In case you wonder, the place described here is real, and does exist in Meteora, Greece. The Monks who used to live in the monasteries there used to climb up and down the cliffs via ropes. They wouldn’t replace these until God decided to let them break and plunge the unfortunate fellow to his death. Essentially, this story is just because I’ve always been curious about the idea of immortality and what it would be like to live for a very long time. I gave it a nasty twist cos that’s just my thing. How far would you go to become immortal?
The Ancient Man
An old man on a mountain. It was basically the oldest cliché in the book. On the other hand, it was intriguing as hell. It may end up a dead end story, but that didn’t mean that Sean White didn’t want to see his by-line under the title nevertheless. The Ancient Man, he’d call it.
He’d been sent to Greece to report on the current conflict, but it wasn’t as if that was going anywhere right now. Besides, if this ended up being as good as he thought it was, he didn’t think they’d complain much.
The mode of transport, he would have liked to change. When he’d seen the rickety wooden ‘elevator’ on the cliffside, he’d point blank refused to get on it.
‘Do not worry,’ one of the odd monks had told him. ‘The rope does not break until God wishes it.’ That wasn’t much hope for an atheist, but a story was a story, and up he went.
He wasn’t sure they really were monks, now he thought of it. The ones he’d seen on television always wore bright orange, yellow, or brown cloaks, but these had blue ones. He didn’t know what that meant, but he was pretty sure they weren’t the traditional kind of monk.
The rope dragged their rotten wood box up the side of the cliff, bumping on every outcrop and flailing round every edge, and before they were halfway up he wished he’d chosen another career, but at last it was over.
When he stepped out of the cage, he felt like he was on an island. Before him was a wide plateau, and at the peak of it was a large house in typical Greek style, pointed roofs, red tiles and all. Instead of an ocean, they were surrounded by the misty Meteora Mountains.
The plateau itself was pretty straightforward. There was grass up here, amazingly, but mostly it was just snow and rock. There was a pathway leading up to the house, and the two bald monks started up it without so much as a glance backward. He hesitated, took a notebook and a pen out of his jacket pocket, and went after them.
He felt foolish when he heard the rumour a week ago: the man who’d lived for millenniums. It was of course, ridiculous, but the man had a huge following. It was a marvel, really, the way he’d manipulated these people. He had them treating him like a God, now, as though he was really immortal, above everything.
He wasn’t completely decided on the angle his article would take, but Sean was certain it wouldn’t be in favour of the Ancient Man, as they called him. He’d portray him for what he was, an old con man. It would be a social commentary on the gullibility of human beings, but best of all, it would be controversial.
The front doors of the house were golden and heavy. The monks had to put their full weight on them before the massive slabs grated open. They revealed a long entrance hall, the floor made of stone, the walls and ceiling made of solid wood, and a gigantic fire burning at the far end. It was taller than any of them, and as wide as two men lying head to toe.
In front of the great fire was the Ancient Man. He sat cross legged on the stone floor. In front of him were two ceramic cups and a clay jug full of… something. Typical, thought Sean. He’s even got the long white beard and the saggy eyes. This guy is Gandalf in the flesh.
The two monks stood on either side of him. ‘Politeness is essential,’ one whispered. ‘If you want your questions asked, you must be polite. If he offers anything, take it. If he has an opinion, agree. If you ask too many, he will stop answering, and then you must leave.’
Sean nodded, his throat suddenly too dry to speak. He took a few steps forward and the monks shut the big doors behind him, sending out a deep thud that echoed throughout the great room. They stood in front of the doors, like guards.
Sean gathered his breath, gripped his notebook, and strode across the wide flagstones. He would be polite, but he didn’t intend to show fear – not to this scam artist.
He stopped five feet from the cross legged man, who still had shown no sign that he was aware of a visitor. His eyebrows were so thick it was hard to tell whether his eyes were open or closed.
Sean hesitated for a moment and then sat down opposite him, cross legged. Wordlessly, the man reached for the jug and filled up their cups. The liquid was thick and black. If he offers you anything, the monk had said, take it. Sean lifted the cup as if in toast and set it down in front of him. Politeness dictated, he was sure, that you didn’t drink or eat until your host did.
But the Ancient Man did nothing but sit. After a minute or so, when Sean was beginning to grow uncomfortable, he spoke. ‘What is your question?’
His English was perfect. Sean realised that he was Asian, as well, which was strange in itself. This was the very heart, the deepest depths of Greece and Greek culture. How was he such a part of it?
‘How old are you?’ He asked. He hadn’t wanted to be unoriginal, but he figured it was best to get through the basics before he got to the interesting things.
‘I am a hundred centuries old. Maybe more, maybe less, that is the rough number.’
‘Where were you born?’
‘In Asia somewhere. I don’t know. It is not important. Stop wasting my time or I will waste yours. I will not speak unless I am of use. I want to enlighten the world, to be your God.’
‘Okay…’ He took a deep breath. ‘What is the meaning of life?’
The ancient man chuckled, a sound as dry and weak as leaves blowing over the road. ‘Why should life have meaning?’ he said.
‘I… Ok. Where did human beings come from? Do you believe in evolution or a religion?’
‘Neither. I believe only in life as it is now. These things do not matter to me.’
‘Right.’ There was silence for some time. This wasn’t as easy as he thought. He’d given plenty of interviews before, but then again he’d never done one where the interviewee threatened to stop as soon as you ceased to be interesting.
‘What is the secret to immortality?’ he said.
The ancient man smiled. ‘Interesting question,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately for you, there is no secret. I was born this way, but I may not be immortal. I have aged on the surface, after all: I may still die years from now. I am vulnerable to damage, too. One of the reasons I have locked myself away in this sanctuary, to avoid hurt so that I may live forever and enlighten the world.’
‘So you want to do good? In what way?’
‘I want to show the world what it is to appreciate life. To truly love every second of your life, no matter how long or short that may be.’
‘I see. And how do you plan to do that?’ He was on a roll now, his hand flying across the notepad. This stuff was gold, whether he was a fraud or not. The guy had a gift of the gab, anyway. No wonder he’d got such a following.
‘I lead by example, mostly. I demonstrate that no matter what the state of your life, time passes, and tragedy and beauty alike die. Time is what allows the phoenix to rise from the ashes. I show people that their lives are meaningless, and because of this they will be happy.’
Sean raised his eyebrows. ‘I see. So the fact that you live happily is proof of this? That it’s all about perspective?’
‘Yes. But also self-interest.’
‘I don’t follow.’
‘I can kill myself if I want. But here I am, after ten thousand years. I’m alive because of self-interest. I want to help the world, but that is self-interest also, you see. Because I will feel good about myself when I achieve that goal, I will feel even more like a God.’
Sean thought that fitted pretty well. It definitely would go well for his article. The Ancient Man is a selfish bastard. Cares only for himself, creates a cult to worship him, lies reflexively. He was like a textbook sociopath. He scribbled these notes in his notebook, keeping it angled away from the Ancient Man’s vision.
‘What is your name?’ he asked.
‘Do you have any comprehension of what it is like to exist for ten thousand years?’ The Ancient Man asked. ‘Do you have any idea what it entails?’
Sean stopped scribbling and looked into his eyes. His eyes, he realised, were incredible. They were infinite. It was like looking into an ocean that had no depth. This man did not see him: he saw a bag of bones and flesh and a beating heart, and every thought.
‘Have you ever met someone over the age of eighty?’ he went on.
‘And they knew you, didn’t they? They knew you because they’d met people just like you, over and over. Imagine a man of a thousand. He’s met every kind of person in the world at least once. Now think of me. I’ve met you a hundred times. Those monks standing by the door? They keep their faces neutral at all times, but I can always tell what they’re thinking. Because they are not conscious of the fact that their faces and bodies betray their thoughts every second. You? You aren’t even an open book, you’re a picture. I see you and I see what you are, and I see your thoughts.’
He stopped talking abruptly and took a long sip of the black stuff in his cup. Sean waited, his breath caught in his throat, but the Ancient Man said nothing more.
‘What am I thinking, then?’ He was suddenly aware of the emptiness of the place. It was ridiculous of course – what harm could come to him? This old man didn’t look like he could walk two steps.
‘You are going to write an article about me. It won’t be in my favour.’
‘Not at all. I think you serve a good cause.’
All the smile was gone from his face. ‘I only want to do good, you understand? Bad press is bad.’
Sean nodded seriously and looked down at the stone floor, as if ashamed. The man was a good actor, he thought, but he wasn’t getting out of it that easily. The man was expecting to trick him; well, he would play along.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘It’s just, it doesn’t make sense for someone to be like you. It defies science. It’s reasonable to assume fraud. If you’d rather have your own words… I can tape record the conversation?’
The Ancient Man made that horrible dry sound again. ‘That would be preferable.’ He took another sip of his drink, and this time Sean picked up his own cup, to be polite. He took a sip. It tasted like melted chocolate, cream, and honey. He drained the whole thing on his second gulp. He reached into his pocket and took out his recorder, switching it on and then resting it on the stone floor by his foot.
‘I lied earlier,’ the Ancient Man said, finishing the last of his own cup.
‘I am not ten thousand years old.’
This, Sean thought, was the real gold. He didn’t know what prompted the man to confess all of a sudden, but he’d be damned if he’d let it go. He started scribbling fiercely, in case the recorder didn’t get it all. The pen flew over the paper. The Ancient Man didn’t seem to care.
‘I am merely one thousand years of age.’ The pen stopped.
‘There is a secret of immorality, too, which I learned at the age you see me now, of ninety three.’
‘What?’ Whatever was in the cup, it was strong. His vision was already beginning to swim slightly, blurring the bearded face before him.
‘It is a magical thing, I think, but no doubt science would find some interesting explanation for it, too. It’s almost voodoo, but not quite. Simpler than you’d think.’
‘I don’t…’ Suddenly he felt very wrong. He had everything he needed, it was time to get out. I’ve had enough of this interview sir, and I am leaving.’ His words seemed to fall out of his mouth in an inaudible jumble. He stood up to go, but before he’d taken a step he felt his muscles weakening. He couldn’t have made it to the door if he sprinted.
A second later the Ancient Man grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back towards the fire. He laid him down, several feet from the crackling flames, as if setting baby to sleep, and looked into his eyes.
There was a hungry look in there now, Sean saw. It was a look of restraint, also. It was like watching an alcoholic prepare to start on his only beer of the night, because he was trying to cut down.
He struggled to get up, to fight, but his limbs were like sacks of sand that his torso was trying to drag around. It was impossible. He could barely lift his head.
‘Why?’ he managed, through numb lips.
The Ancient Man smiled with strange teeth. They were perfectly square, perfectly space and aligned, completely white. ‘How do you think I’ve lived for so long? Broccoli and jogging?’ He laughed then, a hearty, insane sound.
The Ancient Man lowered his mouth to Sean’s neck and began to eat his throat. When there was none left there, he moved on to the rest of him. Nothing went to waste, not even the bones, and when he was done he fell asleep by the fire, satisfied.
‘More,’ he whispered, feeling the years melt away. His hair browned, his nails shortened, his skin smoothed.
The two monks opened the great doors, left, and shut them again. The Ancient Man smiled with his odd teeth, and waited.