By: Michael C. Keith
Eternity is in love with itself.
Seth Perkins was about to turn 170 years old but looked like a man in his 50s. He was one of the first so-called Perpetuals. Only a decade ago it had been discovered that one percent of the world’s population ceased to age beyond what was then considered midlife. Every country had Perpetuals, and the World Census Bureau calculated that the U.S. alone had 3.5 million of them. Because of their extraordinary attribute, they were regarded with both awe and envy.
The medical and science communities had yet to determine why 70 million humans escaped the curse of mortality and the wrath that accompanied it. Religious communities had various theories about the eternality of Perpetuals. Some sects saw it as the work of the devil and treated them with contempt and suspicion, while others attributed it to an act of their God, believing that Perpetuals were imbued with special grace and purpose. Exactly what that was, naturally, inspired considerable speculation. For example, Jews held that they were the second incarnation of the Chosen People intended to ensure their tribe’s imperishability. Meanwhile, Muslims argued that Perpetuals had been selected by their Prophet to lead the world’s conversion to Islam. And so on . . .
These diverse views complicated life for many Perpetuals, most of whom were not believers in any particular form of worship, nor were they specific to any race, gender, or ethnicity. Gerontologists had concluded that the extraordinary longevity of Perpetuals was not inherited, although many families reported having two or more among their flock. As far as Seth could determine, he alone of his family possessed the remarkable trait after extensively probing the Perkins’ ancestral history.
* * *
Like most Perpetuals, Seth had some misgivings about his status. But as far as he was concerned, the prospect of living forever outweighed any downsides to it. Several financial ventures had made him wealthy, and he was now into a happy third marriage. He had outlived his two previous wives. Although he had tried to hook up with a fellow Perpetual, things had never worked out. Thus, his current wife, Celia, was a mortal as well. She had only been 31 when he married her. Now she was closing in on 60, and Seth could recognize the telltale signs of physical deterioration that befell all non-Perpetuals. However, unlike with his other wives, he did not consider his current spouse’s aging a turnoff. His deep love for her made it possible for him to look beyond it.
Seth had regretted not having children with his previous wives. In his thirties it had become apparent to him that he could not produce offspring. It would have been a comfort for him to have children and grandchildren as he piled on the years, but in that respect he was not alone. Reproduction was not possible for Perpetuals, a factor that remained as much a mystery as their agelessness.
Rather than weaken his bond with his third wife, his infertility strengthened it. He was her world and she was his, and he was determined to further their time together. However, he knew mortals came with an expiration date, although the average lifespan had increased significantly in the last few decades. Reaching one hundred was not so exceptional any longer, and more and more people were reaching 110. The eldest known non-Perpetual on record had been a Chilean woman who had finally expired at 128.
If I can have another 60 or 70 years with Celia, I will be eternally thankful, thought Seth, who was hopeful medical science would continue to have success extending human life. Just let me be with her as long as possible. Every day with his greatest love was better than the previous one. Because of the many exquisite moments he’d had with Celia, life had never been so sweet. His time with her had been the greatest of his nearly two centuries on the planet.
* * *
During the next two decades, Celia had managed to ward off the effects of aging remarkably well. But as she approached 80, her health took a sudden turn, and she was diagnosed with severe osteoporosis, which caused her to hunch over. It spoiled her perfect posture, detracting from her hourglass figure. It broke Seth’s heart to see his wife suffering the ravages of advancing years, and it reminded him of her mortality.
“You are still young and will be forever, and I’m an old lady. You should find a young woman who can give you what you need,” declared Celia.
“No one can give me what you can, darling. You have my heart and always will,” replied Seth, feeling his world begin to crumble.
“But look at us. I could be your mother. How can you love a sickly old woman?”
Seth was aware how it looked to everyone, but his heart remained as deeply attached to Celia as it had at the start of their relationship. He could look beyond her faded beauty but not her suffering. Her pain became his pain. Seth remained at his wife’s side as her ailments worsened, and his steadfastness earned him the admiration of all who knew Celia. But the end came with her death at age 84. It was decades earlier than Seth had hoped.
* * *
In the dark days that followed, Seth was beyond consolation. Life had lost its sweetness and meaning to him, and the prospect of living forever now turned into something burdensome and unappealing. His state of mind remained bleak as Celia’s casket was lowered into the ground and no less so when he returned to the house he had shared with his deceased sweetheart.
Despite his hope that he might escape his angst in sleep, Seth found he could not escape his grief and achieve the oblivion he sought. He sat on the edge of the bed that he had shared with Celia and recalled their great love affair. However, as the night deepened, there was an inexplicable but very welcome change in his mood. His despair began to fade and soon was replaced by a feeling of indifference. Is this something unique to my kind? he wondered. Can we just stop feeling sorrow? Is that, too, a part of who we are? What we are?
Indeed, by dawn, all the grief he had felt over the loss of his beloved Celia was completely gone, supplanted by a sense of elation over the limitless prospects that lay ahead for him.
What the hell, I’m a Perpetual. There will be other Celias . . . so many other Celias, he thought, feeling as happy as he had ever felt.
He then slept deeply, and in his dreams he beheld the countless wives he would one day love . . . and then cease to love.
Michael C. Keith teaches college and writes fiction. http://www.michaelckeith.com