Curse of the Life walker by Joe Vasicek

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THE CURSE OF THE LIFEWALKER

Joe Vasicek

My given name is Isaac Jameson, but most people know me as the Lifewalker. It is a fitting title. In a world where few men live to the age of twenty five, I wander the Earth alone, watching each generation spring up as wheat, bear seed, and pass away with the autumn frost. Yet with each new crop of humanity, death refuses to harvest me—a stranger in his own homeland, a man washed up on the shores of time while the world spins wildly beneath him. There are some who would view these many long years of life as a blessing. Indeed, our records tell us that the natural lifespan of man before the malady known as the Blight was many times longer than it is today. But when all the world is afflicted by the plague, sometimes the greater curse is to be whole.

I was born in a small farming commune in the south of the land of Provorem, a peaceful region nestled in the mountains of the west. It lies in a wide valley with a shallow freshwater lake at its center. It is a good place for catfish and mussels, as well as heron and other waterfowl. The mountains rise sharply all around it, but more especially to the east, though none boast a peak that is snow-capped year round. A monument to the letter Y can still been seen on the face of one of the nearer foothills, though the coloring has long since faded. The northeast border of the valley is guarded by a mountain that carries the ancient name of Timpanogos. It has the appearance of a young maiden, sleeping on her back with a hand on her pregnant belly. Some say that the child she carries is the hope of the new world—the world that was ravaged by the Blight.

As the first child to my young parents, I was blessed to know and love them before they died. My father was a man of the land, and taught me how to till the earth and read the seasons, how to build a house, and how to hunt for game to keep ourselves well-fed. He was also something of a tinker, though his skills were more mechanically inclined and not suited to electronic artifacts. In my eighth year, he helped me to build my first bicycle, with wooden tires and saddlebags sewn from buckskin.

My mother was from a journeyman commune on the north side of Provorem, in the ruins that surround the Great Library. From her, I learned the timeless and invaluable skill of reading. Through that small collection of books which she helped me to build, my eyes were first opened to the world beyond our humble commune. My collection included an old, battered dictionary, the Holy Scriptures, and a fantasy adventure titled Mistborn: The Final Empire. As a child, I read every scrap of paper I could find, digging through old ruins just to find a waterlogged tome or two. Of course, most of these had already been gathered for safekeeping at the library, so at the end of my twelfth year, I petitioned the commune to let me enroll and begin my studies.

The Great Library of Provorem is one of the more famous institutions in all the mountains of the west. Before the Blight, it was a great place of learning, where scholars came from all over the world to study and acquire knowledge. A small group of them managed to preserve the collection from the worst of the violence following the tumultuous collapse, and people from all the surrounding valleys come to study there to this day. A few of the buildings have fallen into abandonment and disrepair, but many of them still stand, thanks to the journeyman communes who have made those ruins their home.

For one joy-filled year, I devoted all of my time to my studies at the library. I read about the great nation that had once stretched from ocean to ocean, filling the face of the whole continent. I read about the magic and wonders of the past, when people flew in great machines and spoke to each other from across the world as easily as if they were sitting in the same room. So great were the marvels unfolded to my view that I felt as if I stood in awe beneath a mighty waterfall of pure knowledge.

Sadly, my days at the Great Library ended almost before they had a chance to begin. My mother took ill with the Blight in the ninth month of my studies, and her condition rapidly worsened. Before the end of the winter, she passed away. My father was inconsolable, and requested that I return to the commune of my birth, though my two younger sisters were still living at home with him. Perhaps he saw that his own days were numbered, and that the Blight would soon take him as well. It crushed my young heart to leave my studies behind, but I honored his wishes and returned.

I spent a year at home, working on the farm beside my father. This was a year of great changes for me, when the things I had read about began to stir a great restlessness in my mind. My wanderings and explorations, which before had been limited to the ruins of Provorem, now began to range further afield. I began to climb the mountains immediately around our valley, on the pretense of hunting game. In reality, though, I was stretching myself, pushing back against the boundaries that confined my little world.

On the south end of the lake, within sight of the land of my birth, stands a small mountain with a bald top. Near the summit, a red and white tower from the ancient days still rises like a spear into the sky. The purpose of the tower has long been forgotten, though some tinkers claim that these towers were used by the forefathers to talk with the stars.

In the summer of my fourteenth year, I determined to climb that mountain and explore those ruins for myself. The trail, though steep and winding, traced a relatively straight path up the northern face. The day I selected was warm and sunny, and the sky was perfectly clear, offering a wonderful view of the valley on either side. A pleasant breeze put me in high spirits, and in just an hour, I reached the tower’s base.

While exploring the ruins, I noticed a small, curious structure on the west side of the mountain. A large white dome extended like a bubble over the roof, with two smaller domes on the further side. When I approached the structure to investigate, I noticed a small vegetable garden, with an empty cow-pen in the back. The footpath leading up to the place was not very worn, but it was still clear enough to follow. I approached it cautiously, not knowing who lived there.

When I was within twenty yards, a man stepped out of the door and waved a small cane at me.

“Well, don’t just stand there,” he said. “Come in or be on your way.”

I stared speechless at him for some time. Unlike the people in my commune—or indeed, in any commune that I had encountered in the whole of Provorem—his hair was as white as new-fallen snow, with a long, grizzled beard extending from his chin. Wrinkles lined his brow, while his back was slightly bent, so that he needed a cane to walk.

In short, he was unlike anyone else I had seen in my young life.

“Well?” he said again, raising his voice over the whistling of the mountain breeze. “Are you coming in or aren’t you?”

I accepted his invitation, and over a light lunch of potatoes, cheese, and sliced tomatoes, we soon became good friends. Adam, as he called himself, had grown up in one of the northern communes of Provorem, between the lake and the Great Library. The Blight had taken his parents while he was still young, so he left the commune when he was ten and became an apprentice to the curator. Like me, his thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. He read as many of the books as he could get his hand on, including some of the same ones that I had. When the Blight took the curator, Adam succeeded him.

For ten years, he worked tirelessly to preserve and expand the Great Library’s collection. He even declined to marry, considering his work more important than raising a family. However, when he reached the end of his natural age, he did not sicken or grow pale, but continued to live. The Blight refused to take him, and as the years rolled on it became clear that he would continue to live.

At first, he saw this as a great blessing–a chance to continue his life’s work without the untimely interruption of death. However, the other scholars at the Great Library soon became wary of him. When it became clear that the Blight would not take him, his apprentices did all they could to oust him. Recognizing that a political struggle would only harm the Great Library in the long run, he stepped down from his position and exiled himself to the mountain. There, he had decided to live out the remainder of his days alone, returning to the valley only occasionally to trade for food and supplies.

When I asked why he had chosen such a lonely life of solitude, he didn’t answer me, but instead insisted that I remain for the night. The domes, he explained, were telescopes—mechanical eyes that could see into the heavens. Since I had no pressing duties at the commune for the next few days, I accepted his invitation and helped him with his chores until the sun set across the lake and the moon rose in the clefts between the mountains.

“On a moonless night,” he told me, “you can observe the stars more properly, but the moon is worth observing of itself.”

He took me to the heart of the structure and turned a crank that opened the dome overhead. By wheeling a set of mirrors over a large turntable, we moved the machine into position so that it was pointing directly at the moon. When we were finished, he took me to the eyepiece and had me look into it.

To my astonishment, I beheld a stunning gray landscape full of mountains, valleys, and dark flat plains. Giant circles covered the land—craters, or the remains of collisions with other celestial objects, as Adam informed me. The ancients had called the plains mares, because they had the appearance of wide, tranquil seas. As I stared at them, the sight so entranced me that I could barely speak.

“You know,” said Adam, “before the days of the Blight, there were men who traveled to the moon and walked on it.”

“What?” I said, looking up sharply. “That’s impossible!”

“It’s not impossible,” he said with a smile. “I should know—I was the chief curator, after all.”

“But—but how?”

He shrugged. “The explanation is long and complicated, and we no longer have the means to fully comprehend the physics of it. However, that does not change the fact that somewhere up there, you will find the footprints of men.”

I stared at the moon in wonder for several moments. The knowledge that in a previous age, men had actually walked across those mares so entranced me that for several days I could think of nothing else. Suddenly, the boundaries between communes seemed tediously small, the mountains no longer the end of my world but the beginning of it. For the next few months, it was all I could think about. I spent hours planning elaborate trips to the far side of the valley, and climbed all the major peaks within sight of my home. Beyond each mountain, there was always another valley, and another mountain and another valley beyond that.

If I had set out at that time to wander the earth, the rest of my life would have been quite different. The zealousness of youth often propels us to make rash and reckless decisions, which we later come to regret. In this age of the Blight, most people’s lives are cut short before they can experience the full depth of this. As the Lifewalker, though, I have come to learn that regrets can be as deadly as poison—even worse, for they sap the spirit, without which the body is but an empty shell.

With my father in his final years, I reluctantly decided to postpone my travels at least until after his passing. The elders of the commune, seeing my eagerness to go out and see the world, conspired to find some way to convince me stay.

In retrospect, their strategy should have been obvious. My childish body was already beginning to change, my voice growing lower and the shadow of a beard beginning to spread across my chin. I had already begun to take a special interest in the girls my age, beyond anything I had previously felt as a child. The elders saw this, and arranged for my betrothal to a young girl from a neighboring commune named Lydia.

At first, I was incensed—I wanted to see the world, not be chained for the rest of my life to the place of my birth. As soon as I laid eyes on her, however, my anger soon cooled. The women of the mountains are famous for their beauty, but none of them could compare to my Lydia. Her hair was as golden as the sun, her eyes as blue as a clear summer sky. Her skin was as smooth as the stones of the river, her lips as cool and refreshing as a high mountain stream. The more time we spent together, the stronger the stirrings in my heart, until I could hardly bear to be separated from her. She was kind and patient, and listened with great interest to all my hopes and dreams. After only a few months, I don’t think we had a single secret between us.

“It’s so frustrating,” I told her one day, as we sat together on the riverbank not far from the lake shore. “If men in the old times could travel as far as the moon, why should I stay here in this valley?”

“What’s on the moon that’s so interesting?” she asked, holding my hand. I picked up a stone and skipped it across the water.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Just—more than this.”

“If no one lives up there, it must be a lonely place,” she said. “I don’t think I’d ever want to go there.”

“Why not?”

She shrugged, though in her eyes, I could see a great weight of emotion, perhaps even fear. She turned to face me.

“Isaac,” she said, “if it came between me or the world, which would you choose?”

I was dumbfounded. In my youthful naiveté, I had never seen it as a choice I would have to make. Until that point, life had been something that had happened to me, not something over which I had any significant control. The elders in the commune made all of the major decisions, and I went along with them willingly or not. But looking in her eyes, I realized that I did have a choice—and that my choices would not only impact my own life, but hers as well.

“I—I don’t know,” I stammered. “Couldn’t you just come with me? We could travel the world together—think about it!”

She bit her lip and looked away. “But Isaac—my home is here.”

In that moment, my heart fell as I realized she would never leave the valley. Still, in my youthful stubbornness, I was determined to do all I could to fight against it.

“Home,” I sneered. “What’s so great about that anyway? Have you ever climbed any of those mountains? From the top, you can look down and see dozens of others just like it, stretching all the way to the horizon with valleys in between.”

She squeezed my hand, but I ignored it.

“Don’t you ever get bored of this place?” I asked. “Don’t you ever look at the ruins around this valley and ask yourself about the people who built them? Back before the days of the Blight, the forefathers had great flying machines that could take them around the world, with paperless books that could bring all the writings of the Great Library into the palms of their hands.”

“Not all miracles have passed away,” she said softly, dipping her bare toes into the water. “The greatest wonders are still here with us.”

I frowned. “How do you mean?”

“Have you ever seen the birth of an infant, or watched a child take its first step? Those are miracles, too. And isn’t it adventure enough just to have children? To settle down and make a home with the one you love?”

I shook my head. “There’s got to be something more out there, Lydia—something out there calling to me. I have to answer it.”

“And spend the rest of your life childless and alone?”

“I—”

She squeezed my hand again, more firmly this time. “We weren’t meant to wander this lonely world by ourselves, Isaac. We need each other.”

“But—but I’m in my fifteenth year!” I said, oblivious to her advances. “In another ten years, the Blight will take me. How can I afford to settle down now?”

“How can you afford not to?”

She leaned in close, and I realized that I could never leave her. I lifted my hand to her cheek, and we kissed beneath the shady willows along the riverbank.

We were married the following spring, just after the last frost of the season. The Blight took my father less than a month later, but at least he died with the satisfaction of knowing that his only son had taken a wife. It was a time of many changes for my sisters and I, but we braved it as well as we could by staying close to our community. Lydia was always there for me, offering her consolation in moments of private grief. Our love waxed stronger with each passing day, until we were inseparable.

For a time, all my restless dreams of wandering the earth departed from me. We lived each day in the present, and I can honestly say it was the happiest time of my life.

But happiness does not come without a bittersweet edge. Though Lydia’s greatest desire was to become a mother, we were not blessed with children. One year passed after another, and yet our marriage remained childless. Now it was my turn to console her as she had consoled me, except that her grief far exceeded my own.

I will always remember those nights in which she cried herself to sleep in my arms, trembling for fear that her time was rapidly coming to an end. And indeed it was—the Blight had already taken almost all of the elders of the commune, leaving many late-born orphans. We did our best to care for them, which gave my wife no small degree of comfort and delight. In the autumn of her life, she was known as the commune’s mother, and dearly loved by all.

Yet just as autumn turns to winter, so too did our time together come to an end.

In the twenty-fourth year of her life, Lydia contracted a cold which soon grew to an infection. As her cheeks paled and her limbs grew weak, I realized that I had only a short time left with her. I did all I could to ease her passing, but the grief I endured as she slipped beyond my capacity to care for her was more painful than anything I have ever felt in my long life. When she breathed her last breath, I collapsed on the earth and wept bitterly, feeling as if I were utterly alone in the world.

A year passed, and then another. I became the oldest surviving member of the commune. The council of elders now consisted entirely of my peers, those who had grown up with me—some whose births I could actually remember. Both of my sisters joined the council, taking care of the late-born orphans in Lydia’s absence. And yet, even though my time had come and gone, I felt no weakness, but remained both healthy and strong.

As my first sister paled and took sick with the Blight, I realized with an awful finality that I would not sicken and die, but would outlive her—indeed, not just her but all of my peers. My time had come and gone, and yet I still remained. I cannot possibly convey in words the terror that this realization gave me. It had been bad enough to watch my beloved Lydia pass away in my arms. To do the same with each of my sisters—and indeed, with all of my closest friends—it was almost more than I could bear. For the next two years, I fell into a dark depression, worse than any I have felt before or after. I do not remember how I made it through these times, but after the passing of my last sister, I realized that I was alone—that everyone I had ever looked up to had passed away, and a generation of strangers had taken their place.

Toward the end of my twenty-eighth year, just as the days began to grow shorter in anticipation of the coming harvest, I decided that I couldn’t possibly live one more year in this valley that filled me with constant sorrow. I determined to set out before the fall of winter, leaving the commune behind forever. That no one made any attempt to stop me only confirmed that I was no longer one of them.

On the tenth day of the ninth month, thirteen days before my thirtieth birthday, I left the place of my birth for the last time. I took with me my father’s old books, a heavy wool blanket, a single change of clothes, an assortment of pans and cooking utensils, two weeks’ worth of food, a hunting knife, and a small bow with a quiver full of arrows, all packed in a small carrier which I attached to the back of my old bicycle.

On my way south out of the land of Provorem, I made one last trek to the summit of the lone mountain. I found Adam tending his garden, his back more hunched and his hands shaking worse than I remembered.

“Are you doing all right?” I asked him. “That’s mighty hard work for an old man such as yourself.”

“Yes, but it’s my work,” he answered in a quavering voice. “And this is my place, where I belong.”

I looked into his face and saw the same sorrow that had, for the past several years, consumed me. In that moment, I realized exactly why Adam had chosen to exile himself so far from human company. He glanced at me and narrowed his eyes.

“You have it too, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I answered, swallowing a little. Though I did not explain the purpose of my visit, we both knew that I had come to say goodbye.

Adam nodded and leaned heavily on his shovel. “I suppose you won’t be staying long.”

“No, I won’t. In fact, I’m leaving Provorem as well.”

“Well,” he said, coughing, “In that case, I expect I won’t be here to see you return, if you decide to return at all.”

I didn’t answer him, but that was all right. We shared a moment of companionable silence together. The waters of the lake shimmered in the light of the late-afternoon sun, and the golden-brown grass of the mountainside swayed in the stiff mountain breeze. The white domes of the aging telescopes stood like sentinels against the inexorable passage of time, the whistling of the wind an echo of the emptiness in my own lonely heart. When I had come here before, I had been filled with vague dreams of setting out to see the world, but now, it was escape I sought, not adventure. My life was now a dreary burden, each day sending me further into exile from all I had ever known.

“Strangers we are, wandering through a strange land,” Adam muttered. “Take care of yourself, boy.”

“I will.”

“Don’t expect the loneliness to get any better. It doesn’t.”

I choked back a tear and nodded.

“Still,” he added, “you’re young. You may not feel it, in this day and age when few live past their twenty fifth year, but you are. You have a long time still ahead of you.”

“I know,” I whispered. That was what I was afraid of.

We shared only a few brief moments before I turned my back on the land of my youth, never to behold it with my natural eyes again.

In the long and painful years since, I have often thought of Adam and his little hermitage high on the lonely mountain. In my youth, I found it strange that a man would choose to exile himself from the company of his fellow men. But now, I know. And though we have followed different paths, the result—a life of self-imposed exile—has been the same. Would that distance was sufficient to dull the pain of untimely separation, but it is not. Only death brings an end to all pain. And in a world where death is as timely and unyielding as the seasons, the greater hardship is to live.

Food for Thought

What must be it be like to be a man cut adrift from the normal passage of life around you? To watch eerybody you grow up with sicken and die while you live on. While Issac isn’t immortal he know doubt has some experience of what an immortal being would go through. Is his immunity to the blight a blessing or a curse? To know you can’t be touched by the blight but anybody you get close to likely will. Perhaps exile and lonliness is the less painful path to take?

About the Author

Joe Vasicek fell in love with science fiction with Star Wars as a child and hasn’t looked back since. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Genesis Earth, Bringing Stella Home, Heart of the Nebula, and the Star Wanderers and Sons of the Starfarers series. As a young man, he studied Arabic at Brigham Young University and traveled across the Middle East and the Caucasus. He currently lives in Utah, which he claims as his home.

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