Friday, 11 April 2008
400 years of solitude?
It was early morning when Brad came down to the beach. The tide was slowly coming in over the sands, but after the day before when for some reason unknown a shoal of sharks was observed in the water, the beach had been closed. Yet, this morning, with the pale blue of the sky and the soft hushing of the sea upon the sands, the large 'BEACH CLOSED' sign seemed out of place. There were a host of footprints around the sign from the early morning, when the authorities had decided to leave the sign in place until the threat of sharks could be determined. But what could possibly go wrong on such a quiet day?
As he watched, a lone man strode out of the sea with his surfboard under one arm. Brad ran down to the man and right away he knew something was different. The man's stride was assured but not arrogant, he seemed utterly unafraid, but not reckless. Brad paused for a moment until the man approached him and asked him where he might get coffee and breakfast. Confused, Brad pointed up the beach to the promenade, then,
"You know the beach is closed? There was a shoal of sharks all over yesterday." he explained.
"It's of no matter." the man answered quietly, smiling and walking up towards the promenade.
Brad found himself following the stranger, curious and somehow a little bemused.
"You're not afraid of sharks?" he exclaimed in disbelief.
"They are more afraid of me, I think," the man answered.
"Oh really?" Brad asked with an openly sceptical grin, "What's so scary about you?"
The man smiled with his eyes and seemed about to explain before lowering his head and continuing to the promenade. A few people were already there walking along the beach either to work or taking dogs for a walk. One woman with a great dane seemed almost to be being walked by the dog, but when the dog saw the man he raised his head, sniffed and stopped. For a moment he growled - then backed away, pulling the woman with him. The woman began to scold him, frowning in puzzlement, but the dog took her coat in his mouth and pulled her insistently away from the man.
Only now did Brad begin to feel a small frisson of fear. He turned back to the man and reached out as if to touch the man's shoulder, but something made him stop. That suspicion of fear - of what the man might be. How had he surfed through a shoal of sharks unharmed? Who - and the following question made Brad shiver - or what was the man?
"Who are you?" Brad asked him.
"I am Jehan de Angevins of the Court of Francois the First. Knight, poet - alchemist," was the bewildering answer.
"Who's Francois the First?" Brad asked, puzzled.
"Francois - was the King of France." Jehan answered, "in what is called the 16th century. He died in the year of our Lord 1547. I, as you see, did not."
Brad stood for a moment taking this in.
"That would make you about 500 years old... that's impossible! " he said taking a step forward.
"I wish it was, my young friend, I wish it was. Still I have learned much in the intervening years. I sleep, I wake, I dine...sometimes I do nothing, sometimes I manage to do things. But I live and while I live, I - move. What else is there to do?" Jehan told him.
He had reached a cafe overlooking the promenade and now, placing the surfboard up against the wall, he sat and ordered breakfast and coffee. Brad joined him and ordered coffee too.
"So - assuming I believe you, what happened? How did you live so long?" Brad asked.
"First, I don't care if you believe me or not. Secondly... I told you I was an alchemist. One evening I accidentally stumbled across the formula for an elixir of youth. The Holy Grail of some alchemists. Who wants to make gold if you can only spend it while you live?
I made this elixir my life's work. Then I discovered it, made it, drank it. For years I watched those around me grow old, wither and die. Those I loved I could not keep alive. Oh I tried. I told my secret to my love Beatrice, but she recoiled in horror at the thought of it. She wanted to be in Heaven. She called me unnatural, unholy, a criminal... alas, now she is gone and I still live.
My Beatrice died hating me for my secret and I could only watch her die. I see those who talk of life as a gift and of it being precious. One man I knew longed to live forever. But I shuddered to think on that. I don't know how long the effect lasts, only that for me it has been 408 years. Shall it be longer? An eternity? I don't know. I don't care any more. I have never longed to die so much. I cursed myself as I watched all those I love die around me.
I began to put myself in the way of danger, to risk death - and yet it was no use. Death could not touch me. Not fire, water, bullets, blades - nothing could kill me. If that was not enough, I could not even be damaged. Oh I knew pain, but my wounds healed even as they were made." Jehan answered.
For a while, he was silent. His breakfast was served and he ate and drank without a word. Then he got up and sighed.
"Do you surf?" he asked Brad.
"Yeah, sure, only my board's not that good. But still I get out when I can." he answered.
"Have my board then. I don't need it any longer." Jehan told him.
To his questions, Brad received a shrug and a wave of the hand. It was not necessary to protest, just to take the board as it was offered. He took it and followed Jehan as the man went back down the beach towards the sea. He almost made it too. But on the strand as the sea rushed in with lacy foam, Jehan suddenly stopped and swayed, clutching his throat. A laugh that bordered on madness burst from his throat and flew upwards into the clear air. Then before Brad's eyes, Jehan half turned and grinned. He threw up his hands to heaven and turned to dust, falling upon the sand. The incoming tide came in and drew the dust and the sand into itself leaving Brad standing upon the beach with a surfboard and a gentle pitying look on his face.