Memento Vivere

As I write this, the news reports another senseless suicide. The anchorwoman puts on a moue and switches into her sympathetic tone to mention a man (23, Chattanooga) who broke into a gallery to asphyxiate himself “in the increasingly popular Rimbért style” by bonding his face into its own plaster death mask. Brightly, the anchor segues to the weather report. Scattered showers are expected.

These so-called art-suicides have obsessed a generation. Rarely a day goes by without some new life lost. Often they are young, often poor and desperate and hungry for anything beyond the bare scraps of survival. Rather than dwell in the shadows of a world that has abandoned them, they choose to die in the pretense of art, to wash their brushes in the carmine of their veins.

Ask a hundred experts how this happened, and you will hear a hundred lies. The sociologists say it is a kind of mass hysteria, a contagious epidemic of the modern mind. Poets claim that l’appel du vide has deafened the ears of the multitude. Preachers seize the chance to roll the drums of revelation and declare the devil’s handiwork.

In truth, all this began from a single spark, on an August night.

Arturo Castell (Feb 29, 2004–Aug 17, 2038) had just received the last letter he would ever see. Now he sat alone, bracing against his knees. All around him, the sodium lights multiplied his shadow. He made no sound. He only stared at the letter in his hands.

His coworker, Mia Sakai, was watching him while she stowed her gear. When he did not move, she loosed her hair from its pin, and sat down by his side.

“You’ve looked better,” she said.

He gave a short, dry laugh.

Sakai nodded at the letter. “Another from your wife’s lawyer?”

Castell shook his head. “Seven years,” he said. “Seven years I gave this company. I never spoke up, never told them ‘no.’ My health didn’t matter. My family had to wait. But now–” He drew a line across his throat with his thumb. “To them, I am nothing.” He handed her the letter.

It was printed on a half-size sheet of smudgy yellow paper, and it began with their employer’s letterhead: “Mesa South Electric Cooperative,” Arizona address. Beneath, in staid type, were the words “Notice of Termination.”

The letter continued by listing his benefits, and the dates on which he would lose them. Next, it reminded him that his severance pay was contingent on the timely completion of his last assignment, on doing his part to upgrade the existing transmission grid to a newer, smarter system, one that would not need maintenance from people like him.

Sakai read the letter twice, folded it, and handed it back. “I’m sorry,” she said.

They drove through the desert, past withered copses of foxtail and sage. When the sand stirred, it broke against the hood like the soft hiss of a rainstick. Above, the high-voltage wires ran parallel to the road, set in their cradles of triangular steel.

The sun had almost set. Castell looked to the clock, counting the minutes. Even on overtime, it would be nearly impossible to keep their schedule. He leaned on the gas and pushed the struggling truck up toward eighty, to ninety, and beyond, while the shadows of the towers stretched overhead.

Sakai lowered her window and leaned into the onrush of wind. Balancing her camera against the sway of the truck, she took blurry long exposures, capturing the streaks of the passing road and the jittery, restless trails of emerging stars.

Once, she had been a student of photography. And though she’d never made a penny from her art, she still brought her camera everywhere she went. Its lens had become the better part of her eyes.

Castell sighed as she sat back down. “We won’t make it,” he said. “I won’t. And they’ll stick you the same as me.”

“It’s not so bad,” Sakai said. “You could stay in touch, you know?” She laid her hand on his shoulder and rubbed the knotted muscles. “Call me, anytime. I’ll always be here.”

If he gave an answer, it was lost beneath the drone of the engine, the rumble of the road.

They pulled to a stop beside the barbed fence of Substation 17. Transmission and distribution lines threaded through the air, converging toward their web-center. Sakai unloaded their gear while Castell approached the entrance of the control house. On the gate hung a wasp-yellow warning showing a silhouette man pierced by jagged bolts of black lightning. Castell opened the lock and stepped through.

Between the buzzing transformers, past the sand-worn tanks of sulfur hexafluoride, the heart of the station lay within a corrugated chamber. Here, all the vital junctions and switches were controlled by a single monolithic mind. To Mesa South’s marketing department, the system was known as RTU-2022, the latest innovation in centralized routing and control. But workers knew it as the Devil’s Loom.

Beneath its polished aluminum facade, the Loom was a tangle of circuits and wires spun to Gordian complexity. The system had been built by a dozen different contractors, each cheaper than the last and without a single common language between them. At night, glitch-currents skittered through the wires, breaking circuits and bridging junctions to the call of phantom signals.

After he shut the switches off, after the forest of transformers silenced its delirious hum and a steady green light lit with the promise of safety, Castell returned to the transmission tower beside the gate, where Sakai was waiting for him.

“Everest awaits,” she said, tossing him a harness.

Castell’s boots struck sonorous tones as he climbed the lattice tower. When he reached the first cross-arm, he carefully raised himself onto the beam and crawled to its end on his hands and knees. There he paused to catch his breath, gazing down through sixty feet of empty air to the desert floor below.

He clipped his harness securely to the frame. “Okay,” he called. “Let’s bring it up.”

Together, they hoisted the new equipment, spools of nanofiber cable and pristine stacks of self-cleaning insulators. Sakai worked the pulley from the ground while Castell guided each piece into place. They moved in the wordless flow of long familiarity, as four hands with one mind.

Then a spark leapt within the Loom.

Steel thundered against steel, and the transformers shuddered to life with the angry droning buzz of a hundred thousand volts. Current pulsed into the half-dismantled equipment, driving bright violet arcs that rose searchingly into the air. Castell froze.

“Jesus–don’t move,” Sakai yelled. “I’ll shut it down. Just stay low.”

But Castell’s attention was turned upwards. In the crook of the beam above, illuminated by the flickering amethyst light, was a hawk’s nest. The bird inside had been startled, and now it was leaning forward to examine the sizzling wires.

Castell tried to scramble back, but the harness held him fast. He fumbled to unhook himself. His hands were shaking, but he kept his voice steady. “Tranquilo,” he said. “Easy now. That’s a good bird. You don’t want–”

Sakai saw only the flash. The air split apart in a nimbus of white flame, and Castell plummeted down, as if struck by the hand of God.

The scraps of Castell’s harness fluttered behind him, tangling in the pulley line. The line unspooled and finally snapped taut, suspending him a meter above the ground, arms spread, head lowered. There he hung, his body a bridge between heaven and earth. Tendrils of electricity snaked across him, the fingers of the firmament crackling down to fuse the sand below.

Mia Sakai looked at the hanging form before her and did not see a friend, or a companion, or even a sorry victim’s end. She saw a composition, and in it, a fleeting glimpse of immortality. Sakai did not miss her chance. She took then the most significant photograph she would ever take, an image that would long eclipse her own life: Arturo Castell, his arms radiant as the wings of the thunderbird, his face lowered in beatific grace, his chest exposed and raked with Lichtenberg scars, yet still powerful, still handsome to his last.

In the months and years that followed, that otherworldly image went on to become an icon to a generation. Sakai sold the rights to a national publisher, and gradually truth became obscured by myth. The story grew that Castell’s death was a deliberate act of defiance, a protest against a faceless and oppressive corporation that had left a man with no choice but to go fading and pitiful down to the grave, or to blaze bright for a single perfect instant, and make beauty out of death.

It was the birth of the art-suicide.

Most accounts make no further mention of Mia Sakai. For a time, she was a guest on the interview circuit, where she was initially eager to discuss the photograph and her experiences with Castell. However, as reports began to surface of other suicides inspired by Castell’s death, Sakai withdrew from the public eye. She stopped responding to reporters’ calls. Her apartment was found vacant, and only her lightest belongings had been removed. On the kitchen floor still glittered the pieces of her shattered camera.

Years later, her younger sister would receive a letter with no return address. The writing was in Mia’s airy script, and it said:

J,

I’ve missed you. Sorry about the mess. Some must have fallen onto you. I can’t ask forgiveness; if I started, I would never stop.

My days pass between glass walls. I’ve found work at a nursery for exotic plants: wolfsbane, rosary pea, sprigs of oleander, strange violets that mustn’t be touched without gloves.

I think I am trying to understand how terrible things grow from small seeds.

When I die, tell no one.

–M.

If she is alive today, Sakai will turn sixty this spring.

At the end of the decade, the number of art-suicides was still measured by the handful, not by the dreadful multitude. It might have remained so, had there been no one to stoke the flames.

The hand that drove the bellows belonged to Otto Bogard (Dec 13, 2002–Oct 9, 2042), a tabloid photographer and mercenary journalist. From his journals, we know the circumstances that ultimately led to his catastrophic involvement.

In late 2039, Bogard came into possession of a video recording on which he hoped to make his fortune. The video, taken with a handheld recorder pressed against a steamy windowpane, revealed a scandalous liaison between an Emirati prince and members of his staff. Through a series of threatening letters and ominously placed prints, Bogard attempted to blackmail the prince out of a sum which would have provided for a comfortable retirement.

His offer was not well received, and Bogard soon found himself in blindfolded negotiation with truncheon-wielding men. He was persuaded to accept a lower price, agreeing to destroy all copies of the video in exchange for his life.

After a monthlong hospital stay, Bogard returned to the ransacked site of his apartment, unscrewed his doorbell, and removed the backup card he had stashed there. He sent the video to a publisher in Paris, selling it for a pittance, and made hasty arrangements to depart the continent.

Bogard spent the next two seasick weeks in the steerage of a Grecian freighter, amid the warm animal smells of caged chickens and the constant bleating of goats bemoaning their bellies full of surgically concealed heroin. By day, he subsisted on patsas and ouzo, and by night dreamed strange dreams full of barnyard intrigues.

To avoid discussing the formalities of passports and paperwork with the Port Authority, Bogard leapt overboard half a mile from the coast of Roger’s Bay and dog-paddled the rest of the way through storm swells and hissing black rain. He finally climbed the trash-strewn shore and fell gratefully to his knees, bearing nothing but the clothes on his back and a valise full of telephoto lenses. Somewhere, distant thunder rolled.

Bogard had connections in the American paparazzi, and for a time he took assignments snapping pictures of celebrities in sheer dresses or tender poolside moments, but he had grander aspirations, and when he learned of the following that surrounded Castell’s death-portrait, he decided he’d found his inspiration.

For the remaining two years of his life, Bogard dedicated himself to the reporting of art-suicides. He started a chronicle of the phenomenon, coining himself “the Boatman” and signing his reports with the image of a grinning Charon-figure.

He wrote lurid descriptions of the suicides, accompanied whenever possible by photographs and video recordings. His articles were exploitative, sensationalist, and obscenely popular. Within weeks, the Boatman’s readership climbed into the millions, and what had been a limited cult of obsession became a national spectacle.

The following examples suffice to demonstrate his approach.[1]

The Amazing Diving Woman

Spectacle in the Sky at 1700 East Avenue! Office drones on their way to the lunch shuffle were surprised to see the Stars and Stripes come fluttering down right on top of their heads. It seems that one Annie Evans decided to redecorate the flagpole on the Drexler building–twenty stories up!

Instead of the classic colors, Annie preferred a gymnastic touch, equipping the outstretched pole with a trapeze swing. She lowered herself onto the bar–and began the performance of a lifetime!

It didn’t take long for a crowd to gather below the astounding Ms. Evans, a former aerialist with 15 years’ experience. She dazzled the audience with her twists and turnarounds. Gasps rose each time she fell–only to catch the bar with fingertip precision.

Just then, a hooded man–no doubt an incognito colleague of hers–demanded that the captivated onlookers step back “for the installation of crucial safety equipment.” He then carefully placed a teacup full of water on the concrete concourse floor, right below the flagpole.

Annie performed an immaculate dismount and a record-setting octuple somersault, but might have lost a few points on the landing. Both teacup and concourse were greatly impacted, leaving behind quite a crater.

And as for Annie? She’ll always be swinging from our heartstrings.

You heard it from the Boatman!

The Scintillated Man

Street artists, you’ve met your match!

Liam Dorsey was determined to leave his mark in the world–and he found just the alley for it. Using photo-reactive pigment and a roller brush, he spruced up the side of his brownstone building with a fresh coat of paint. Next, the inventive Mr. Dorsey aimed a strobe lamp at the wall, switched it on, and took off running–right through the light’s flashing rays.

The result? A series of shadow-cast silhouettes showing a man first jogging, then sprinting, and finally leaping toward the street–right into the path of the 7:38 crosstown bus!

We have to hand it to Mr. Dorsey–he certainly got the exposure he was looking for.

You heard it from the Boatman!

The other articles–over sixty in all–are similarly tasteless.

Through his coverage of the art-suicides, Otto Bogard not only increased their audience a thousandfold, but also fostered a culture of infatuation with death. Tempted by the promise of posthumous fame, aspiring artists emerged in droves, and the number of art-suicides soon soared.

Bogard ignored appeals from the decedents’ families, who often asked him to remove content showcasing their loved ones. The Boatman articles faced a series of injunctions and legal embargoes, but Bogard proved resilient in finding new hosts for his features, and his readership followed with him.

There is only one other Boatman article worth noting, and it is the last one ever posted:

The Bottom-Feeder

Life just got a little more interesting for the fish in the Pike River!

On a chilly October night, the infamous Mr. Otto Bogard stopped by his favorite pub–Rowe’s Tavern–for a stiff drink. There, he made a lewd comment to the barwoman, as he often did, and ordered a Brandy Sour. He then spent forty-five minutes telling the other patrons about his latest article and the poor overdosed girl it mentioned, during which time he was paying very little attention to his pockets.

Leaving no tip, Mr. Bogard exited the establishment, settled into his car, and began the long downhill drive on Collin Street. How strange it must have seemed, when first he turned his wheel, and found his direction unchanged. As the car picked up speed, Bogard tried to pump life into his brakes, but the pedal only sank to the floor. Rushing forward, now plunging, in a blur of streetlights, he hurtled toward the embankment ahead. Then came the impact, the crack of branches, and–for a moment, weightless flight.

Bogard was always determined to make a splash, and so he did! As the water rose, lapping at the windows, he tried the locks, all of which were jammed. He surely thought to use the safety punch he kept in his glove compartment. What a surprise to find it missing!

By then, the waters of the Pike River had enveloped his car, and the last light of the moon was receding far above. Bogard heard a telltale buzz and saw that his phone had been set with a curious reminder. It seemed that someone had loaded it with a copy of this very article!

He had plenty of time to read it.

Do you think of the people you’ve put into your pages, Bogard? Can you even remember their names? Are they with you now, swimming through the shadows, staring at you with milk-blind eyes? Was it you who guided them there?

I’d like you to think of my daughter, Boatman. Carry her with you as you cross into the dark. It’s the least you can do.

The article was uploaded anonymously on October 10. Authorities declined to investigate Bogard’s disappearance as a homicide.

Art-suicide had reached its flashpoint. It spread from shore to shore, finding fuel among the downcast, the outraged, the fame-seekers of every nation. Crucifixions grew so common that pious cities banned the sale of lumber during Lent. Professors in Taipei gave lectures on momentum from atop the tracks of approaching trains, while dancers in Chennai shimmied under scarves of vipers.

Next came the caravans. Over weedy trails and secluded roads they traveled, going by whatever route might hide them from the attentions of the law. These were the first professionals, troupes of performers banded together under such names as The Merry Martyrs or The Taut Rope Repertory Guild. Their goal, so stated, was “to elevate the much-practiced but seldom-studied art of dying.”

In a single night they would arrive, play their acts, and vanish before the dawn. They gave performances in public parks, from abandoned theaters, or under the dripping eaves of bridges where derelicts huddled beside drum-barrel fires.

Wherever they chose to perform, their acrobats would throw off their disguises, tumble through the streets, and herald the troupe’s arrival with a fanfare of kazoos. In the silence that followed, the crowds mumbled and scratched their heads, and then, when the confusion neared its ripest, the distant strains of calliope music would crawl through the air, and the caravan came trundling along, engines rumbling, electric signs aglow, with painted ladies blowing kisses and launching firework rockets that burst into crackling starlight sparks.

Through the surreal shows that followed, the performers honed their crafts. Each practiced for the day when he would decide to end his career in one last spectacular flourish, when the juggler would trade away his clubs for live grenades, or the escape artist would snap her keys and slip the world outright.

The troupe espoused philosophies that were absurdist and often incoherent, except that they abhorred the idea that death should choose a man, and not the other way around.

They recognized no leader, but there was a first among them: crook-nosed, snaggle-toothed, and ever-grinning beneath his foolscap of violet silk, he was the one they called Chiaro, and they named him patron saint of lunatics and kings.

Chiaro was not a man, but an image, an ideal represented in a ghastly porcelain mask. By turns they took up his name, and wore his face, and gave performances in his honor. These acts were varied and unpredictable, except that they would always end in the actor’s own death, at which point the mask would pass to an understudy, who became the next Chiaro, and the cycle would repeat again. By the time it was retired, each mask bore layer upon layer of cuts, gouges, acid-pockmarks, flame scars, and the studs of old shrapnel.

Of all these performances, there were none so infamous as the mortality plays. Little record remains of those macabre scripts, as it was customary to burn all copies after they were staged. Yet one text escaped destruction. It was titled The Wisdom of the Sot:

[Exterior - a park bench beneath the Statue of Socrates, to be played by dear dead Rimbért while his plaster holds. Sayed lies prostrate and surrounded by bottles. Enter Adillus, pushing a squeaky cart.]

Sayed O cruel noise! Get that cart away, unless you bring a cure for this damned hangover.

Adillus That, and more besides. But have cheer, good fellow–the night is fine, and every star retains her place. What causes you dismay?

Sayed It is too cold, I am too sober, and you are here. Come now, you want something–get it out.

Adillus Only to see you smile, my bristly friend.

Sayed Spare me. Old men have no time for riddles or rogues.

Adillus There’s ever a time for either. But lo! If your smile be lost, I have one here!

[Adillus rummages in his cart and produces the Mask of Chiaro]

Sayed What fearful face is this? Hound’s teeth, goblin nose, a grin to trick the devil from his final cent–what art would make such a thing?

Adillus I find it charming, myself. Perhaps you prefer the face that greets you at the bottom of a wineglass?

Sayed You make sport of me.

Adillus Never, sir! Not if all the world were a field, and you the only ball. Pray tell, how fares your father?

Sayed Dead, God rest his soul.

Adillus Gently so. And your wife, is she with you still?

Sayed With the plague, she fell.

Adillus Many did. Have you no son?

Sayed Missing in war, and empty is his grave.

Adillus Wicked fate! It offers alms only so the beggar’s the better to rob. Death has followed your every step, has it not?

Sayed Always.

Adillus Yet you turn away as if it were a stranger. Tell–is he merry, one who looks long upon a banquet, but tastes no morsel; who glimpses sweet wine, but drinks not a drop?

[Sayed slowly takes up the Mask]

Sayed What are you, truly?

Adillus Three parts dust, a dram of borrowed blood, tomorrow’s ashes today. In sum, as much as any man.

[Sayed gazes into the eyes of the Mask]

Sayed I have sometimes thought I heard, on still nights, a voice calling my name.

Give it answer.

[Sayed dons the Mask]

Sayed Light it is to wear, and how easily it fits!

Adillus Indeed you have worn it all your life, though you knew not so.

Sayed What fine lenses fill these eyes–they show the shape of truth. Why, a crypt’s as cozy as a cabin, and the vulture’s but a meadowlark in his evening wear. I’ll toast, then, to health and other illusions, but where’s a drink so worthy?

Adillus How’s for a glass of absinthe to tickle a tune from your bones?

Sayed That won’t do–far too green for my sanguine disposition.

[Adillus shrugs and flings aside the glass]

Adillus Brandy, then? Not a bad vintage, if Napoleon is to be believed.

Sayed I’ve had my fill of candied wine. Have you nothing stronger?

[Adillus tosses the bottle away with a crash]

Adillus There’s one bitter brew better, if you think it so–a drink to soothe the hearts of jilted lovers and make whole the kingdoms of dethroned kings; one steeped in flowers from the philosopher’s grave. Would you slake your thirst on a tea of hemlock?

Sayed Yes, at last! This is a noble spirit. Here, here– Play on, brave piper, play on! Peace, good scholar. Mind not this lended cup–it passes to you soon. I go before you all, but only by a step. To life!

[Sayed drinks deep. A cheer from the troupe. Expire Sayed]

The play was performed, once.

In deep woods, where a quiet clearing lay, the troupe built a pyre. They set the actor’s body atop the framework cradle and left lilies in his hair. There they gathered round to watch the fire climb, and sang in the low rolling drone of Lakota prayers, broken by shrill cries and the tinkling of tambourines.

Clouds had shrouded the stars, and no light pierced the dark save for the red blaze rising from the dead man’s body. Some passed wine bottles back and forth, or drew from reed-stem pipes that smelled of spice and summer leaves.

They had brought the pages of the script, and these they folded into paper gliders, and threw them so they flew within the fire and emerged on soaring updrafts, trailing plumes of flame that vanished in the night.

Meanwhile, the playwright stood apart. He did not burn his pages, but kept them crumpled in the pocket of his coat. He stared long into the heart of the fire, until the embers grew cold and dawn paled the sky. Then he picked his way across the sleeping and twining forms of the troupe, and left.

It isn’t enough. A few preserved pages, the lines of this minor chronicle–sins should be better attested than this.

I owe them more than words alone.

Droplets tap against my windowpane, tracing bright rivulets as they fall. The street below is busy with the milling of the midday crowd, their shadows faint beneath the low and leaden sky. It will rain hard this night, but not before I carry out my act.

I haven’t forgotten the face that waits for me, not for a moment since I stole the thing away. Even in dreams, I see the wicked grin, the sickle nose, the hollow spaces for my eyes to fill.

It has waited long enough. Time, now, for the mask to embrace its new wearer.

There.

That’s better.

I know what comes next. I have seen this day a thousand times in planning.

First, I gather up the means: my violin, its case, and the revolver concealed within. I have prepared my instruments carefully. The strings are keenly tuned; the gun is clean and ready. There is no chance of misfire. Each element of this act will play its part.

With case in hand, I descend the stairs, cross the street, walk into the crowd. The mask draws stares from those around me. They know what it portends. I find a fitting corner, somewhere well exposed where the sound will carry far. Setting down my case, I open the latches with a steely click. I take up my violin and bow, pausing to savor the rosy smell of the wood, and begin to play a composition that I have practiced every day for the last three years.

The strings hum and sigh and echo through the streets, reaching curious ears, drawing in my audience. Slow and strange, the melody unwinds, laying chord upon chord, note after tender note.

In the last passage of this piece, the central motif repeats in an excruciating diminuendo. My listeners anticipate the final chord, feel it building in their bones. And just before I reach that last note of sweet resolution, I drop my bow, draw the gun, and press the barrel to my temple.

But I do not fire.

The onlookers are confused. Many are disappointed as they watch me lower the gun, put away the violin, and leave without a spoken word. Some jeer and spit curses after me, demanding I deliver that instant of annihilation they have waited for. But others find meaning in this act. They realize it is a protest, one made through the sparing of a life–an art-survival.

Alone, it isn’t much. But we are never really so alone as we seem. We are followed, always, by ripples in our wake. They carry outward, farther than we know, to meet someday with others like themselves, and sway together against the tide.

Too many have traded away their lives, seeking shelter within silence. They have been deceived. That welcoming abyss they so readily embrace is a broken mind’s mirage. At the bottom isn’t freedom, or glory, or even peace. At the bottom is nothing at all. And the hand that kills takes more than just the life it ends–it burns unwritten books, strips the canvas of its future paint, robs the ear of music yet unheard.

I have no right to preach; I know how sweet that siren song can be. Days come when the bottom doesn’t seem so far away, when the sun withholds its heat and all that life can offer is a time to shiver in the naked light.

But days pass.

Though I am filled with flaws, and my steps have often gone astray, this life endures. So I’ll mend what I can and try to make something from the pieces left behind. The mask should return, I think, to the ones who made it. I will take it there. And when I do, I will tell them this: That a corpus is not judged by its last work, but by its best, that there is more wonder in even the smallest moments of existence than an eternity of silence, and that it is a better and braver thing to spit in the eye of death, and make beauty out of life.

for K.W.

[1]: Out of respect for the deceased, I have falsified the names in the following excerpts, all except one.



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