Finally, here’s my most recent novel. It’s the first of a trilogy, and I am happy to say I have now completed the first draft of the second book. I expect it will be edited and published sometimes this coming summer.
The premise of this story is a little different than Inca or Zulu. Instead of the decline and fall of a relatively little-known civilization, I decided to write a series of books where each chapter would be something from history that I enjoy, but I will never write a whole novel about it. To achieve this, I came up with a framing device that borrows a little bit from the playful mcguffins Kurt Vonnegut was so famous for:
Beginning is the story of a man who has been alive since the last Ice Age. Living in the present day high up in the foothills of the Himalayas, he buys a tape recorder and starts dictating his memoirs as fast as he can while he awaits the arrival of a mysterious visitor who may finally be the death of him.
Here’s the Intro and First Chapter:
Intro – Making a Start of It
In northern India high up on the slope of one of the foothills of the Himalayas there stands a simple cottage that would not be out of place in the heart of rural England. The walls are repainted every year a blinding white; the doors, window sills, shutters, and trim are all a deep and rich shade of contrasting blue, and the roof is well-thatched by a man who knows his business. A tidy green lawn surrounds the building in all directions out to a waist-high fieldstone fence, and the grounds are walked by a peacock and several peahens who keep the snake and insect populations down.
The inside of the cottage is as neat and orderly as the outside: Every room has well-appointed bookcases lining the walls, broken up here and there by simple and functional furniture. In the front room, a man sits cross-legged in the middle of a hand-knotted rug. He breathes deeply but finds no peace. His eyes dart back and forth behind closed lids, looking for something he cannot see.
His hands open and close, open and close.
Grunting with frustration, he rises to his feet and walks to the calendar on the wall. He peels back a page to look at the next picture for a long time before letting the month-to-be fall.
“Okay,” he says to the empty room. “No sense putting it off any longer.”
He crosses the room and looks down at the clutter in the middle of an otherwise empty oak desk: Torn plastic packaging, instructions in eight languages that have sprawled out from their original tightly folded rectangle into a crumple of frustrated squares, and The Thing itself.
He picks it up and rolls it over in his hands to examine it from all sides, as if for the first time. Only when he is sure that everything is as it should be does he brace himself to press one of the buttons running along the side of The Thing.
With a last reluctant clearing of his throat, he brings his thumb down. A mighty click echoes across the front room.
<Tape Recorder On>
Chapter 1 – The Voice of an Impossible Person
2015 CE · Northern India
…Is this thing on?
There’s a red light. Surely that means—
Oh, is that really the best I can do? Are those the first words you will hear from me? I imagine I can wave my hand at my bookcases and pick a better beginning at random!
Let’s see. Over there is, “Call me Ishmael.”
And over here is, “All Gaul is divided into three parts.”
There by the window is, “I am an invisible man.”
And there —right there— is, “All this happened, more or less.”
Now that is how you start a story. I wonder, did their authors agonize over their beginnings as I am doing now, or am I the worse off for trying to do this with a damned gadget instead of writing it down properly with pen and paper so I can revise as I go?
I wish I knew if I still had the time to do that. I once had all the time in the world, but somehow I left this undone until now. Poor planning on my part. So how should I go about editing this out to start over and do a better job of it? If I try to rewind and record over this nonsense that might just make it worse.
Has it come to this, that I am defeated because I do not know how to work a damned tape recorder?
I know it is a simple thing, and yet my eyes glaze over at the thought of trying to read the instructions in their tiny print. They do not really explain how it works anyway, not really.
I know there is something about electricity and magnets and plastic film moving from this side to that side. I can say that like I know what it means, but it is all magic to me. I do not like that at all.
Well, enough of my moaning and complaining: To those of you who are hearing my words, I beg you to start whatever editing process you plan to do to this recording from this point forward. Please, never tell anyone that I began in this way. Despite what I have been muttering, I do have my wits about me. They were gathered in heaping piles here when I decided to press the button with the circle on it next to the triangle. I lost sight of them for a moment, but only because the red light turning on unmanned me and I lost my nerve.
Begin your transcript —if indeed there is ever going to be a transcript—- with my next words. Are you ready? Just let me take a deep breath, and I will begin again…
…You are hearing the voice of an impossible person.
I suppose that is a bad way to start, but I know all about bad beginnings, and bad middles, and bad endings. Let us agree that every journey begins with a single step and then goes on from there. There is much to say and little time to say it; indeed, I may not be able to finish this last task I have set for myself.
You will come to understand what an amazing thought that is for someone like me. It has been my gift —my special blessing and my loathsome curse— that I have always had enough time to do anything I wanted to do, absolutely anything at all.
I have had such an abundance of what is commonly called a precious commodity that minutes and hours and days and weeks and months and years and decades have been mere pocket change to me for as long as I can remember. Now I know that there are just a handful of moments left to me —they fly away into nothingness even as I speak— and an unfamiliar sense of urgency is creeping up on me. Is this what normal people feel all through their short lives?
I must confess I hesitate to say even now what sets me apart, for in the rare instances in all my years that I have shared this truth with someone, I have almost always been doubted, mocked, scorned, envied, feared —even hated. I have been driven from many hearths and homes for the thing that makes me different. Countless people I cared about were lost to me because of something that is beyond my control.
That is why I am speaking into this tape recorder. I know this device will not judge me. There will be no tears, no accusations, no stupid questions or demands that I speak sense as you would define it. This one time no one will strike me or shake me. You will hear this, Dear Listeners, after I am finally gone, and so your feelings are of little interest to me.
That is not true, of course. Being what I am is a lonely thing, and what I want most is your acceptance, your belief that I am what I claim to be. However fantastic this may seem, just give me a small fraction of your time in this world to listen to what I have to tell you.
It is a story, and people love a good story.
It is a secret, and people love a good secret.
It is incredible, but I beg you to credit it.
I hope that when I am done you think well of me and remember me fondly. I would like to think someone will do that for me in the end.
Enough of this preamble! Just let me take one more deep breath and say it plainly…
…I do not know exactly where I was born, or when, but I have seen pictures of the Black Mountains in Wales, and I know I spent my childhood there. They looked different then. They were not so green and lush as they are now; they were not dotted by sheep and oak trees, and rustic country homes with charming names you can read on signs by their gates along the rural laneways. When I was young they were as brown and barren and empty as the steppes of central Asia appear today.
The whole world looked different back then, as near as I can tell.
As I said, I do not remember how long ago this was, but I will always remember my first glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea: It was the same heart-achingly beautiful blue it is now. My great secret in a nutshell is that I did not have to get on a boat at any time between my birth and the day I sank ankle-deep into the sand on the beach not far from where the city of Marseilles now stands.
I walked. I walked the whole way. There was no English Channel when I made that journey, and that means I must be at the very least ten-thousand years old, probably much older.
Funny, even the steady red light of this machine seems to glare at me in crimson disbelief.
No one has ever accepted my secret easily, but it is true: I have been alive since before recorded history. I have wandered the Earth and sailed the seas since the last Ice Age. In my life I have stood on every continent. I have gone by more than a hundred names. I have lived and loved and laughed and cried while speaking scores of languages, most now long forgotten by everyone except me.
When the gods made each of us, they made me different. They made me wrong.
They made me to go on forever, while all the people I care about have stopped and left me to continue on without them.
I am not crazy. I am just who I am. Take my words with as much salt as you like for now. As I said, I do not have much time left: I will prove myself to you soon enough, but first I should get into some specifics.
I appear to be in my late thirties, although the sun and the wind have browned and dried my skin and bleached my hair and beard so that those who have known me for much of their lives convince themselves that I am a spry fifty-something, and I am content for them to think that.
I lived my childhood as every child does. When I was five, I looked five. When I was ten, I looked ten. By the time I was thirty I still had all the strength and stamina of a teenager, and that was a wonderful thing for a man living in that time: I was a great hunter then, happily welcomed by the tribes and clans of what would come to be called southern Britain and northern France, and the land between that now lies beneath the English Channel. I did not keep a good reckoning of the years, but I know I lived for many generations before I came to look much as I do now, and I have looked this way more or less ever since without permanent change.
There are other peculiar things about me that I must explain now, so that you do not wonder why I am not mangled and deformed by the accidents that happen in even a single lifetime, let alone the hundreds I have endured. It is not enough simply not to die: My body seems to have the ability one sees in some fish and amphibians to replace what is lost, given time.
When I lose a tooth, a new one grows in within five years or so, and every century more or less a whole new set of teeth grow in over the course of a few months, which is a handy thing indeed! I have lost many toes to frostbite, and I once lost three fingers on my left hand to some tangled rigging in a fierce sea squall: They all grew back within twenty years.
I lost an eye once to a burning ember, and I wore a patch for long enough that I still sometimes feel it across my brow in my dreams. One day I took the patch off, and I could see again. The local priest claimed responsibility for the miracle, and his descendants were worshiped as god-kings for a time before eventually being butchered by an angry mob for failing to cure a sickness running through the people. I was not sorry to hear their fate: I do not care much for god-kings.
I have not experimented with how much I can lose. Thank whatever power you like, in all my long life I have never lost an arm or a leg or my manhood. I can only speculate that they too might regenerate given time, but can you imagine what a freak I would be for a century or two with some pygmy appendage dangling off me? My curiosity has never gotten the better of me, and my prudent way of life has fortunately kept me from ever putting my theory to the test.
I have been punctured and stabbed and cut and burned many, many times over. As cultures dictated I have even had tattoos. The marks and scars all eventually fade, given time.
Nothing traumatic has happened to my body for almost two hundred years now, and so when the doctor of the local medical clinic insists on giving me a checkup, he tells me I am as healthy as a horse. I have no physical complaints at all save one: I am sterile.
In all my life, among all my lovers, I have had only a small handful of children, and I have never doubted that each and every one of them was the product of another man. I raised them all as my own, delighting in the opportunity to be a father. I had to abandon those who lived long enough to ask me why I did not age as other fathers do: You would be amazed how quickly friends and family can turn on you when faced with the supernatural. I have rarely tempted fate by sticking around long enough for someone to suspect what I am.
It is among my greatest regrets that I cannot beget, but perhaps when the gods gave me all these gifts they evened the scales and kept the blessing of true virility from me for good reason: If I were normal in that respect, the world would be populated with my descendants by now. Instead I am a freak, destined to wander alone through history, making no contribution to the progress of humanity except for what I have done and can do with my own hands and wits.
There is one last gift I have that I must declare, although I cannot say with any confidence that I am unique in this respect. Perhaps many people have this ability, and perhaps many more would have it if they could live long enough to truly master it? I do not know. All I can say is that from time to time if I close my eyes and let my thoughts wander, I can see the future.
I cannot harness this ability to a specific goal, I regret to say. Predicting the weather is beyond me, and I cannot tell you what horse will win a race or anything really useful. What I mean to say is that I can get snatches of what my life could be, might be, at some point in the future.
Sometimes I can see possibilities three or four years away. Many times I have seen things hundreds or thousands of years ahead of time, and they were strange and frightening out of context: I saw a musket fire in a vision when men were first bringing copper and tin together to make bronze. Can you imagine what a fright that gave me? I saw a ghazi ride out under a green banner to spread the word of the Prophet Muhammad —peace be upon him—- long before the birth of Yeshua, who you call Jesus. That glimpse was not enough for me to adjust my life in preparation for the sudden arrival of Islam.
No, I have gotten little concrete benefit from my prognostications. It has taken a very long time to refine the power to a level of control where I can try to investigate the paths my life might take in a thorough manner, but I can almost do it at will now; that is why I am recording this message to you, whoever you are.
You see, I am about to die.
I do not know exactly when. I do not know exactly how. I do know that it will be very soon. This is the last place I will ever be. In the past when I looked into the future with my inner eye, there were always variations, options, paths to take or not take as I chose: I could be sailing on a ship around the Horn of Africa; I could be building a dam in America; I could be bouncing a neighbour’s baby on my knee anywhere in the world.
Now, no matter what I do, all I see is where I am in the present, and the people I already know walk through my visions appearing the same age as they are at this moment in time. In both my visions and in reality I see myself here in my cottage in the middle of nowhere. Rishikesh is the nearest city, if that helps place me? Anyway, I have been here since the late 1960s, and though I did not see it coming when I arrived here, there is no future beyond this place, this cottage.
When I look out my front door, the wheat fields in the valley below me are sprouting, but try as I might I cannot see the harvest in my mind’s eye. I have set a calendar on my wall, but I cannot see the page turn to the next month.
The last sure thing I can summon up in my dreams of the future is a young woman. I would guess she is an American backpacker based on her clothes. She has a blonde ponytail and a purple coat. Her backpack is blue with yellow trim, and she carries a black duffel bag almost as big as she is but weighing so little that it swings easily at her side, and she walks straight upright instead of leaning over to brace herself against a lopsided burden.
She will climb this mountain to visit me. I will welcome her as I do all my many guests, for I have lived these last few decades as a sort of guru. Then she will say something to me, something that will frighten me so much I cannot concentrate on my vision any further and my eyes will fly open unbidden.
She will say, “I have waited a very, very long time to meet you,” and she will say it in my mother’s tongue. She will speak a language not heard aloud in this world since glaciers still stood two kilometers high upon the brow of northern Europe.
That is impossible. It is more impossible even than my own unlikely existence.
I want to understand what this means for my future, but when I try to meditate there is nothing. Nothing. Nothing!
She arrives, and then I have no more tomorrows. It can only mean I am destined to die.
And so I have this story to tell you, Dear Listeners. I do not know exactly how long I have to tell it, and I have not decided who I will send the tapes to when I am done.
I do know that time is of the essence, but now that I have my introduction out of the way, I find myself with a powerful urge to fix a stiff drink before I go on. Give me a moment…
…Now how do I turn this thing off again?
<Tape Recorder Off>
I apologize that I have not included any actual historical fiction in this particular sample. The story that follows this first chapter is actually broken across two chapters, so giving you one more chapter is a bit of a cheat, and giving you two more chapters would be giving you a fifth of the book! Anyway, if you would like to read the rest, here is a link to the Amazon listing. It is available in e-book and trade paperback formats.