On Return from the Land Where One Never Dies

by Joel Hans
On Return from the Land Where One Never Dies by Joel Hans

He wishes he could die facing her, this stranger he’s been assigned by a new government program designed to keep people from dying alone, but they’ve been positioned side-by-side. He says hello, but she doesn’t respond.

A flock of solitude passes. A wish his wife could be here instead, but she can’t. Tide of empty.

He wonders how they were placed together. If they’re dying of the same disease, if they’ve followed the same path, if he has something to offer her. His life had been ordinary but beautiful—two children who are living beautifully ordinary lives—a decade wasted on worrying over his legacy—pleasant hours in the desert’s purple breeze—a decade wasted on convincing a garden to flourish at 115°—once, standing in the emerald kingdom of the world’s most beautiful waterfall with the only woman he could ever love, buzzed on hefeweizens from the clubhütte—

He’s surprised to find himself still alive when he wakes to the sound of her vaulting into a story about having once gone to the land where one never dies, where she met a man carrying a bucket full of water between a sea and a pond.

“Am I in the land where one never dies?” she asked the man.

The man said, “Not yet, but if you stay with me, you’ll live a hundred years—as long as I need to turn this sea into a pond and that pond into a sea.”

“But after that, I’ll die?”

“How much longer could you possibly want to live?”

But she was looking for the land where one never died. She walked until she met a goat who was clearing an entire continent of its grass. The goat looked at her with its rectangle eyes like it yearned to recite a poem but was forced to spend the rest of its life, three hundred years of gnawing, trying to remember how to speak.

She met a woman in a hot air balloon, catching all the world’s clouds with a child’s butterfly net, who shouted down from her perch, “If you stay with me, we’ll live together, floating through the world’s skies, for at least a thousand years. Isn’t that everything you’ve ever wanted?”

But she could still imagine taking her last breath floating in the basket of a virgoless dawn. 

Finally, she found a golden castle occupied by an old man who told her she’d found the land where one never dies. She stayed a handful of lifetimes, delighting in the gardens and galleries and labyrinths, communing with the animals who made the grounds their home, eating every meal in the old man’s company, listening to the stories he’d accumulated in endless life, mastering every hobby known to our kind.

She says, “I woke up one morning and wanted to see my mother. You know that feeling, when you wish to be around the person who’s known you the longest?”

He does—his wife, who isn’t here.

“But when I traveled home, I found that seven hundred years had passed. My mother was long, long gone, and the world had molted everything I knew. Just then, I felt ill, and went to the hospital, and the doctors brought me here to be with you. Or you with me. They said this program was meant to keep people from dying alone, but I think it’s really a better version of my wish—to help you die alongside someone who knows exactly who you are.”

Still looking at the wall, she asks him, “Do you?”

He reaches out for her hand, and she holds on. On and on.

Now, when he looks at the wall, it’s not so much a wall, but a window of frosted glass, opening into a newborn land only the two of them will ever see.

Joel Hans was once called a saguaro cactus in disguise. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Story, West Branch, No Tokens, The Journal, Booth, and others. He edits Astrolabe, a literary journal in the form of a dynamic universe, and holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. He lives in Tucson, Arizona with his family, and can be found online on Twitter @joelhans or at joelhans.com.