Breath and Fluctuations

When he discovered he no longer needed to eat to survive, he devoted most of his waking hours to meditation. He remembered picking up the habit as a young man in San Francisco, in a Zen Buddhist temple with a vase that held a single flower, spare decorations, and a memento mori in the corner with a human skull that seemed to look at you as you walked the room in kinhin. He couldn’t remember much else from that time, as it was more than 280 years ago. Just the flower, the skull, the walking, and the fluctuation of the breath.

He found that meditation relieved some of the fog that had accumulated over the centuries, allowed him to return to a time and a place that no longer existed.

His city was rubble. He had returned there once, seen the plants and trees sprouting past cracked pavement, watched daily as the vines choked rusted-out cars and street signs whose letters could no longer be read. He allowed himself one night in this broken city, one night to mourn a place he hardly remembered, a place that took him over a hundred years to find.

He was not immortal, but it sometimes seemed he could not die. His body was still breaking down, memory still fading, hair still graying and falling out, but he kept going. That’s what it was for decades, the last survivors seemingly unaffected by the outbreak, seemingly enhanced by it, injuries healing quickly, lifespans extended, metabolisms improved to the point where one could go months without food. But time claims everyone. No matter how long it takes, time always wins.

He hadn’t seen anyone since the last blast. A reactor had gone into meltdown, caused catastrophic destruction. He remembered an event from before the outbreak, when he was an older man. Fukushima. Similar devastation. He could heal from many injuries he’d sustained over the years, but he wouldn’t have been able to survive that blast. And, it seemed, no one did.

He’d been exploring a tunnel system under a school he came across when it happened. He was holding a light to the tunnel walls and trying to read the writing of students who had passed centuries ago when the blast came. It seemed to shake the tunnel walls, and concrete and dust blanketed his thinning hair, his chest-long beard. He couldn’t move for over an hour, wouldn’t dare to. Even after centuries, the fear of death remains.

He came outside to a flooding city, with plant and animal life flowing like so many leaves on the surface of a stream. There was no sound except for the flowing water and the rattling of the leaves on the trees. He was alone.

He was taken by how beautiful it was. He knew he shouldn’t think that way, but it was an apotheosis of destruction. He did not run at first. He stood in the water with his bare feet, bare because there had been no shoes to be found for decades, and he watched as the city was carried away from him. Time passed like that, much time. He dipped his hands into the water and washed out the debris from his hair, face, beard. When it was time, he left that city and never returned.

He could think of only one way to keep track of how many years had passed since the fall. He found an orchard, far from where he had started, that had a plaque still legible at the gate leading into it. According to the plaque, the trees inside had been planted in the year 2030 as a gift from a local benefactor. He always ached to know the time, but he knew that this orchard wouldn’t last forever. When enough years or decades had passed and he could no longer take it, he would chop down one of these trees and count the rings. The last tree he felled had over 200 rings.

Even with the length of time he waited before chopping down each tree, the orchard was almost empty. Stumps littered the grounds like so many wooden gravestones. He made the trees’ wood last as long as possible.

He felt he should be broken after all this time, all this wear, but he wasn’t. At least he didn’t feel that way. His body ached, and he grew more tired with each year that passed, but his mind was lifted. He collected his things each day, made his journeys, and catalogued what he saw in his mind. Sometimes, when he wanted to hear a human voice, he gave himself a running commentary of what he saw, what he was thinking. He constructed stories in his head and read them aloud as he climbed hills and walked through fields and traversed forests, describing the moss that grew like miniature worlds beneath his feet, the carvings he’d sometimes find on trees, inscriptions that were mostly illegible, carvings made by lovers for lovers, people who could never imagine these days. He saw many things.

Someday, he would die. This was not speculation. It might take a hundred years or more, but it would happen. It just wouldn’t happen today. So he sat beside a flowing stream and took a breath. He held it, felt it, and let it leave him like just another leaf on a stream.

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