“To Be Mortal”

I was awoken from my hibernation by a cacophony of sound and violence. I heard the roar of an explosion and shriek of tearing metal. I was aware of my box hurling through the air as the plane crashed into the ocean. Although I could see nothing, I sensed the flash of fire before the sea engulfed whatever remained of the plane and its cargo.

The chaos subsided, but I was aware of swaying around me before cold, salty water started seeping into my coffin. I had little time to spare before the plane would sink below the waves and me with it.

The danger of daylight didn’t occur to me as I clawed my way out of my coffin and the crate it was boxed in. Luckily—what little luck I was granted—the pitch black that greeted me assured the sun was nowhere to be found. I escaped the wreckage as it drifted into the abyss, taking my coffin, my human Familiar, and whatever other belongings I owned with it.

I swam for the surface only to find howling wind and cascading waves that tossed me about like a ragdoll. Seawater filled my lungs and I feared I might soon join the plane into the depths. Stranded in the middle of nowhere on a moonless night, not even my enhanced senses were of much use. It was only thanks to the occasional flicker of lightning that I glimpsed the island.

I reached the shore with waves crashing around me and had not a moment to collect myself before I started vomiting seawater from my lungs. I remained there on my hands and knees, watching the foaming tide sweep in and out, as I purged the last of the ocean out. My kind cannot drown, nor do we need to really breathe, but that does not make one’s body filling with water any less unpleasant.

Once my lungs were emptied, I gasped fresh air with a relief I suspect most mortals take for granted. I crawled onto the beach and lay on my back, inhaling and exhaling with appreciation I’d long forgotten. I knew I should be moving, but for the moment, I remained where I was as the rain reduced to a fine spray and thunder drifted off into the distance. The breeze blew with a gentle whistle, and I stared at the black sky above.

With the storm passed, the sky cleared somewhat to reveal some stars and a half-moon. I saw no sign of light on the horizon and guessed I had time to explore my surroundings before sunrise.

I left the beach and noted the mild weather and abundance of palm trees. My late Familiar had handled the travel arrangements, so I had no knowledge of our plane’s route. But the climate and scenery seemed picturesque, and I thought it feasible there might be some sort of hotel resort for tourists to sunbathe and swim. It would be troublesome, but I could make arrangements to get out of here or, if nothing else, feed.

Unfortunately, I was denied such luck. The island was indeed deserted. I explored everything there was to explore within mere hours. I hadn’t believed places such as this really existed—nothing but a patch of sand, grass and trees on some random spot in the middle of the ocean. Too small to house any kind of resort and too isolated for tourists to boat to. Not even the private mansion of a millionaire with the wealth to own a small island.

Aside from seagulls, I found no signs of wildlife. The only thing of any potential use was a small cave near the center that could provide the bare minimum of shade from the sun.

With the first hint of dawn on the horizon, I gathered leaves from the palm trees and took them as deep into the cave as I could go and covered myself. As I lay there, curled in a ball under my makeshift tomb, feeling the heat and humidity of day steadily rise with the sun, I cursed my wretched luck.

But I would not despair or panic. I had not survived for nearly two hundred years only to be defeated by a deserted island. Once the night returned, I would think this through and come up with a plan. I had overcome worse. I would overcome this.

I just needed to be patient, and if an immortal is anything, it’s patient.

NIGHT TWO

I was stirred the following night, not by the burning of Hunger, but by a terrible cramp in my lower back from sleeping in such confined conditions. How long had it been since I experienced such mundane aches and pains?

I emerged from my cave into the gray of late twilight. Stretching my back, I shut my eyes and took in all sound around me: the swaying of palm trees in the wind, the squawking of seagulls circling the island, and the gentle caress of waves on the surf. Had it not been for the dull throb of Hunger stirring in my blood, I might have found it soothing.

I returned to the beach and noted a flock of seagulls resting on some nearby rocks. The urge to snatch one of them and suck it dry came to me, but I resisted. A measly bird would do me little, and I refused to lower myself like that. I was a hunter—a creature of the night. I would not sate myself on some bird like a scavenging dog. I could last without feeding for a time.

The important thing for the moment was escape. I walked the beach hoping I might see a neighboring island or passing ship in the distance, but even with the waning daylight, I saw nothing.

As I lapped the island, the idea to chance swimming and hoping for the best came to me, but I put it aside. There had to be a better way and, not without some bitterness, I lamented my inability to fly.

For much of my existence, I’ve scoffed at the various interpretations of my kind and our abilities—ranging from the misguided to the outright ludicrous. But I would be lying if I said, stuck on that beach in the middle of nowhere, I didn’t wish I could turn into a bat after all.

I honestly don’t know if my kind is capable of flight. I’ve never come across another who could. I suppose if it is at all possible it’s related to age, but I’m nearly two centuries old and the defiance of gravity is unknown to me. The one who made me offered little in regard to teaching, and we are not provided with an instruction manual explaining what we can and cannot do. The sad truth is much of what my kind knows about itself comes from myths and legends.

I recall once encountering a fellow who did not know whether garlic really was anathema to us and avoided it at all costs just in case. Some do spend their nights trying to unlock the secret to transforming into bats or wolves. There have even been a few who suspected our weakness to sunlight was superstition … only to meet a fiery end come dawn.

With few ideas coming to me, as absurd as it sounds, I did attempt flying. I flexed and strained whatever muscle would seem appropriate. I tried meditation. I concentrated really hard. I took a running start and jumped into the air only to land in the sand. I even tried happy thoughts, but my feet remained planted in the dirt.

Alas, if flight is possible, the secret eluded me. If I was to escape, it would not be via my “powers.”

Discouraged, I walked the island again trying to think of other means of escape or hoping I might stumble across something helpful. Inspiration came when I found the remains of a downed palm tree. Fire, I thought. A bonfire of adequate size might attract the attention of a ship or passing plane. This was a tropical zone after all, I told myself. Surely there would be a cruise ship. I’d even settle for drug smugglers traveling under cover of night.

I may not be able to fly or transform into a bat, but I did have the strength to tear apart a few trees with my bare hands. In time, my humble pile of torn trunks and leaves was a blazing beacon.

I admired my bonfire as it lit the night in orange glow, so confident it would attract the attention of some passing ship or plane. It was logical, I thought. More than that, it was absurd to think it would fail. In the pitch black of night, a fire such as the one I’d created would be all the easier to spot. I had no doubt it would be seen and rescuers would arrive any moment.

So confident was I, I began rehearsing how I’d respond when help came. “Yes,” I said to my imagined rescuer. “My plane crashed, and I was the only survivor. I swam ashore and hoped help would come sooner or later.

“Oh, no,” I continued. “Thank you. If not for you, I might have starved. Speaking of which …”

I let out a hearty laugh at the thought. What an unfortunate surprise that would be for my hypothetical rescuer. Oddly enough though, my laughter was followed by the twinge of guilt. Should I really repay whoever comes with death? A scorpion betraying the helpful swan (or frog, depending on your preference) who came to my aid? A predator I may be, but I am not incapable of mercy.

“I could offer to turn them,” I said aloud, and the thought was not without some intrigue.

I had never tried to make another, but surely I was old enough by now. Immortality would be quite the reward for my rescuer. Yes, I thought. Once I was free of the island, I would repay my savior with an offer to become like me.

And if I was refused, I would bear no grudge. If nothing else, my rescuer would have quite the story to tell.

But there was one problem: no one came. I kept my fire burning until the sky brightened with the promise of sunrise, but there was no sign of help to be found. With a hiss, I realized even if help did come, it would be of no use in the daylight.

With no choice, I let the fire die and retreated to my wretched cave to sleep through another day.

NIGHT THREE

When I awoke, the pain of uncomfortable sleep was surpassed by something far worse. Mortals might equate it with drug withdrawal, but only my kind can comprehend the Hunger. My bones were stiff and ached. My blood boiled. Upon emerging from the cave, I felt listless and lethargic. Focus was difficult, my knees were weak, and my hands shook. My flesh alternated between cold and hot at random.

My kind cannot die from lack of feeding, but I’ve heard what becomes of those who are starved. We wither away to little more than skin and bones with no strength to move or power to hunt—trapped in our own deteriorating bodies.

And that’s not accounting what happens to our minds.

I drifted to the beach, intent on rekindling my bonfire, but I wasted a good hour or so staring at the seagulls. I watched them gather on the rocks, squawking and pecking, and I found myself contemplating how easy it would be to snatch one … to taste its blood on my lips … so convinced of its sweetness and relief …

I slapped myself across the face. I needed to focus and set about gathering wood for another fire, which turned into its own ordeal. Where I had torn apart palm trees with ease the night before, this night my strength was sapped due to hunger.

It took hours before I managed to get a single tree ready for a bonfire that paled in comparison to the previous one. Starving, desperate, and to work so hard for so little with no guarantee it would amount to anything … I truly was living the life of a mortal.

I sat beside it with my head buried in my palms—my head pounding, hands raw from ripping up the wood, and the Hunger burning deep inside me.

It’s more than physical pain. My temper was short. I felt rabid, on the verge of frenzy. The sound of the tide was driving me mad. The cracking of the fire beside me was like a hammer crashing into my skull. Without realizing it, I clawed at my scalp. I ground my teeth, unaware I was drooling. I think if help did come then, I would be unable to resist.

But still no one came. I don’t know how much time passed, but the night dripped by without a trace of help.

After what must have been hours, I crawled to the shore and splashed water onto my face. I considered it good fortune my kind cannot see our reflections, because I could only imagine what a horror I must’ve looked like. Of course, I thought, even if I could see my reflection, I wouldn’t because it was too dark out.

Thinking on that, I looked out at the vast empty night before me and had a grim realization. It’s smoke from a bonfire that attracts attention. It’s the cloud that is seen for miles in every direction that brings ships or planes to investigate.

No one was going to see smoke in the middle of the damned night!

Maybe it was possible the fire could act as a beacon. It ultimately didn’t matter, because in my fury I tore it apart—hurling flaming bits of wood in every direction and burning my hands in the process. I howled and roared, cursing whatever cruel force brought me to this.

With my bonfire strewn all over the beach, I collapsed onto the sand, exhausted and on the verge of weeping. The gentle waves swept in and out, as they had since I arrived and would continue long after I was gone, and I suddenly hated the sea and vowed if I got off this damned island I would find some isolated place in the mountains—far, far away from the ocean.

Dawn approached. Dejected, tired, and weak, I returned to my cave. Burying myself in leaves, I wept as I went into another unpleasant and unfulfilling slumber. I couldn’t go on like this. Help would not come and my “powers” were of no use in getting off.

“Maybe not,” I said to myself, struck by how hoarse my voice sounded.

I drifted off to sleep, thinking of the ocean and wondering how far from the mainland could I be.

NIGHT FOUR

There was a time I drank from chalices made of gold. A time when I didn’t even need to hunt. My servants brought prey to me and drained their blood into shining goblets encrusted with jewels. Some offered themselves to me willingly. And I basked in my power and immortality, knowing nothing of want or fear.

I thought of that time, so long ago, as I drained what I could from the writhing seagull in my clutches. In my weakened condition, I spent two hours trying to catch just one of the wretched birds. I sucked it dry within seconds and continued sucking long after every drop was gone.

It did nothing. In fact, in a cruel irony, it only made the Hunger worse.

The other birds scattered in every direction to land on some other part of the island, if not fly out to sea. Two hours spent for what amounted to little more than pittance.

In a rage, I tore the dead animal apart and howled and cried, very much like an animal myself. This was what I had been reduced to. In a mere three nights, I’d become a savage beast scavenging scrawny birds for the barest of sustenance.

When I calmed down, I sat on the beach and stared at the ocean. The night was still and serene with a clear sky of twinkling stars. The waves were calm, and the sea—black as ink—stretched on and on, as far as I could see. Land was somewhere out there. Land and prey to feed on.

More and more, the idea of attempting to swim seemed feasible. I can’t drown. I can’t starve or die of thirst. Even if the sun came up before I reached land, it can only shine so deep. During the day, I could submerge and endure the discomfort of seawater in my lungs until it was safe to resurface.

Trembling, I approached the shore. I pictured myself out there, alone in the vast ocean. I would try to keep west, but I knew I’d lose my way. Did that matter though, I wondered? I am immortal. I could take as long as I needed, and sooner or later, I would reach land.

I took the first steps into the sea and shivered from the cold. I hesitated, but knew if there was a time to try this, it was now. If I stayed on the island any longer, I would only grow weaker and sink deeper into madness from the Hunger.

I went further into the water as the foaming tide sloshed at my knees. I could make it, I told myself. I would make it. As long as I was patient and careful, I would survive this ordeal as I had survived for nearly two centuries.

I was up to my waist when a breaking wave knocked me off balance. I crumbled beneath the water and my mouth filled instantly. I might have gotten to my feet, but due to my weakened condition, the undertow tossed me about like a ragdoll.

Gravity had no meaning as my lungs filled with seawater in seconds. I kicked and thrashed for the surface, but the weight of water in my body slowed me down. My eyes were open, but I saw nothing. I couldn’t tell which direction I was facing—to or from the shore, up or down. It was as though I was floating in a dark void.

Panic struck me like a bolt to the chest. I imagined myself pulled out to sea with the current, stranded in this terrible abyss, unable to find my way again. I saw myself sinking to the bottom of the ocean and, assuming I wasn’t crushed by the intense pressure, being trapped there for the rest of my existence.

There I would remain, stranded and insane with the Hunger, wandering aimlessly in the dark for all time—some nightmarish creature of the sea, doomed to lurk the ocean floor searching for land to no avail.

Somehow I managed to flail my way to shore. I scrambled back onto the beach, spewing seawater from my lungs and desperate for steady, dry land once again. Swimming wasn’t going to happen.

Despair came to me then. I wasn’t getting off the island myself, and no help would come to me. The Hunger would only get worse, no matter how many seagulls I managed to drain. I imagined an eternity trapped in the middle of nowhere, spending my days cramped in that damned cave and every night hoping for a miracle that would never come.

That left only one viable option: death. I could remain where I was, wait for dawn, and perish with the sunrise.

It had a certain appeal. Perhaps I’d lived on this Earth long enough? Despite our immortality, few of my kind truly live forever. Sooner or later we get caught, slain, or just give up. Maybe it would be best to accept my end and on my own terms? Dying by sunlight would no doubt be painful, yes, but I’ve been told there are worse ways to go than seeing the dawn just one time.

I waited as the night passed and sky brightened to a pinkish hue. I braced myself for the inevitable and tried to make peace with what I was and had been. I contemplated if there would be an afterlife waiting for me, and if so, how I would be judged. Most tales paint my kind as unholy, unnatural creatures, but is a wolf or lion damned just because he must kill to survive?

The first hint of golden light formed on the horizon. I reflected on my long existence—my glory, my retainers, my servants and victims … nearly two hundred years of hunting and feeding and power. In my prime, I was a lord of the night, feared and respected. Nearly two hundred years, only for it to come to this.

And I would have endured, too. Had it not been for the storm that stranded me on this damned island, I would’ve staked a claim in the new world and continued on for centuries more. Instead, I die alone and forgotten.

The more I thought, the less I found peace. How could this be my end? How could I have lived so long just for this? I refused to accept it. I would not allow my life to end on some deserted beach with not but a seagull’s blood in my belly!

With little time to spare, I made my way to the center of the island and began digging. I dug and clawed into the earth with my bare hands, motivated by the coming dawn. My flesh began to cook as the sun approached, but I didn’t slow, digging deeper and deeper with all the strength that remained to me.

I buried myself in the ground, deep enough to hide from the cursed sun. I resolved to go into hibernation and let fate decide what would become of me. My body would wither, but I would survive in my slumber—waiting for the day I might be discovered and can feed again.

That day may never come. This damned island might remain deserted until the end of time, and I may stay where I am. But I can hope. Hope for a day when some unwary travelers come across this place and stumble upon my make-shift grave. If I’m lucky, they’ll unearth me at night and when the chance comes, I shall regain my strength.

The odds were not in my favor, but I didn’t care. Better to try for the long shot than surrender. Better to chance the unlikely fortune, even if the outcome is almost certainly doomed. Better to endure, however stubbornly, even in the face of death.

Isn’t that what it means to be mortal?

END


If you would like more, check out
Ones & Zeroes: A Short Story Collection

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This and 13 other stories available on Amazon for 99¢

©2018 by M. Walsh

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