Three Deaths and a Life by Frances Koziar
We Ku’anecki are cursed with immortality, but we are given a blessing as well: we must attempt our inevitable suicide three times before we succeed.
My first attempt was when I was barely into my second century, still ignorant of who and what I was. I had been raised by the people of the Southern Continent (or what would become known as Shordhar, Soranaki, and then Theneskar), like a chicken raised by swans, or one of the great ice vultures of the mountains raised by the iridescent long-tailed arethereel of the lowland jungles. At that time, the people of that continent lived in warring bands, divided, ruled by the strongest, most charismatic and most blessed in the ways of the divine among them. That had not been me.
I was one hundred and twelve when I made my first attempt. I saw myself as a man back then, that label easy and uncomplicated, and had given my life to my people and my wife. I no longer remember her name, but I remember that she had died years before my suicide, followed by my daughters and my sons. None lived as long as I had, and none were there to counsel me when I outlived my wife, then my friends, then my leader, then even some of my friends’ children. I was old, a lingering relic of a dead generation, and I was dying of loneliness in a world that was no longer mine.
It didn’t work, of course. I had gouged out my insides with a spear, as was the way of my people in such circumstances. We had no writing, but our stories were passed through song, and I knew the way a person killed themselves when there was nothing left. When I lived, my insides regenerating after hours of unconsciousness, I was cast out as cursed, and I agreed wholeheartedly with that judgment. I had never healed like that before, so I didn’t yet realize that I had always been different. I didn’t yet know what the scholars of Athela would later tell me: that I would heal from any fatal injury.
I was old by human standards, but I was hale. I walked slowly and carefully more because of the wisdom of my age than because I needed to. My skin was wrinkled but my steps were sure, and they led me to the north of my continent. I lived, because that’s what you did when you couldn’t die. I hunted and fended for myself as I never had to before, but I believed myself an abomination, cursed by the shadow spirits of my people’s religion for some reason beyond my comprehension. I longed for my wife, for my people, for an ordinary end, and I lived in loneliness, singing to myself the songs of my people, asking for hope and calling for home.
I became known to a local tribe. Kahili, they called me: forest spirit. They feared and revered me both, occasionally seeking out my counsel for problems I knew nothing about. Perhaps they saw me similarly to how the Shandriar later would—as a wizard, always old but never aging, possessing the wisdom of age and yet the power of youth and immortality.
Then came the days of the empire, called Athelani at first, then Athela. They arrived and conquered our continent, named it Shordhar after some lost prince of theirs. I was nearing one hundred and fifty then, a quieter, less sure, more detached man than I had once been. The Athi had tried to kill me—I had not tried to stop them—but when I lived, they had wanted me. I was a prisoner and a prize for their queen, a novelty demanding explanation, and they shipped me to their home continent to the north. In those days, their great libraries did not yet exist, their people more focused on war and conquest than scholarship, but they had a word for me: nathani: immortal, the mark of a demi-god.
In Athelani, I lived a second life. I met a woman, a commoner who worked in the palace, and I knew love again. She was only sixty, while I, by then, was two and a half times her age. She changed me. Maybe my people were wrong, I thought. Maybe I am not cursed, but blessed. Maybe I am destined for other things. My home and people were a stone of grief inside my chest, but I had reason to live again: first, for a new wife, and second, for a new world, where I became an advisor to generations of queens.
My second attempt was a long time coming. I had lost another wife and many more friends, but was hardened, calloused, and cold in the arrogance of my station. My place was not to love but to know. To lead, to advise, to change the world. By then the Athi scholars had studied me and told me what I had guessed: that I could not die easily, that I was not quite human, and that others must exist like me. They told me too that food and sleep were not strictly necessary for me, though going without them still made me feel hungry and exhausted.
The empire of Athela had become a quiet country of scholars and learning and technology, their colonies given their freedom, but it was the loss of their queens that made me lose my place once more. They created a democracy, and the people rose up to crush me alongside the others, for I more than anyone was a sign of the old ways, a legend unto myself.
I traveled north again, to the continent of Tereki. Only half of the continent had been conquered in the glory days of the Athi empire, and I continued north, to a country called Shandria that had never been conquered, where I had heard rumors of wizards who never died. There I met the first other of my kind: Lanayi, whose first action upon my revelation of who and what I was was to stab me through the heart. When I came to, ze welcomed me with a smile and a clap on the back, and asked for the story of my life.
Lanayi knew my mother, or knew of her, and that surprised me. The people who had raised me on the continent that was now the country of Soranaki all had the same deep soil-brown skin that my father and I had, but my mother had been different, paler, the mid-brown nut color of the Athi. She had been a half-blood, Lanayi told me. Half Ku’anecki and half human. Ze had known her hundreds of years before my birth, meaning that her death, which I had never questioned being natural, had been of her own doing.
That was when I learned that we could die. That our third attempt at suicide would be successful. I had always viewed my immortality as a curse that I was forced to live with, and I had used it to satisfy myself with power and wealth and fame instead of the death I wanted. If not for Lanayi, I might have made my second attempt right then. Lanayi became my lover. While I had had many over the centuries, Lanayi was only the third person that I truly committed to. I was four hundred, while ze was nearly eight. It was the first time since what I now thought of as my childhood that I knew someone who was older than me.
Lanayi told me of my people—my real people, the Ku’anecki—and introduced me to some friends I would have for centuries. The Ku’anecki had once been the people of a great empire, ze told me. They had been nomadic pastoralists, raising cows and horses and the lumbering ka’rakari, living in the great grasslands on the next continent over. But like all empires, they had been defeated, and were now scattered on the neighboring continents, some in hiding, some not. Many chose to live in Shandria, because there they were loved and revered by the people as wizards.
I questioned this immediately. Wizards? I asked. Not immortals? And therein unearthed another secret. Despite the Athi’s firm rejection of all magic beyond that of the Divine and her children, the Ku’anecki were capable of small magics like healing. We can affect life, Lanayi told me, help things grow and be healthy or die.
Lanayi zerself was known for being a healer, as well as giving easy deaths. An irony, that. With a touch, I learned, I could give death to someone else, but I could not give it to myself or my kin. Lanayi was quite old, for our kind. Despite the fact that we could live forever, few made it to a thousand years before killing themselves for the third time. Tatila was an exception. Lanayi introduced to me her, zer mentor, and explained that she was the closest thing to a leader the Ku’anecki had. Tatila was nearly thirteen hundred, though like all of us, she looked to only be in her nineties.
It was Tatila who had taught Lanayi to be a healer, and Lanayi who taught me. In Athela, I had counseled queens, but in Shandria I healed commoners, and in doing so, felt more alive than I had since my childhood. Here was something I could do to help others, to connect with them without having to love and lose them: I could be a traveling wizard and wise man. I mourned my fame and power for a time, but in time, I found myself giving thanks for losing them.
Lanayi also made me question my gender and sexual orientation. Lanayi’s body was male, and I had never had a male lover, but I loved zer, and just like that I changed my mind. Ze questioned my identity as a man as well—what did it mean to me, ze asked, to be male? In the band of my childhood, men were builders and women were warriors. In Athela, women were leaders and scholars and men were warriors. In Shandria, men were quieter and more thoughtful while women were aggressive. Being male meant nothing to me, I realized, and meant something different everywhere I went, so I became agender, a status the Shandrians also recognized.
I had been called a wise man before, but for the first time, I began to seek and cultivate wisdom. I spent days on end in meditation, sought the stories and the texts of the great holy people of the past. It was the second happiest time of my life, after the time before I learned of my immortality. I had Lanayi, a people to care for who appreciated me, and questions to ask of the world. That period lasted all of a hundred years, before Shandria changed.
Wizards were a product of the superstitions of country folk, the new leaders said, and at first it was only that—a mockery of us, while fewer Shandrians sought us out. It hit Lanayi hard, even before things became much worse. We had bounties put on our heads for spreading lies and trying to steal the power of the new leaders. More than one of our kind was killed, temporarily. Tatila came to me, asked me to leave with half a dozen others, but I refused, saying I would stay a little longer. When she left, I never saw her again.
I stayed for Lanayi. Lanayi saw Shandria as home, and I knew that leaving it would be difficult, would take zer more time. I thought ze understood that all of our homes were temporary, that we moved when the times changed, even though it was difficult. I was completely unprepared for Lanayi’s third suicide.
I woke the next night to warriors with torches in their hands. Reeling, I didn’t question whether I wanted to survive, I just tried to with the raw instinct of prey fleeing its predator. I managed to board a ship leaving the continent, but I was discovered on the voyage, and I killed everyone on board in order to survive. I had never made combat skills a priority, but after five hundred years, I knew enough to defeat them. It was only when they were dead, their bodies lying around me, the shore I had left in my childhood on the horizon, that I questioned what I had done. Why kill them, when I wanted to die? The persecution of the Shandrians who had once welcomed me haunted me as much as my dear Lanayi’s death, and I saw only death and suffering when I looked to my future. That’s when I killed myself a second time, lying in the blood of the bodies I had slain.
I arrived in Soranaki, slipping off of the ship before they found me as the sole survivor and correctly blamed me for the slaughter. Soranaki, what had become of the wild country of my childhood, was now full of great cities, and I crept into one of them and was forgotten by the rest of the world. There, there were so many people that no one expected to know everyone or even many people, and I had some measure of safety. I had planned to kill myself again almost immediately—Tatila had told me that I needed to wait a month between suicide attempts for them to count—but I hesitated. This was as much because I suddenly felt freer, knowing that death was finally something I could choose, as because I found another cause.
In Soranaki, elders were supported by family, and any elders who had no family had no support. I was homeless, living in the alleys with others who looked as old as I looked, as well as the broken and disabled. I thought of my days as an advisor to queens as I slept on cold stone and became as smelly and caked in dirt as the others. In the midst of the void inside of me, I felt something again—anger, at this injustice—and I began to fight back. I began to talk to those people, to unite them, to speak of other places. I began to plan a rebellion. I wanted to save someone, I think, after not being able to save Lanayi or myself.
But war broke out. Bombs went off in the city, and my homeless brethren starved in the chaos. I died from starvation once, slowly wasting away while the world was destroyed around me, and with the strength that my regeneration brought me, I fled north. By that time, after five and a half centuries of life, I had died four times by causes other than my hand. The first was when the old warriors of Athi arrived and killed me in their conquest. The second and third were during the only successful—at least for a few hours—assassination attempts on my life while I served as an advisor to the Athi queens. The fourth was when Lanayi killed me, when we first met. It was my fifth death, or my seventh including my suicides, when I starved at the beginning of that war, Soranaki falling to pieces around me, the bodies of the people I had allowed to become my friends discarded on the shattered stones around me like trash.
It took me a year of flight to reach Athela, but then I had arrived in the closest place I had to a home. In the next few years, Soranaki was conquered anew and renamed Theneskar, but in Athela there was peace. I became an archivist at one of their great libraries, and allowed myself some feeling of contentment again at that quiet work. By accident, I picked up a history of my own life as an advisor centuries before and read it through, looking for something but I didn’t know what, almost laughing, almost crying, before re-shelving it with a shake of my head at the follies of youth. Some nights I contemplated the dagger that I kept beside my bed as the past churned up like dust in one of the sandstorms of Tereki’s dry coast, grief and loss and the tearing claws of pain rendering my heart until I held the dagger in my hands, point toward my chest, but I didn’t draw blood. I didn’t know what would happen if I died—I had heard as many stories of afterlives or a lack thereof as the cultures I had known—but I knew that while I lived, Lanayi and all those I had loved lived in some way, too. The pain, I realized, was what kept me alive. Pain was life. Apathy was death.
I found myself helping a young woman with her research into the personhood of animals over the course of her life, while she aged and I didn’t, and I treasured those fleeting moments of shared work and revelation. Somewhere along the way we became lovers, and when she died, I continued her research for a while, and continued as an archivist, even though my immortality had become apparent to the others I worked with.
Fifty years after my arrival in Athela, I left again. The attitudes toward me were changing, and I felt it with the keen sensitivity of one who has fled persecution. But this time there was nowhere to go. I was in Athela and Shandriar had cast me out, and where else had I ever been welcome?
There were rumors and dreams of another continent far to the west, and I followed those stories to a ship leaving from the western coast. The crew were young folk, mostly, filled with the excitement of adventure and the possibility of fame, and they were confused when I asked to join their voyage. I’m an archivist, I told them. You will need someone to record this moment in history. And they reluctantly let me aboard.
I’m not sure, really, why I went, except where else was I to go? Perhaps a new continent would be more welcoming. Perhaps new research would give me life again. Perhaps I was just waiting to die, and didn’t know how.
Perhaps that had always been the case.
Our ship was destroyed in the greatest storm I had ever seen, with no land in sight. The others drowned. I drowned twice. Each time I woke up choking, floating face down on the surface. The second time I came to, the storm and clouds had cleared and it was nighttime. Thousands of stars spangled the sky above me, so much beauty that I placed a hand to my chest as I lay there floating on my back, nothing left but me and the ocean. There was no better moment to die, I thought. Maybe I had just needed a moment that was too beautiful to leave, a moment that I could take with me in farewell, a moment that offered some comfort for my grief, and some answer to all my years of uncertainty.
I swam down. Drowning wasn’t the best death, as I had just discovered twice. It was painful, and the better you were at swimming the longer it took. But I drowned, for my last attempt. At the age of six hundred and four, I killed myself for the third time.
But even after all that time, I was not without doubt. I found myself thinking of Tatila when I swam down, and how she had found reason to live for so long. I found myself thinking of the woman I had done research with, and how, if the world had been a different place, I might have done that for the rest of my life. Asking and answering questions, while everyone else was busy living and loving.
I’d like to say that I found something, in my six hundred years. Some great answer to the mysteries of life and death, some great revelation of purpose that I could leave behind for all the lost people of the world, but instead, I only had questions and the never-ending ache of love lost. For all my research, I only had the wisdom to know that I knew nothing.
Maybe, in the end, that was enough.
I saw something, as I swam down, my ears aching with the pressure. Some great sea creature, off in the dark blue of the distance, and I thought, I could have researched that. I felt a touch of regret, of love and sadness, but I thought of Lanayi too, and a deep peace and relief flowed through me like an underground river, cold and clear and pure, that this was finally the end. The water churned around me as I began to flail automatically, far too deep to be unsuccessful in my suicide. The blue was beautiful, powerful, painful, and while part of me screamed, another part still felt awe, even after all of my years, at the beauty of the ocean around me, and of the world I had been both blessed and cursed to be a part of.
That was the last thing I knew.
Frances Koziar has published work in 50+ different literary magazines, and she is seeking an agent for NA fantasy novels and diverse children’s fairy tales (PBs). Her prose is upcoming in “Daily Science Fiction” and “Best Canadian Essays 2021”. She is a young (disabled) retiree and a social justice advocate, and she lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.