, prominent canines jutted out from below her gums.
She had a name–Alis Alisa–and she was a soothsayer. He knew some of her words and picked up others, but he could not replicate a few of her vocalizations no matter how much she prodded his throat and squawked at him. Her clientele was a community of canyon-people that crawled in and out of cliff-face crevices like lizards. Even the children scaled rock and hunted vultures; sometimes they dressed in multi-colored robes and space-goggles and played at taking flight.
“How do you know what to tell them?” Javier asked. She had advised two departing siblings that their cousin had survived her trek to the salt flats, but she would need to be met at the plain of Joshua trees because a mountain lion had caught her scent.
Alis turned to him slowly. She’d painted herself with red ochre, and the liquid whites of her bulbous eyes popped against her skin. “I am a witch, and I know the planet’s secrets.”
He had heard wilder claims. “Why didn’t I die when I jumped into this canyon?”
Alis chewed on a blade of prickly vegetation and thought that over for a few minutes, then left the cave to go “up top” and “listen”. Alis was more in the business of knowing when and where and how many, not why–her community made up “why” as they went along. She dropped back into the cave at sundown, and both she and the rocks had turned cardinal red. What she said resembled an answer just like she resembled a human: “Someone cursed you. If you want to know why they cursed you, you need to ask them.”
Javier cringed. “I don’t know who cursed me. Besides, I’m sure they’re dead by now.”
“They can be reborn. If they made a curse this powerful, they left a piece of their soul stuck to yours.” She used a fingernail to coax a shred of pigeon meat out from between her teeth. “A child of yours can be born with that soul, and answer your questions.”
“No, no more children. I’ve had children. They had their own souls. They lived and died and told me nothing.”
“Yes, but I am a witch,” said Alis, leaning forward. “That will help.”
They crafted the child with incantations and candelilla wax, with Alis’s hands dragging the fragment of soul down from his temples, down past his stomach. It was completely dark, as if she had shut off all the final flickering lights of the world, and all he could hear was her humming like a lost engine. The cave smelled of sweat and ochre and very faintly of iron, because she had slit the palm of his hand.
In the morning he saw that she had painted hundreds of stick-figures with his blood. They rained like missiles out of the dirt where his head had laid. He looked at Alis–she was sleeping with her long hands on her stomach. He wanted to touch her but didn’t, and instead sat at the mouth of the cave with his legs dangling, a ledge for dragonflies.
The witch-baby was born in what passed in that age for winter. She had blonde hair–freakish, to the canyon-folk–and her mother’s fangs. Alis said that she would name herself in time, and set her down on a nest of vulture feathers. Even as an infant this child stared at Javier with a silent, submarine calm. Because she did not cry he sometimes woke up in the night thinking she was dead, but there she’d be, watching him: a tiny long-limbed inhuman humanoid who seemed to have lived as long as he had. His secret shadow. His ghost.
Within a few years the child began fashioning a headdress out of the feathers she’d been sleeping on. “What is your name?” Alis asked.
“Zelda,” the child answered. She crowned herself and grinned.
Javier covered his mouth to keep from gagging. He could smell the gray acid of Concord. He could see Zelda, his dead daughter’s mother, huddled on the couch and biting her fingernails. “Sixty-three sperm whales beached in the Bahamas. With all those tourists, can you imagine?” Zelda who walked into the estuary. The estuary that couldn’t save his son.
He barreled straight for the little girl–no, the undead golem-Zelda–and shouted, “Why the hell did you do this to me? What did I do to you, Zelda, what?”
Alis pushed him away with a territorial snarl. Javier spent some time away from the canyon for a while.
When he returned, Zelda was half as tall as her mother, even without the headdress. She seemed to be getting along well in the canyon–better than she ever got along in Concord, anyway. He found her tiptoeing the line between sun and shadow in what many generations past had been a river. She recognized him and waved him over, as if no years had passed since their last meeting. He asked her again, in a calmer voice: “Why did you do this to me?”
That time she had an answer. “Because I wanted something to survive,” she said, squinting at him. The aging sun loomed above them, its blank face irresistibly bright. “Lucky you, huh?”
They walked. Zelda collected and contemplated the smooth gray pebbles of the old riverbed while Javier pondered less visible, less tangible things.
“Are there still whales?” she asked.
He didn’t know. “But there’s still oceans. So there might be whales.”
They asked her mother for permission to leave the canyon. Alis, in a pot-breaking mood, just nudged her eyebrows and said, “It is your life, child. I will see you in the half-light.”
After a few months they found the western ocean. It was frothing vigorously, but was as blue as they remembered. The sun, however, had grown into a big brutal curmudgeon, and sweating, panting creatures took long pilgrimages into the sea, sliding back into the water from which they came. Humanoids, too–at high tide they lounged on inflatable rafts and waved at Javier and Zelda with webbed fingers.
Zelda was stunned. “Jav! Are those people?”
“Are you a person?” He guided her finger toward the fangs she’d been born with, then her airworthy bird bones. The waterfolk hollered at him as she ran her tongue over her teeth. “They think I’m a primitive,” he explained.
They shuffled through the sand, scanning the horizon. Smaller, slicker creatures teased them until the sun began to set–then dark, flat boulders rose from the water, coyly spraying a delicate arabesque of fizz. Zelda cried out and went running after the barnacled plateaus: splashing, losing her balance, bobbing back up. Javier hurried after her and grabbed her little body just before the thrash of a heavy wave, trying to keep the tide from snatching her up by the ankles. Salt water gushed down their throats. They gasped for sunlight but once they found it, the whales had gone to deeper waters. Javier was afraid she’d be disappointed but Zelda was giggling and coughing and wiping her nose.
He dragged them back to shore. The sand seemed to be bubbling because the waves had brought a swarm of tiny crustaceans that scuttled underfoot in air pockets and sand traps. “I just didn’t see how,” Zelda gasped, breathless, “how anything could survive.” She flashed him a sharp, wide smile. “Guess you showed me, Jav.”
Those words chopped his breath in half. A dull pain began to pulse outward from his ribs and when he looked at his aching hand he saw that the skin there had curdled. And then he was the one laughing in excitement, laughing ‘til his lungs strained.
His knees went out; they were the first to go. The child caught him with a grunt and cradled his head under her cold, dripping chin.
“Jav,” she whispered. “You’re old!”
Nadia Bulkin lives in Nebraska with an under-used political science degree. Other stories of hers have appeared in ChiZine, Strange Horizons, and Fantasy Magazine; a full list is available at her website. She spits out her crazed ramblings at her livejournal, A Sense of Joy and Then a Panic. She says:
Twilight got me thinking: why, from a biological perspective, would an immortal bother having children? The rest of this story was derived from my own frustration and anxiety about the future. I wanted to write a post-apocalyptic story with enough long-term perspective to make guesses about what comes after people. My thoughts on the subject can be wrapped up by a quote from asofterworld: “The world isn’t going to end just because we’ve done everything wrong. Though, that would be easier.”