A Million Years
“Power over our fellow man. It blinds us, consumes us, makes us crazy. If you think about it, it is such an unusual thing, this feeling of being superior to other people.”
They came to the Sunroom in greater numbers, like moths drawn to a flame, like bees swarming, hungry to hear more. Even though the decrepitude was great for some, they came anyway, to hear the stories about the ancient man. They came because every one of them could imagine their own links to ancestors long gone. It gave them history, meaning, connection to past humanity that they belonged to something in the past and people to come in the future. So distant a past that a couple of them could imagine their roots born in the savanna and grassy plains of Africa, millions of years ago. Could even imagine that they might have come from monkeys. Why not. Some said that was ridiculous. A thing to imagine, a thing that suggested, perhaps promised their genes would survive a million years into the future and make some small part of them immortal or as immortal as the evolving universe would allow.
Some didn’t grasp the existential concept and came because the story was interesting or they had nothing else to do in this place, except wait.
His book was open in his lap but he didn’t need to read from it.
“Our man Snorri received a letter from the King of Norway,” Jon said.
Mrs. Branbury was a wisp, sitting beside Jon. She seemed even tinier, shrunken in her whole body, shrunken like a shrunken head, nearly swallowed completely by her queens chair, like a giant snake might consume its prey, whole. Her birthday was coming before his and she would be even older. Her eyelids closed slowly. Jon wondered if she might just disappear, vanish before his eyes, consumed by her great age and her giant chair.
‘In a way, she looks like Harriet,’ Jon thought. ‘She has made it past her time so she has nothing to worry about. I’ll see you on the other side Mrs. Branbury. We can be friends there. We’ll be young together. I bet you’ll look even more like Harriet.’
His eyes moistened as he thought of his wife departed for ten years. Harriet might not be there because she hadn’t made it to her hundredth birthday. He wouldn’t even have her as he had her now. As he stared at Mrs. Branbury’s sleeping face, the image of Harriet’s face slowly faded until the pale frail delicate skin folded and wrinkled by the years revealed the very old woman again. Jon’s wet eyes became full with tears inside red circles and his patient breathing turn to full sobs. What joys she must have lived. What terrible sadness she must have felt when she lost her loved ones, husbands, children, siblings. Just as he had suffered loss. His parents, his son Magnus and Harriet most of all.
“I can’t remember her. I can’t remember what my poor Harriet even looked like. She is gone from me forever.” There was a tremor of panic in his voice, he choked out a sob.
A soft crackling rattle came from Mrs. Branbury’s chest as she dozed. On the far side of the room Mr. Z, his white hair glowing against his deeply tanned face, snored too, as his head dipped over his chest.
‘They are the lively ones, when awake. Full of conversation and stories of their own, about their lives and experiences, their families, children, grandchildren and for many, their great grandchildren. Generations built upon living legacies. But so many are somnolent, near catatonic with age, waiting to die.’ Jon shuddered as he thought of his own imminent fate. He was not yet ready to resign. He took a folded Kleenex from his shirt pocket, dabbed his eyes then blew his nose. Mrs. Branbury startled at the sound and woke.
“I was married four times,” she said. “I can’t remember what any of them looked like.” She reached out her tiny frail hand to touch Jon’s. “Had only two children. One died after just a few days, the other grew up and drank himself to death. He left many children though. They all had their own children. I don’t ever see any of them except maybe once or twice a year. They have their own lives. We had ours. Don’t be sad,” she whispered. “There are so many things I wish I had said to my own loved ones and now they are gone.”
Jon dabbed his eyes with his soiled Kleenex.
“I have to go now Betty,” Greta Lundberg said. “It’s been lovely seeing you again.” Her white socks and flip flops were in her hands, her feet were bare. “Sorry that you’ve gotten so old.”
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