Ahasuerus

He’s west of Constantinople and there’s a scholar battle brewing outside Salonica. Some visiting doctor from the capital got sniffy about the quality of the intellectuals in the city and one of the young students isn’t having it.

“Come out to the field,” the hothead shouts to a delighted crowd, “and let us compete in our knowledge of the Bible, the Mishnah and the Talmud, Sifra and Sifre and all of rabbinic literature!”

He’s been haunting the town for months, wandering the streets between the marbles and lemon sellers, from the synagogues to the mosques, and he can feel the old gravity dragging him elsewhere. “Let us strive in secular sciences—practical and theoretical fields of science; science of nature, and of the Divine!” He’d stay if he could—he hasn’t felt so at home for centuries. It’s a cramped, unsettled town, a hick town by Ottoman standards, choked with plague in the summer, the sort of place that gets assigned to disgraced courtiers because they keep getting run out of town, but it’s lively. “Let us wrangle in logic—the Organon, in geometry, astronomy, physics!”

“In your profession as well, that of medicine, IF IN YOUR EYES IT IS A SCIENCE—” thrilled oooohs from the crowd at that dig— “we consider it an occupation of no special distinction!” He tries the old trick of circulating through the mob, never still, but his doom can be put off no longer, dammit. “Try me, for you have opened your mouth and belittled my dwelling-place, and you shall see that we know whatever can be known in the proper manner.”

He wonders how it all worked out for decades.

Ahasuerus

He has lost track of the apocalypses he has lived through; somehow they come once a generation or two, a wash of fire, of war, of pandemic, of collapse. They blur together, the deaths, the dead, and the dying, a bright flash, a sharp tang, the smell of smoke that lingers in his clothes for decades. He cannot escape the stench of burning flesh, somehow.

But after the end of the world, the birth of the new: fields of poppies, new cities, old rags shed for flash clothes, food for all, race sex and class overthrown for a time, a pulse of realization of what could be, should be. That, too, blurs together. The New Jerusalem has come a dozen times and more, and been overthrown; he has picked lapis lazuli from the gates time and again and left them strewn in stream a continent away, just to mess with the archaeologists. Figure that out, schmucks.

After the twelfth century he stops looking over his shoulder; the millennium is never coming, the clock is never stopping, the road will never end. World begets world, forever and anew.

Ahasuerus

Thing is, he’s seen so many ends of days by this point. Empires rise and fall, cities shake to dust, war sweeps a country empty of life, and still he goes on, one day after the next like so many weary footsteps. What else should he do? They burn the atmosphere and he spends a millennium or more choking on ash, squeezing between glaciers a mile high, the last human outside the domes. They dig plague into the soil and he erupts in boils, weeps blood, loses his teeth, keeps walking, who cares.

The oceans rise and he haunts the sunken cities. None of them are familiar, not really, but then all cities look alike after awhile, just a house someone took the roof off of. He’s in, oh, someplace to the north, near where the glaciers split around the mountains, climbing hills in murky water the temperature of spit. There used to be a market here where people shouted at you, a space carved out of the terseness of the rest of the city. “Fresh fish!” Ahasuerus bellows, why not, but all he does is spook an octopus deeper back into the stalls.

Oh, well. Life goes on.

Ahasuerus

Some time later.

He hasn’t been across the ocean in a thousand years. He hasn’t seen the desert or the poles in centuries. His latitude is getting smaller and smaller; he’s not sure why, exactly, but his working theory is there isn’t anyone on the other side of the world anymore. He stopped knowing what anyone was saying a few centuries back, so it’s all theoretical at this point. He feels weird about it, all things considered. He’s been shot, stabbed, imprisoned, set on fire, attacked by dogs, poisoned, drowned, beheaded once, hanged a half-hundred times, driven out by stones and dogs and broken glass, but still. Not mournful, exactly.

The world, or what’s left of it that’s available to him, is green and vibrant and alive. A riot of vegetation slowly swallowing what had been exquisite cities; the algal power cells have cracked and spread green and humming over pitted steel. It’s beautiful, in an uncaring way he finds poignant — these too were driven forth, once upon a time. Birds perch on him as he pushes his way through the conqueror woods, and speak to him in yet another language he no longer remembers, of news he doesn’t need.

 

That Devoutly Wished Consummation

The throng parted, and there at the other end of the room was the Old Man, stark in his colorless clothes amidst the gaudy riot of the revelers, a smooth piece of volcanic glass in a tumble of rubies, amethysts, lapis luzuli. “Hold this, won’t you?” Leslie murmured, and handed his glass to the earnest, balding young man who was so desperately talking about stocks to anyone who would listen. The young man didn’t pause, just tightened his grip convulsively on the glass and redirected his stream of jargon to a mostly passed out caryatid patiently holding up the bar.

The Old Man was churning relentlessly through the crowd when Leslie caught up to him, circling, circling, endlessly, tirelessly, talking to no one, drinking nothing, eating nothing, just rubbing elbows and chuckling mordantly to himself. “You made it,” Leslie wheezed; it had been years and decades since his lungs had been called on to power anything more robust than his usual listless drift from conversation to conversation. “You made it!”

The party started to wheel about him, all laughing faces and clinking glasses. He clutched the Old Man’s elbow harder, pulled him to a stop, to face him fully. “I kept the faith,” he pleaded. “I want you to know that. I didn’t forget. I kept the faith.”

He’s dead by the time the paramedics get there. The party slowly drains out, the ticker tape parade rained out at last. Ahasuerus lingers behind, wishing mightily he could remember anything at all about the dead man.