The Purpose of Life

[This is a story written from the a prompt on Reddit’s WritingPrompts subreddit. The prompt (and all of its typos) is: People only grow old amd die when they found their own purpose in life. You have lived for a millenia and you notice a strand of your gray hair.]

I stepped inside the remains of the enormous, empty warehouse. Dust a quarter inch thick displaced into deep footprints as my soft shoes pattered against the concrete, leaving the faintest echo in the completely barren room. I met the Shaman there — my name for him, not his — a thin, bronze-colored man with leathery skin, wearing a gray flannel shirt and blue jeans, nothing else. He was sitting cross-legged in the center of the warehouse, eyes closed, in some type of meditation. But he opened his eyes when I arrived, and smiled gently at me.

“Finally, you come seeking answers,” he said. He stood, lifting himself off the ground with a spry step. He looked old, ancient even, with thin white hair and cloudy blue eyes, his face gaunt and stretched tight against his skull. Almost like he was wearing a mask. “Look at you,” he said. “You don’t look like you’ve aged one bit.” He laughed and stepped close to me, studying my face, running a bony hand through my dark brown hair. Tugged on my earlobes. “Yes, not a day since … well.”

“How do you know who I am?” I asked.

“The longer a man lives, the more likely he is to be known,” the man replied. “And when a man lives a thousand years, his name echoes in many chambers. I bet you didn’t expect to find an old ascetic like me in the ruins of the Newark Port Authority, did you?” he said, and grinned. He was missing more than a few teeth.

“I didn’t expect to be led here, no,” I said. “But I’ve been everywhere on this planet and it wouldn’t surprise me to find enlightenment in Newark.”

“Is that what you seek? Enlightenment?” the man asked. I nodded, and he cackled in glee. “How brilliant,” he said. “Misguided, but brilliant.” And then he turned and beckoned me to follow him.

He led me to his home, born out of an old shipping container. It was stuffed with decades of memorabilia, and had a sense of familiarity about it, as my own home, the latest one in Sri Lanka, at least, was also stuffed with memorabilia, though mine went back centuries. He had lit a few candles which gave the room sharp, overgrown shadows that flickered back and forth along the walls and ceiling.

He cut open a can of soup with a knife and made a small fire in an old grill he had found in one of his various trash heaps. “Tell me about your life,” he said to me, gathering charcoal from an old bag.

“There’s a lot to tell,” I said. “I was born on March 8, 1638 in a hamlet in England, to a tailor and his wife. I didn’t want to be a tailor myself, so I started wandering the countryside looking for odd jobs. Then, a hundred years later, after all of my friends had died, I started to wonder why I hadn’t died myself. I hadn’t aged at all, not since, like you said, I was around 24, 25 … I traveled to the Orient thinking they had some mystical reasoning for my agelessness, but that trip ended up taking me all over the world.

“I met a man in India who said that the god Krishna had granted me neverending life, but couldn’t tell me why. Nobody can tell me why, I’ve noticed. They are surprised, excited, saddened, angered by my longevity, yet none can tell me why. So I wander. I’ve been everywhere in this world, every continent, and even in the arctic. I have touched both poles. I have climbed Mt. Everest, and descended to the depths of the Mariana Trench. I have fought in countless wars, and in some, I wished to die. I was so reckless, I fought so poorly because I wanted to be killed, because I had lived so long. But I remained alive. I’m not immortal. I can be hurt, I have been struck with the worst illnesses and have faced Death’s door several times, but every time … I make it through. After the bombs fell I took shelter, I was living in Toronto at the time, my wife then and I traveled north, into Quebec, and hid, hid for months while the war scoured the countryside. When it was over, my wife, my children, were all dead. Succumbed to the harsh winters. But they were one of many, I’ve loved and lost so many times my soul feels calloused and rigid.”

The old man handed me a cracked ceramic bowl and poured half of the contents of the steaming can of soup into it, then plopped a crude wooden spoon in the soup, a spoon he likely whittled himself. I took a few eager sips, not realizing how hungry I was until the warmth of the broth filled my belly.

“Tell me about your loves,” the old man said.

“There are too many,” I replied. “When I was younger, I had an insatiable desire welling inside of me, this constant need to figure out why I was still alive. That often translated into sex, or love, or infatuation. I have had so many lovers, so many wives, so many children, and many of those moments were the happiest parts of my life, and others … were the worst. When you’re young, you’re extreme, like a piece of rock chipped off from a boulder, all jagged and angled. Then that rock falls into a river and over years and years and years, the rock becomes smooth, worn down. Perfect, in a way. But I never got that. I never became frail, never felt the need to slow down. My extremes lasted centuries, and my good years could be decades, my bad years … also decades.

“Fortunately, time is a lot like a river, even when you don’t age. Time wore me down, and I found myself entering longer relationships. Some of them knew, about me, about my problem. So they would age and I would not, and they would know. I would watch them, study them, as they got older, trying to figure out what was different between them and me. But for all the others, eventually, I would have to leave. They would be 40 and I would still be 25. They would ask questions. I would have to fabricate some story, some reason for leaving. A lot of fights. They all ended in fights. That … that wore me down too.

“I told Lizzie — my wife in Toronto — I told her that I couldn’t age, and she scoffed at me when she was 20, but realized it was true when she was 42, me and her and the kids, one of whom was nearly my age, my visual age I mean. We were in Quebec by this time, I had built us a log cabin home, I had plenty of centuries to learn how to build practically anything with wood. We were warm for a while, but then the soldiers would march north and we’d have to move again. We had a tent, so we lived in a tent a lot. I could hunt, fish, capture any type of bird or animal we wanted, but no matter where we stayed, the war followed. Every time we thought we were hidden, we would hear men’s boots cracking the detritus of the forest, or the howling of search dogs, or random gunfire. So we moved. It was cold, too cold, and it killed them, my wife, my kids. That wore me down.”

“So you have loved many?” the old man asked.

“So many,” I replied. “Too many.”

We were silent for some time, drinking soup. The old man said nothing but watched me with a pitiful gaze, as though appraising my life. Then, he stood and held a finger up as if to say, hold on. He headed into his storage container home and I watched as the sun, obscured by the warehouses, spilled orange and red and purple color into the sky as it began its descent behind the horizon. It was midsummer, warm, very warm, and I was thankful for that warmth.

The man returned with a medium-sized cardboard box, which he sat on the ground beside me. He then sat next to me and opened the box. He pulled out a picture frame, the picture side facing him. He looked at me, and then to the picture. “The purpose of life is to find purpose in life,” he said matter-of-factly. He gave me the picture frame, which I turned over in my hands. The photo in the frame was old, maybe two hundred years old. A young woman, her red hair pulled back into a tight bun, rosy cheeks and bright green eyes, a thin smile on her face, though her eyes shone discomfort, like when someone wants to take your picture but you don’t, so you fake happiness, because you know that photo will live on forever.

“Who is this?” I asked.

The man reached into the box and pulled out another frame, smaller than the last. In this photo, the same woman, gleefully wrapping her arms around a man. Her style of dress looked to be pre-war, pre-bombs. A better time. Something about her smile knocked against my mind like a pebble dislodging an avalanche. She looked familiar, so familiar and yet I could not place it. The old man saw my eyes widen and grinned, clapping his hands together quickly and diving into the box. He produced a series of photos, some in frames, some not, which he handed to me en masse.

The woman, pre-war, sipping a drink beside a pool.

The woman, pre-war, in the backseat of a car with some friends.

The woman, post-war, eyes wide in a darkened room, taking a self-portrait by candlelight.

The woman, pre-war, in ski clothes clearly made in the 1990s.

The woman, pre-war, wearily sitting for a daguerreotype, circa 1870s.

“Where did you get these?” I asked.

“I told you, a long life echoes through many chambers. Do you recognize her yet?” the man asked.

“Aoife Murphy,” I blurted. “I met her in a dance in London in … 1663.”

“Tell me about her,” the man said.

“She … she was the first woman I ever loved. Really, ever loved. She was from Dublin and had moved to London with her family, her father was a cobbler, one of the best in the city. The moment we met eyes that night it was … it was fate. We danced all night and talked until the sunrise. Her father hated me though, and though we wanted to marry he wouldn’t have it. And then, in ’65 the plague hit and … we lost contact. I assumed she died of the plague. I mean, her father, her brothers, they were all in London and they all caught it and died…” I looked up at him. “Are you saying she’s still alive? Like me?”

The old man smiled again. He reached into the box and produced one more frame, a larger one, which he blew on to dislocate the thick dust on it. He handed it to me.

On it was a painting of Aoife, wearing the typical fashionable dress of 1660s England. “The purpose of life is to find purpose in life,” he said. “Some find it in work, some find it in play. Some find it in others. Look.”

The man reached over and wrapped an index finger around a hair in my head, pulling it out. I winced at the sharp yet quickly fading pain. He pulled the hair taut between his fingers.

It was gray. My first gray hair.

“Better hurry,” he said. “You don’t have much time left.”