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CRY Magazine

A Modern Parable

Four Brothers With 7 Days to Live

When the Messenger of Fate appears, each must choose a path forward

“Prym, Puck, Paco, and Pepi scattered to the four points of the compass, each taking a different path forward.“ [artwork by the author]

One evening four brothers — Prym, Puck, Paco, and Pepi — came together to grieve the passing of their father. After a while, the conversation tilted towards their own mortality, and they began to explore their end of life wishes.

Prym pondered the uncertainty of it all, “How much time do any of us have?”

Puck blurted, “Yikes! I have ninety-nine things yet to see and do, and my list keeps growing.”

Paco philosophically interjected, “Wait! Shouldn’t life be less about experiencing things, and more about making a difference . . . creating a lasting legacy?”

Pepi remained silent for a while before cryptically whispering, “Seeing, doing, creating — does it really matter in the bigger picture? Don’t the poets all agree that love is the answer? And as for the uncertainty of it all . . . would you act any differently if the exact date of your death were foretold?”

The conversation continued in this way with each brother’s stance becoming ever more engraved in their minds: Prym lamenting the randomness of it all; Puck wrestling with the importance of experience; Paco insisting creativity is the highest calling; and Pepi quietly affirming his idea that relationships are what really matter.

A short time later, a Messenger suddenly appeared before them announcing, “I am the Messenger of Fate. I have been sent to inform you that your worldly days are numbered. You have seven days to live. Put your affairs in order and prepare yourself.”

The brothers were surprised by this apparition, and alarmed at what they had just been told. Are we imagining this? Do we really have just seven days? Did he mean one of us, or all of us? Before they could get answers to their questions, the Messenger disappeared.

“Could it be true?” Prym asked. “Did we bring this upon ourselves, becrying the randomness of life’s final moment, asking for certainty about life’s greatest secret, when such certainty can never be revealed?”

In their trepidation, the brothers whirled through the possibilities. Perhaps the message was to be delivered to just one of us. But if so, then who? Or perhaps some imminent catastrophe is awaiting all humanity. Or maybe some fatal accident will befall the four of us together.

Prym was quick to state the obvious solution. “We must distance ourselves, lest any accident should overcome the group of us. Let us each save ourselves.” Reluctantly the four brothers said their farewells, with almost certain knowledge that when they next met, one of them would no longer be alive. They scattered to the four points of the compass, each taking a different path forward. Here are their stories.

Prym awoke early Monday morning, and immediately began scribbling notes to himself. “I must get to the bottom of this,” he declared, and thus set in motion a plan for the next seven days.

First he went to his doctor and got a thorough checkup, insisting to the physician that every possibility be investigated, every technology employed, every sample be analyzed. And so he spent Monday getting jabbed with needles.

He learned nothing from all the poking around, so on Tuesday he went further, arranging to have specialists with their high-tech gadgetry scan every organ and bone in his body. He was injected with illuminating dyes and subjected to noisy machines that clicked and buzzed. But those readings too came back negative. Then he insisted that he be examined from the inside out, from top down and from bottom up. He subjected himself to those dreaded tubes that modern medicine uses for such purposes. Once again, everything checked out. There were no signs that anything was wrong with him.

On Wednesday, satisfied that he was not going to die from some undiscovered illness, his concern shifted to mental health. Was he going crazy? He had to know if this was all just his imagination. So he underwent a lengthy therapy session, dredging up all his doubts about life and death, wrestling with his anxieties. But the therapist could do nothing to relieve his tormented mind.

On Thursday, he turned to the clergy, reasoning that they would be better suited to provide insights into his life and death dilemma. But his consultations with priests and rabbis and imams only left him exasperated. “No one can know the will of God,” they said, “you may enter the kingdom of heaven as foretold by the Messenger, or you may be granted a reprieve. In these matters, there are no certainties.”

When Friday dawned, Prym was no closer to understanding why his fate was sealed, or even if it was. Prym’s life had always been defined by punctuality, planning ahead, his need for control, knowing things with certitude. But no one could point towards anything that could explain the Messenger’s pronouncement. In his frustration, Prym shouted to everyone and no one in particular, “Why now? Why me? Why have I been burdened with this knowledge?” But there was no answer. No mortal being could provide clues, and the Messenger himself was busy elsewhere.

Saturday arrived with impending clouds hanging low. He had led an exemplary life, meticulous and fastidious at every angle. It was unfair. He had exhausted every avenue of inquiry — physical, mental, spiritual. The only remaining route he could see was legal. Furious at the perceived injustice, Prym penned a letter to his lawyer outlining instructions to be followed should his death occur as foretold. A complaint must be lodged with the authorities! An autopsy must be performed, and the medical profession must be called to account! The clergy must be chastised for their insensitivity in his time of need! Someone must take responsibility. Finally, the sixth day came to a close.

Puck couldn’t be more different from his older brother: he welcomed the dawn of his final week. There was no bargaining, no anger, no attempt at denial. He accepted the decision of the Fates as final. “C’est la vie,” was his motto, “I’ve lived a full life and have no regrets.” Puck decided to see and do as many things as possible within his allotted time.

On Monday he set about visiting all the nearby sites that he had somehow never found the time for: renowned parks & gardens, great architecture, museums of all types. He rushed through one after the other, ticking boxes on his list as the day progressed.

Tuesday was for aviation thrills: aloft in a hot-air balloon, as a passenger in an aerobatic barnstormer, pulling 10 G’s aboard a retired fighter combat jet.

Wednesday was for indulging his appetite: he breakfasted on eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy; he lunched at an open buffet, tasting sample after sample of cured meats, breads, pastas and sauces; he roamed the marketplace indulging in deep fried street food; he dined on wild game, exotic fruits, chocolate and fresh cream.

When Thursday arrived Puck’s week of thrills collapsed around him, he had done too much, respite was required, his body needed cleansing. Reluctantly, he allowed his body to repair itself from the prior days’ excess through the welcome touch of a professional masseuse.

But he was soon back at his go-go-go pace. He decided that Friday was to be given over to the pleasures of the flesh. He spent the day with a fistful of small bills drinking beer and watching a parade of pole dancers perform their routines in dishabille. Hours passed, inebriated beyond comprehension, his libido aroused by the show’s all-talent finale, he tossed the remainder of his wad towards the on-stage performers signaling his lustful intent — his sexual fantasies were fulfilled. Hours later he disentangled himself from the orgy, his body tingling, his mind swirling, another boxed ticked.

On Saturday Puck went even further beyond reason. He walked into a sports car showroom, and within minutes was behind the wheel of the fastest car on the lot. “Restraint is for losers,” he laughed to himself, knowing full well that he couldn’t responsibly afford such power and luxury. He growled the engine and screamed the tires, pushing himself and the car beyond the boundaries of safety. He felt the rush of adrenaline coursing through his veins, the heightened sensation of life on the edge — today was not his day to die. He was invincible.

Puck had followed a pattern of thrills and excess and reckless abandon all week, until finally the sixth day came to a close.

Paco chose a different path from his older brothers. There was no space in his remaining days for questions or logic or anger; this was not the time for thrills and bodily pleasures. Instead he followed his life’s passion for art, and chose to work on one final creation — a masterpiece with a message, one he had been planning for a long time, but had never made the time to begin.

His project would be a painting inspired by recent advances in astronomy. He would paint the night sky on a grand scale, with a myriad of stars and galaxies and clusters, our Blue Marble enveloped by the dazzling light of the Universe arriving from the eons. It would be his vision of our place in the vastness of it all, with a nod to Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night and Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam.

Paco had already drawn a set of studies for his idea, and knew deep down what he was aiming for. To do it as he envisioned, a canvas no matter how large, wouldn’t suffice. Instead, he would paint a mural, on a large slab of concrete, located near the city’s center.

He sketched the outline of his forthcoming creation onto the concrete in sweeping gestures. He touched spots here and there with color samples, changing and adapting the range of hues until satisfied with the direction of things. He annotated the sketch with notes to himself: Earth goes here, the Milky Way in this broad swath, the light from a thousand distant galaxies there and there and there.

Satisfied with how things had developed with his first day of work, he rested. In his sleep he dreamed of a greater beauty, one that captured more than Creation itself, one that brought forth the glory of space and time and Man’s place within it.

On the second day, Paco showed his sketch to the mayor, described how the finished piece would enhance the image of the town, and thus secured permission to proceed with his idea. Next he arranged for large quantities of paint and supplies to be delivered to the mural’s site. Then he spoke to a classroom of art students and persuaded them to join the upcoming effort.

Wednesday arrived and everyone got busy. Paco directed the effort. Scaffolds were erected, ladders were secured, large buckets of paint were lifted high off the ground. Chatty students wielding brushes and rollers followed Paco’s instructions to stroke and fill and feather and mix different colors as the mural’s background took shape.

On Thursday he patterned the multitude of galaxies, spacing them in clusters, tinting them red and blue, some more forcefully, others more subtly, as he expressed the expanding nature of their being and the unfathomable distance from there to here.

On Friday the broad swath of the Milky Way was brought forward, emphasizing the vastness of the space between galaxies. Finally, Earth itself was dropped onto the canvas, minuscule in size compared to the wholeness of its surroundings, off center, made prominent through artful luminance, a precious pearl cradled by invisible hands.

Saturday arrived, Paco stood back and gazed at his work. He was ambivalent — pleased with the broad strokes, yet troubled by the minor imperfections. Sadly, Paco had never accepted the idea that there is beauty in imperfection, wabi-sabi was a foreign concept. He couldn’t stop. He reworked the distant galaxies, and fussed over Earth’s singular presence, as he vainly sought the missing sense of gravitas. Finally, the sixth day came to a close.

Pepi awoke Monday morning reflecting on the Messenger’s news from the evening before. It was indeed a startling revelation. Nevertheless, instead of rushing into action like his brothers, he chose to face the day in quiet solitude.

He roamed his gardens pensively wondering what to do, hoping that the beauty and melodies of nature would clear his mind. But his attempt at meditation was interrupted by the beckoning call of the garden itself wanting attention — planting, weeding, watering, trimming — there was so much to do, and so little time to do it. So he just sat and listened to the birds, hoping that nature’s sounds would bring calm. Unfortunately, two jays began harassing a hawk, which was sitting atop the tallest tree (just minding its own business), and the harried raptor abandoned its post, screeching its displeasure, as the jays proclaimed their victory. Alas, bird-watching was also not going to help him think clearly.

Finally, Pepi went for a long walk along well worn paths to allow his mind to relax. The rhythm of his movements, the familiar route, the slowly changing scenery, and the fresh air coursing through his body released his fears. He was no closer to a plan of action when he eventually returned home, yet somehow he felt better prepared to face his final days. He was ready to accept the inevitability of his fate. And thus, in that moment of clarity, he resolved to receive the coming days as a gift from above, one last chance to truly live in the present moment.

On Tuesday Pepi opened shoe-boxes full of old photographs, smiled as he remembered friends and good times from long ago, wrote short notes of gratitude on a few of the best ones, and set them aside for delivery.

On Wednesday he telephoned those he cared for most, passing the time with nothing in particular, listening to their troubles with empathy, encouraging their dreams with enthusiasm, yet revealing nothing of his own secret burden.

On Thursday he invited all of his friends to a spur-of-the-moment gathering, an impromptu salon, where anything and everything was possible. Friends invited friends, musicians brought their instruments, performing artists arrived in costume, snacks and drinks arrived without prompting, children raced with glee, as the spontaneity of it all filled the air. Even the teenagers were in a good mood.

On Friday Pepi visited each of his three brothers, one by one, to share his thoughts, hoping for a final moment of peace with each of them. His time with them underscored their differences.

Pepi’s visit with Prym occurred when his brother was reeling in self-absorbed anxiety. “It’s time to let go,” Pepi told his older brother, “life is too precious to spend so much effort on something you can’t control.” Prym hesitated, and promised to change. (But as we shall see . . .)

Pepi’s visit to Puck was met with exhortations, one after another: “Let’s take a spin on the parkway in my new sports car” and “Let’s check out the smörgåsbord downtown.” Pepi declined all of his brother’s suggestions, “It’s time to slow down,” he said to Puck, “all that stimulation will lead nowhere.” Puck hesitated, and promised to change. (But as we shall see . . .)

Pepi’s visit with Paco was on another plane entirely. “Can you feel the majesty of it all?” Paco exclaimed as he showed Pepi his mural. “The Heavens and Earth, and the Creator and Man, expanding to infinity, beyond our imagination, ineffable!” But Pepi wasn’t high on creativity like his brother, “It’s time to be grounded in reality,” he said to Paco, “all this talk of other worldliness is fun, but don’t let it take you away from those who care for you.” Paco hesitated, and promised to change. (But as we shall see . . .)

With Pepi’s visits complete, Saturday arrived. For him, there was no further need for reflection or memories or letters, or even to spend more time with loved ones. Instead Pepi remained all day in quiet solitude, enjoying his garden as a whole and each specimen individually — just as they were— appreciating that there’s a time for splendor and a time for seed. The jays were at it again, the hawk obliged, and Pepi just smiled. The sixth day came to a close.

Now we learn the fate of the four brothers.

Sunday arrived, the seventh day. Prym, Puck, Paco, and Pepi had reached the foretold day of destiny.

Three of the four brothers died unnecessarily that day. It happened like this:

Prym got out of bed after a fitful night of anxiety and turmoil, rising from bedsheets that were soaked in sweat. He was overcome with dread, stressed beyond the limits of good health. Suddenly, the pounding in his heart came to an abrupt halt, his chest and arms became wracked in pain. Within minutes, he succumbed to a heart attack, and never regained consciousness. He was the architect of his own downfall.

Puck arose that fateful morning with the same happy-go-lucky approach that had always characterized his life. He broke out his best stash of ganja, filled a party-sized bong, and took an outsized hit. Unbeknownst to him, marijuana wasn’t the only thing he inhaled. Within minutes his brain stopped sending autonomic signals, he was overcome by respiratory depression, his body went limp, and he never recovered. He was brought down by his own excesses.

Paco awoke to his day of destiny floating through lucid dreams of walking on clouds, ladders with missing rungs, elevators that wouldn’t descend — he was still not ready to accept reality on its own terms. He wasn’t ready to declare his final artwork complete, worried that it would be seen as derivative, unable to stand on its own, never becoming the masterpiece that he envisioned. He wanted to splash a bucket of paint over the whole thing and destroy it. Unnerved, all he could see was failure, and feeling such, he took his own life. He was overcome by the curse of creativity.

The Messenger returned, appeared before the fourth brother (the only one destined to die that day) and asked, “Have you put your affairs in order?”

“Yes,” Pepi answered, “I have blessed my circle of friends with good cheer, and those I know with encouragement and good will.”

Pepi’s hidden backstory is now revealed.

The prior Sunday, when the Messenger had first appeared before the four brothers, Pepi had received the results of his biopsy. It was his pancreas, and the prognosis was dire. Pepi had kept this news to himself.

“I have given all that I can,” Pepi continued, “I am prepared to meet my destiny.” Shortly afterward Pepi crossed the threshold.

“The jays were at it again, the hawk obliged, and Pepi just smiled.” [Photo by Skyler Ewing]

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Joseph Honton

Living out the remaining days of my life on the only habitable planet I’ll ever know.