I celebrated my 181st birthday yesterday. I call it a celebration because that’s what people say, but my longevity is not a blessing. It’s a punishment for daring to seek immortality. You may not believe it, you probably don’t want to. There’s this fear of death that permeates through this society. A fear that I find ironic considering the state of the world.
You won’t find my name listed on any record books. I’m not a celebrity, though I was briefly a well-known actor on Broadway and Vaudeville. I starred in few early films, all during the silent age, before disappearing for an age, returning to enlist in the Great War, hoping that death would find me on the battlefield. He saw me and turned away, my sacrifice an insufficient penance for my act of insolence those many years ago.
I was born on a plantation in 1834, the son of wealthy landowner who grew tobacco in the fields, along with a few other crops. He also owned a distillery in town which brought enough money that we would never know want. We had it all, the extravagant home on the rolling green hills, an army of slaves to tend to everything, from the fields to our home. It was a simple time, one that seems idyllic in a sense.
Of course looking at it from our current vantage point, our family were the oppressors of a people, though we treated the help well when you consider the period. I didn’t understand it at the time, but we owned actual human beings. How grotesque is that? I’m ashamed of that history.
Some have the benefit of being separated by generations from that abominable age, but I don’t. I lived it. It’s because I lived it that I’ve come to my current situation. While it wasn’t uncommon for the white owners to sleep with the slaves – with or without their permission, consent being a modern invention – I went a step further and fell in love with a girl.
Maybelle was a beautiful girl of fourteen. I was a few years older at nineteen. When you apply modern age differences, it would seem to be scandalous, but people matured younger in those days. You had to. The concept of adolescence had yet to be invented. Lives depended on growing up. It was a harsh world, but we were strong. We had to to survive.
So our ages weren’t what caused a scandal, but the color of our skin. I was a free white man. She was a servant of color. It didn’t matter that I loved her, nor that she loved me. What mattered was race. Miscegenation was considered by some in our community, reason enough to be killed. Our preacher taught it was an abomination against the Lord for the purity of the race to be diluted by inferior blood. I began to deplore my family, and my race, and my God.
Maybelle would often speak frankly to me, believing that a time would come when a man and woman could marry regardless of the color of our skin, but lamented that it wouldn’t be in our lifetime. An obsession was sparked in me, to defy the laws of Heaven and Earth, to deny Death another mortal trophy. I sought a way to prolong my life, and in so doing prolong my beloved Maybelle’s as well.
I dabbled in the occult, I confess. If God would deny me the woman I so loved, I would turn to his adversary. I sold my soul to the devil, though at the time I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t consider that evil would betray me with a worse fate than death.
“Please,” Maybelle pleaded with me, “don’t you dare do it. I would rather die than live with the shadow of the betrayer looming over us. Let’s run away. Let’s get married. Let men kill us if they want to, but please don’t sell yourself to that fell demon.”
“Don’t worry,” I smiled. “It’ll be alright.”
I walked away that night, to a clearing outside of town, hidden from the prying eyes of the living. In that copse the shadow walked towards me, and I swore my allegiance to him. “For ever after,” he grinned, “Death you pass you by, but know that I demand a payment in kind.”
“That wasn’t part of the bargain,” I cried. “You swore you could forestall death. You never stated that there was a price to pay!”
The shadow lowered its hood, and I looked upon the visage of Death. He smiled, his eyes alight with mischief. “You turned away from life and I granted you passage into immortality, but your Maybelle will never go for it. She’s too pure of a woman for that.”
“She will,” I protested fiercely. “She has to!”
I ran away from the copse and all the way into town and to the other side, several miles, until I reached the plantation. I had been so desperate to get Maybelle to swear allegiance to Death that I hadn’t noticed that I was not out of breath. I ran past the house, and to the shacks where Maybelle and her family lived.
“Don’t you come into this house, boy!” Her father yelled at me, fear dancing in his eyes. He had never spoken to me like that. He had never dared raise his voice at any white man and I knew then that something evil had happened.
I pushed my way in, and her family shrank back. There on a cot on the floor laid an emaciated woman, old and and feeble. Her breath came in raspy bursts, with fits of coughing that spewed blood onto those who attended to her during her throes of death.
“Who is she?” I demanded. No one spoke. No one dared speak to me. The cowered before me and I didn’t know why. Finally she opened her eyes, and her eyes spoke to me. Her body was dying but her eyes were bright with the raging fire of youth. Maybelle looked at me, and I could tell though she wasn’t angry at me, she had chosen a noble path instead of my choice.
I watched in horror as her face contorted in pain as she convulsed and shrank again, wasting away until only a skin-covered pile of bones lay before me, and the light in her eyes dimmed until they went out.
“You did this, boy,” her father shoved his finger in my face as the family wailed in anguish. “You, the devil’s child. You killed my girl. Now I’m going to kill you.”
And he did. Then buried my body. My father found out about my murder and had me dug up. Her father was hanged and buried in the shallow grave he had buried me in. Then I was given a proper burial. Only I was not dead. I could see everything. Death had not taken me, like he promised.
I dug my way out eventually and left town. I wandered the countryside until the first horrific war began, and I traveled north. I fought for the union to end slavery, and I died to save the union. I died so many times it became a game of how-long-can-I-last.
I lived, and I never forgot my Maybelle. I got married eventually, had a family, and watched them all die. I married again, and again, and each time I watched as they withered before me. Sons and daughters passed away, as did my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
I’ve been alone for fifty years now. I’ve seen and done everything imaginable. I conquered the unconquerable, and I’ve mastered everything. I’ve become a poet, a writer, a musician, and an actor. I’ve fought for what I believed in, and sought to find that path back to mortality, but there’s the price I have to pay.
Maybelle’s death was not the payment I had to pay. Far from it. She chose to die instead of renouncing that gift like I had. The price I bear is to never see her again in my lifetime. Sacrificing my life means nothing, I suppose, since I can’t die. I sacrificed my death, and that is a fate worse than I could ever have imagined.
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