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The Castaway

by Sergio Gaut vel Hartman

I had lived inside that body for over sixty years and it was very difficult for me to accept this new state of being, one in which the body can be discarded after use, like an empty, useless vessel.

“What are you going to do with… it?” I didn’t know what to call it; we had been one for a long time. The bio-technician shrugged his shoulders; surely, he would answer the same question several times a day, every day.

“We stick them in the depository for the discarded. It’s possible that some of the organs could be used, although… I don’t believe that’s the case with this one. How was the liver? Did it smoke?“

“Does that mean you freeze them?” I didn’t answer his questions directly; in fact, I found them offensive. My ignorance on the subject flashed a red signal. I was afraid to know. From the day the transfer took place, I was ruthlessly bombarded by images of freezers shaped as coffins piled up in dark warehouses.

“Freeze them?” The man gave me a puzzled look. “Why would we go through that kind of trouble? We connect them to feeding tubes and leave them until their clock stops.”

“Their clock stops!” A beautiful and ruthless metaphor. “They continue living…” I sighed.

The idea that my old body was rotting in a foul-smelling depository while I started a new life seemed insane. What kind of a monster have I become? I thought.

“Living, what is implied by living…” said the bio-technician, “is a ventured guess. Not in principle, but the vegetative functions are not extinguished in the transfer; flashes of memory, linger on — traces from their youth are not completely erased. They are quite alive, I suppose, although as you know, no longer officially considered, people.”

“Quite alive,” I repeated his words. “Like being a ‘little pregnant’; isn’t that sufficient enough to deserve respect, support, consolation and affection?”

“You are completely crazy!” yelled the bio-technician. “Instead of enjoying your new body, you lament the luck of the old one. Are you similarly attached to each Coke bottle you empty? Let me tell you: the road you’re on leads to hell.”

I inhaled deeply and tightened my fists. “That’s exactly what I thought until a little while ago, before finding out that my old body continued to live.”

“Would you rather we had killed him? Because… as far as I know, bodies do not die without the aid of cancer, or cardiac arrest, or pulmonary edema, or…”

I left the guy talking to himself while I disappeared through the labyrinth of Korps’ corridors. I walked for hours, reflecting on the second crucial transformation of my life.

It took several days for me to accept my new body and when it began to feel natural for me to be thirty years old, someone who could have been my grandfather would suddenly come out of nowhere, demanding payment of a bill. A bill for what? Had I broken something? He didn’t have the right to demand anything, I reflected. He lived what was normal to live. And I will live until I feel like dying.

I had accidentally walked into the depository but didn’t discover the magnitude of my mistake until it was too late to correct it. What I thought to be a utility room filled with used instruments and old furniture turned out to be the place where they kept the discarded bodies. All of them, the majority belonging to old, frail men deteriorating before my eyes, lay on canvas cots facing the door.

There were a hundred, maybe a thousand cots not necessarily arranged in any particular order and barely visible inside the grim ambiance of the depository where they waited with indifference for that jump into space. Their trembling faces, withered by the endless wait, showed the outflow of blood from their bodies. I had fallen in the middle of someone else’s nightmare.

Seeing the plastic tubes connected to their trachea and sunken veins of their forearms was a most disgusting experience. The wasting human bodies appeared to struggle to free themselves from their restraints, although there was no good reason for it. Even when the need for transfer was not visibly drawn on their faces, one could see their resignation and indifference, as they submitted to the lost world.

I had overcome my first impulse to get out of there, and predisposed to accept my role in the process I chose to undergo, I glanced through the room looking for the one I had been. I found it impossible to think about him as someone else — some stranger — separate and different from me. Perhaps, that was the reason why it took me forever to identify him. My gaze bypassed him as I couldn’t distinguish his inert silhouette from the others in the depository.

I proceeded slowly for fear that any abrupt movement could trigger a wave of protests, but the truth was that the bodies ignored me. Only a few expressed their annoyance at the intrusion by clumsily moving their hands, and so entangling them in the plastic tubing.

Finally, when I managed to get through all the obstacles separating me from my old body and I could look at him face to face, my mind drew a blank. I tried unsuccessfully to tell him how I felt; to say something by way of an apology, but I found myself so inhibited by its rigidity, its impassiveness, its stillness, and to my amazement, it was he who broke silence.

“I was expecting you,” said my ex- body in a thread of a voice.

“You were expecting me?” I imagined myself waiting, unable to dream, much less hope for a sunset, or the one responsible for putting me through such gratuitous pain. I also felt guilty because my presence there happened by chance.

“You did not come by chance,” he said, as if able to read my thoughts, “…and I do not read your thoughts; somehow we go on being the same person.”

His words tingled in the air. It was clear he felt more like me than I did. There was memory, but… there was also a body. The same body that held me from the beginning is now condemned because speculation had it, he was the one who plotted the outcome. But when I tried objecting to that logic, the words adamantly refused to come out. I knew what he was thinking; he had waited patiently and calmly to show me he still controlled my destiny.

The scene was peculiarly similar to an earlier experience, when my parents decided that I had to say goodbye to a dying grandfather, a stranger to me. The old man made me feel responsible for his death as if my youth had somehow caused his departure.

I heard a hopeless cry from another body crawling across the room. That is how they go, I thought, with a moan that fades as they discover they will not be rescued, this time.

“I will moan like that, when I leave,” said my first body. “We all do it. It is like a ship’s siren as it casts off from shore.”

Once again, I was unable to respond. Who is the castaway? I wondered. Did the ship go past the island without giving warning signals?

I looked at the feeding tubes that joined the body to the tanks and suppressed a deep urge to pull them out. It is preferable to suffocate than to wait without hope for rescue. And once more, my ex-body stripped me of my thoughts.

“Perhaps I am not the castaway,” he said.

“I have all my life ahead of me,” I protested. “It’s a new beginning, right?” The lack of conviction in my words was mirrored by a clumsy and incomplete movement of my hand like a stroke of affection that suddenly becomes an angry blow.

He shrugged his shoulders, showing indifference, while gazing at the bodies dying around us. “To begin anew, yes,” he said, “but not from the very beginning. The memory of those who come to say goodbye to their discarded bodies will forever hold the images from this depository.”

“What is that supposed to mean? Are you reproaching me?” I was suddenly disgusted by his attitude. Was he trying to entangle me into something? He — we — were condemned: the doctors said it was a question of days, weeks at the most. There was no way out, but to go through with the transfer. My old body had put me in the defensive. An invisible net dulled my senses, I felt as if paralyzed.

“No one forced you to come,” said my old body. “Why not just enjoy the freedom a healthy body offers you for the first time in a long time? It would have been the most logical thing to do. But instead, you felt compelled to pay back a debt to avoid future self-recrimination. It seems like a good idea to me. I would have done the same.”

Those last words brought back a memory: a cunning ease for cruel irony, a talent I was proud to possess. Would I be able to conserve it, I wondered, in my relationship with life-long friends? As in a game, too many options began to unfold, but the strategy for handling them wasn’t at all clear to me. Was I to move away from all that was familiar? Was I to seek different people, a different ambiance, leave the planet?

“I ended up here by accident,” I said, feeling disheartened.

“Yes,” my ex-body seemed to have lost interest in the conversation. Or maybe, the pain he had suffered silently had returned. I knew a lot about that pain. He moaned, again. The agony spread like a wave of electricity from one body to the other. The sound, gray and flat, dissipated throughout the depository.

There was nothing else to be said, or done — nothing else to think about, or feel. It was time to leave that place.

But I didn’t do it. The body had accepted my irresponsibility with the utterance of a hollow word meant to defuse any future argument from me. So great was the tension created by his obligatory: yes, that all I could do to break it was to extend my hand and lightly touch his dry cheek with my fingertips. My old body shook, as if having received an electrical discharge.

“What did you do?” he asked turning his face away from me.

“Nothing. I think I just tried to be kind.”

“You’re afraid — very much so.”

The accusation was harsh; it transcended simple translation. But then, I heard two moans: one was low, and sinister; the other was high pitched, like the chirping of a bird. There are many ways of dying, I supposed.

“Afraid? Of what? “I asked him.

“There are many ways of dying,” my ex-body repeated my exact words, but with an obvious slant. I ignored it. Anyway, I no longer knew what our dialogue meant; I had lost the meaning and perhaps, even interest in our conversation. I found myself hypnotized by the colors of the plastic tubes: red, blue, green.

“I am not the one connected to the tubes,” I said.

“They are useless,” said my old body, “just something to impress the visitors. It’s just a good show to affect the psyche of the transferred one; something to improve the outcome.”

“Useless? I thought they were being fed through the tubes.”

“That, they do,” said my old body. “They are useless because it makes no difference whether they feed us or let us starve to death. We will not leave this place because they have stopped our medication, and they only come into the depository three times a day, to gather the corpses.“

I told him it was cruel, but there was no other way to do it. “It’s not possible to wait for the first body to die; the transfer could not be carried out, if we had.”

“Sure… sure…” said the body in a tone balanced somewhere between sadness and rage.

“Now we are like different species,” I said, desperately looking for an excuse to continue our dialogue, but each word had the opposite effect from what was intended.

“This is the price we pay for progress. In the old days, people would die and that was it. Now the laws of nature are violated, we’re playing with fire.”

“I was never a believer,” I said. “Is the proximity of the death what makes you wish for eternal life?”

“The imminence of death forced me to transfer, nothing else,” his words were acrid. “Or it forced you… or it forced us. As you can see, it no longer matters.”

A sound of pained voices engulfed the words my ex-body spoke, and finally drowned them. The doors to the depository opened, the aides entered, disconnected the tubes from a dozen corpses, loaded them onto a ridiculous looking electrical car with a minimum of effort, and left the place impregnated by their lack of interest. Minutes later, they returned with another dozen bodies discarded in recent transfers.

“They didn’t see me,” I said.

“They’re not interested.”

“I could have been a thief, a maniac…”

“Our organs are not good enough to feed the dogs. And as far as biological experiments, they use fresh meat cultivated in tanks; sick bodies are no good for anything.” He stirred on the cot. I was afraid he would die just then. He noticed my discomfort: “Calm yourself,” he said. “It isn’t time, yet.”

“How long?” The question, unexpected even by me, affected him.

“How long? I don’t know. Hours, two days, one week, six months. Who can predict how hard a body will cling on to life… even one without a soul? “

I didn’t feel I was anybody’s soul, much less one belonging to such an obstinate body, although I had to admit, its judgment was sound. The doctors’ conclusions concerning longevity of the old body had been final. But doctors don’t have an obligation to accuracy in their prognoses. Does anyone know of a doctor punished for a wrongful prediction? The aides left the depository carrying their macabre shipment; the doors closed behind them, and I went back to reality.

My first body gazed with disinterest at the dust particles suspended in the stream of light. Darkness drifted through the depository. It was impossible for me to determine how long I’d been there.

“I must go,” I said.

“That’s true,” he affirmed.

“Before it’s too late.”

“The door is unlocked.”

“I can come back.”

“It depends. And not on me. Unless… you’re interested in coming back. “

“I mean: it only makes sense if you were to be here when I return.”

My old body shrugged his shoulders, almost with indifference. “Yes — no… who knows? Am I God? How should I know the exact moment? If my reasons to stay alive are finished, I’m not angry enough to carry out that which began in my head, when I decided to transfer myself. Perhaps I cling to life because the bodies are separate entities and act independently of each other.”

“The bodies act independently of each other,” I repeated like an idiot. “You could take advantage of your last hours writing an essay on the theory of vegetative reason.”

“The bodies act independently of each other,” he repeated. “Your body is doing it right this moment. Why don’t you go away once and for all?” He spit out his words as if provoking me.

“I am not a beast; I can wait until you calm down.”

“Excuses, pretexts,” he said. “Your reasons for remaining in this place next to me, waiting for my death, don’t have any value whatsoever. You transferred yourself to another body to be free of me, not to carry me as your load. I’m not your old, invalid father. Do you see anyone else doing what you’re doing? The bodies die alone; it is right for it to be that way.”

My ex-body’s voice raised its pitch as his words became more passionate. That created a clear contrast with the last sigh from the body that had perished just a short distance from us.

“I do not know how else to proceed,” I said, lacking conviction in my tone. “I can wait a few minutes. I have come to understand that we are part of a whole; that it is my obligation to cry for you, to feel pain.”

“How pretentious! But I value your gesture, although we both know that it serves no purpose.”

I bowed my head. The floor of the depository was covered with dust and excrement, except where the discarded bodies impatiently moved their feet. There, the floor was polished and the darkness fought to overcome the stealthy brightness that descended from invisible sources.

I began to anxiously expect the next round of aides. I made a mental note of those who had died and tried to figure out the timing between each death based on those who were moaning, but I immediately abandoned the idea. I felt pessimistic about it. The reasons for my presence in that place, or my inability to leave, simply leave, became more and more difficult to determine. I myself had laid out a trap. The body caught my mood and tried to be constructive.

“I don’t believe I’ll die today.”

“I could come back tomorrow,” I said stupidly.

“It is a good idea. But I don’t know if it will be tomorrow, either. Perhaps it’s not worth the trouble.”

The light faded, and darkness overtook the depository. The points of reference had disappeared. For all I knew, I could have been inside the depository or in the heart of a nightmare. I took strength thinking that it is possible to wake up, even from the worse nightmare, but my first body’s broken voice brought me back me to reality.

“…keep walking in the same direction your nose is pointed…”

It had to be now or never. I started on my way out but, before taking even three steps, the rage of a body that had fallen in front of me told me it wouldn’t be a simple task.

“Stupid idiot! Pay attention to where you’re going and show a little respect for those who are dying.”

“Sorry. I want to leave this place.”

“To leave?” the body asked, laughing offensively. “Only after you’re dead can you leave this place.”

That confirmed what I had begun to suspect: the trap, working successfully, had left me standing on the wrong side of things.

“I’ve just been transferred,” I said. “I came to say goodbye.” I tried to grasp the dying body but he got away from me, mocking me. When he spoke again, I realized that he wasn’t the same one; another one occupied its place. The game began to awaken an interest in those condemned.

“The one who transferred out of my body didn’t come to say goodbye. The idiot left me alone in these painful circumstances… “

“The one who transferred from me,” said another one, “signed an authorization for them to inject me with something to accelerate the process.”

A harsh scream brought a new degree of complaints. Groans and moans were being heard now out of every corner of the depository; the old bodies around me were dying, or pretending to die, just to mortify me.

“What good is it?” wailed a female’s voice. “Would it make us different, improve us in any way? If that dog were to come to say goodbye…”

“…she will regret it,” a ghastly choir finished her sentence. The discarded bodies rocked in their canvas cots, producing rough textured sounds, rattling wood and dust; the sounds scattered throughout the depository, fleshing images of death, the true and absolute death; the one we cannot dodge like skillful acrobats.

“Where?” I asked. “I don’t see the exit.”

“Push on with all your might,” insisted my first body. “Push on without reservation; we are going to die anyway.”

I plunged toward the exit with all my strength, but the bodies were quick to react. They rose from their cots in what seemed like a fit of madness and surrounded me, blocking my way. I felt the pressure of something hard, metallic, searching for my flesh and the ferocious bite on my arm from a set of broken dentures. I lost all sense of moderation and began throwing punches in all directions. But trying for the exit was useless. I was in the dark and surrounded by bodies that had no future and had closed in on me.

What followed was a trail of puzzling memories. Perhaps I fell and was crushed by the infuriated bodies, or I received a blow to the head. Perhaps not. It is impossible to reconstruct the facts that lead to my present situation. I am only certain of waking up in the dark, in the silence of the depository. Some of the plastic tubes carrying nutrients are connected to me, and hundreds of discarded bodies surround me.

“It was the only way out,” said a familiar voice coming from the darkness near me. “It was a sure shot. You suffered no mortal wounds… “

“I do not want you to feel sorry for me,” I interrupted. “I want you out of here before it’s too late.”

“I need some things to be clear,” said the voice.

“There’s nothing to clarify,” I answered. “It is dangerous. I can see that for the first time: we are identical, of course, the same model of body. Just one question: did my first body… die?”

“I am here,” my first body’s frail voice comes from somewhere near, to my right.

“All is in order, then.”

I sit up for the new body to know I am addressing him. “Now I am going to count to ten, and when I’m finished, you will be outside of this damned place, living your life, our life.”

He moves his head, not yielding to persuasion. I understand that the trap has been set, and who knows how many more of us will fall before learning the trick that allowed us to outwit it.

“It seems,” says the first body raising his voice above the putrid atmosphere, “that he who wrote our ending refuses to modify a single line of it.”

“Perhaps he is a Greek,” I reply ironically, “an amateur, imagining Destiny with a capital D.”

“What are you talking about?” my new body seems disturbed. “Are you making fun of me? Is that how you repay my affection? Anyway, I am staying until I get some answers. I don’t necessarily have to explain…”

I stop listening to his words although I continue to hear them, as they blend in with the humming sound of machinery and the heartbeat of the bodies. It’s hard for me to imagine what wounds had influenced the decision to make a second transfer in such a short time, and for that reason I begin to inspect the body carefully and meticulously. I notice an ugly gash across my chest, and when I press on it I feel a sharp pain on the left side.

“Have the almost dead caused this much damage?” Korps, in defense of its reputation, has rendered a service and the new body validates the procedure as it wakes up. Perfect closure, though nothing comes free.

The door opens and the aides come in. Strangely, there are no dead bodies. They seem bewildered for a few minutes, vacillating between two worlds, but soon they return to their routine. They bring newly discarded bodies which they place on canvas cots, and connect plastic tubes to the veins of the unfortunate ones.

“Take him away!” I force a command. “He has no business, here.” The pain intensifies, I lose strength; my voice is dull, incapable of reaching its objective.

“They don’t register the discarded ones,” says my first body.

“Save your breath,” says the new body. “I am going to get you out of this filthy pigpen. My ex-bodies are not garbage.”

“We are garbage,” says the first body. “I beg of you: get out, before it’s too late. Out! It sounds melodramatic, but I can’t think of another way to make you react. You are going to be trapped, imprisoned like us…”

The new body is startled. The aides close the door behind them, the depository returns to darkness, and as gloom overtakes the space, our moans, those of the discarded bodies, and the protests of the ones just transferred are mixed until they become indistinguishable from one another.

Translated by Carmen Ruggero

Copyright © 2011 by Sergio Gaut vel Hartman

Sergio Gaut vel Hartman was born in Buenos Aires in 1947. He is a very prolific writer, having published numerous stories in magazines around the world. He is the author of the story collection Cuerpos descartables, Minotauro (1985). He was creator and editor of the magazine Sinergia and later editor of the magazine Parsec.

 

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