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The Archivist

Roger White was dead. Roger White, husband of Eleanor, father of Penelope, vice president of marketing at Endworth Corp. was dead. It happens. Husbands, fathers, even vice presidents die. The dead have no eyes nor ears; they see not nor do they hear. It is not quite right to say that Roger White, dead man, saw this and heard that. Still, if we have no words for what he “saw” and “heard”, neither did he. Being newly dead he thought with all of the memories of life. Whatever senses the dead might have and whatever images those senses bring, Roger understood them as sight and sound and so shall we.

His first clear recollection as a dead man was that of standing in an anteroom. The room was featureless save for a door and a faceless, hooded servitor who announced in a disgruntled voice, “The Archivist will see you now.” Roger was not surprised. He had no prior experience with being dead but faceless, hooded servitors and featureless rooms seemed appropriate, somehow. For lack of anything better to do, he opened the door and entered the room beyond.

The first thing he saw was a haze of books, endless rows of shelves of books, trailing off into a misty distance. In the center of this haze was a nondescript desk with a man sitting behind it. The face registered with Roger. It wasn’t aged; it wasn’t young. It had that indefinite age of maturity. The man looked up, smiled, and waved a hand. “Sit down,” he said.

Roger sat down in a chair he hadn’t noticed before. The man looked back down at the book in front of him, a book that Roger hadn’t noticed before either. It was a large book, leather bound, and curiously ornate. The man ran a finger across the opened page, stopped, and looked up again.

“You must be Roger White, wife Eleanor, daughter Penelope, died July 19.”

“That’s right,” Roger said. “Although I really don’t remember dying but I guess that’s right, too”.

“Welcome,” the man said. “I am the Archivist. You’re probably wondering what all of this is.” He pointed to the book in front of him, “This is the book of your life. It contains a copy of every trace of your life on Earth. Your wife’s memories, they are here. The obituary notice in the paper of your death, it is here. The copies of memos that you wrote, they are here. This book is the record of your life.”

As he spoke Roger felt a slight twinge. He must have twitched a bit for the Archivist stopped speaking, smiled, and raised his hand. He continued, “Ah, I see you’ve noticed. You have to understand. You are dead. You, Roger White the person, don’t exist anymore. All that is left of you are the traces of your life that you left behind. The book isn’t fixed, you know. As those traces vanish from Earth they vanish from your Book – and from you. That twinge you felt? Somebody just burned a copy of the newspaper that carried your obituary.”

“You see,” he continued, “you’re dead all right, but you’re not totally gone. There are bits and pieces of you about, traces that you left behind. That’s what you’re here for. We have to do something with you until you’re totally gone. Don’t worry about the twinges. They’ll come fast and furious for a while and then they’ll slow down. Don’t worry about it; you’ll be just fine.”

Roger felt sick. “You mean, I’m just going to dwindle away and disappear? What about heaven and hell? What about the after life? What’s going to happen to me?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you. I couldn’t tell you anything about that anyway. It’s not my department. I just take care of the books. And don’t worry about dwindling away. You’ll hardly even notice it when you go. It’s really quite pleasant here. At least I think so. Perhaps you would like to look around a bit, see some of the other books.” Roger didn’t show any signs of enthusiasm but the Archivist didn’t notice.

“See, there’s Julius Caesar.” He pointed. The rows of books in the direction he pointed blurred as though they were rushing through a tunnel and then one distant book was visible right in front of them. It was a very fat book. “Julius is going to be with me a long time. His book keeps getting bigger. People keep writing about him. I don’t imagine you’ll have that problem, though.”

“Perhaps you’d like to see my oldest book.” He pointed again. This time the books rushed by much faster until they came to a distant wall where there was a shelf with one lone thin book on it. “That’s my oldest book,” he said proudly. “She lived hundreds of thousands of years. She’s going to be with me for a long time. Her fossil bones are buried in a mountain which is slowly eroding away. Some day, maybe fifteen million years from now, maybe fifty, her bones will surface. Unless someone picks them up and preserves them they’ll weather away in less than a year. But until that happens, until her bones are gone, her book is still here.”

“But that’s enough about my books,” he said. “You probably don’t care about all that. I do but that’s my job. I imagine you’re eager to get settled in. My servant will show you to your cell.”

“Wait a minute,” Roger said, “What happens next? Where is everything? Do I meet other people? Do I go anywhere? What do I do?”

“Do?” the Archivist said, raising his eyebrows. “You don’t do anything. You’re dead. The dead don’t do things. You don’t go anywhere. The dead don’t go places. And there isn’t anybody to meet. This is your death and death is a very private thing. Don’t worry about it. You won’t be with us for very long anyway – at least not by my standards. It might be a while by yours.”

The Archivist gestured and the faceless servitor appeared. Numbly, Roger followed him out the door and down a long hall. They stopped at a door. The servitor opened it and gestured for Roger to enter. Roger went in. It was a featureless square room with no windows and no furniture.

Roger turned to the servitor and protested, “Where is the furniture? Where do I eat? Where is the toilet?”

The servitor grunted, “Eat? The dead don’t eat; they don’t excrete. You don’t need a bed. The dead don’t sleep. Think deep thoughts.” With that he shut the door. For the first time Roger was shocked. The door was gone; it had vanished when the servitor shut it. Roger rushed to where the door had been and hammered at the wall. He screamed, “Let me out.” He screamed for a long time. Finally, when his voice was gone, he stopped screaming and took hold of himself.

He looked around. Yes, nothing had changed. He was in the middle of a small, square room with no doors and no windows. There was no furniture. Nothing. The walls were completely bare. They looked like plaster or something like plaster. The floor was some kind of tile. The ceiling? The ceiling was bare too. He realized that there was no lamp, no source of light, but that he could see anyway. He puzzled over this for a moment and decided that it had something to do with being dead and forgot about it.

He itched. He was burning with fever and he itched. He paced back and forth scratching at himself. He thought of what the Archivist had said and realized what was happening. People were forgetting him, expunging the traces of his life. Newspapers were being burned. Memos were being trashed. His name was being removed from rosters. It wasn’t much. The big things, people’s memories of him, were still there. It was little things that were going. He wondered what it would feel like when his old clothes went. “Newspapers,” he thought. People threw newspapers in the trash. He remembered reading that newspapers lasted a long time in trash dumps. That was something; he could count on trash dumps to keep him going.

He paced. He itched. “Think deep thoughts” the servitor had said. How could anybody think deep thoughts when they itched. He thought about all of the places there might be a trace of him. There were lots of places, he decided. There were all of the people he had known – he would be in their memories until they died. And grandchildren. Penelope would get married some day and have children and tell them about him.

That gave him an idea. He stopped and smiled – genealogies. People kept genealogies. They kept records going back a thousand years or more. “Penelope”, he said to himself, “For God’s sake, Penelope, get married and have lots of children.” Saying that gave him a start – where was God in all this? He stood there pondering, not even noticing the itching. What about God? He finally decided that wherever God was, whatever God was, God wasn’t here. Maybe his soul had gone to Heaven to meet God and this was just the husk of his worldly self. Or maybe not. Maybe this is all there was. Whatever the case, it didn’t matter. He was here and God wasn’t. Or if God was here he didn’t know about it so it didn’t matter.

Roger kept pacing. There was nothing else to do. He wasn’t about to think any deep thoughts. He never had before and wasn’t about to start now. For lack of anything better to do he thought about the past. He explored his memories, systematically going over his life. That helped a lot. He didn’t notice the itching and the burning. He thought about Eleanor. He thought about Eleanor a lot. The more he thought about her, the more he wanted Eleanor. Thinking about her didn’t do any good.

Time went by. He didn’t know how long. He worked on being bored and gave up on it when he got bored with being bored. As he paced he felt a new kind of ache, deep seated like a bone bruise. He had gotten used to the itching that came as little traces of his former presence on Earth were erased. This was different. With a flash of insight he knew what it was. Memories were disappearing. People were forgetting him. He was losing his place in people’s minds. He cried, “Eleanor, please, please don’t forget me.”

He thought about what the Archivist had said, that he would dwindle away. Had he dwindled? It didn’t seem like it. He felt himself; he seemed to be all there but, then, how would he know? Anyway, it was early. His mother was still alive; he was sure of that. He would know it if she weren’t. He didn’t know how he would know but he was sure that he would no.

He worried about it. Would he forget people as they forgot him? Maybe that’s all he was, the collection of memories of him that people had. Maybe not. How would he know? But he didn’t want to forget. He was dead but he still had this strange half existence and he didn’t want to lose that. He didn’t want to lose his memories. They were all that he had.

He had an idea. Maybe he could create a picture. He wet his finger and scraped across one of the walls. If the wall was like plaster it would turn dark. It did. He burbled. He squatted and watched the dark spot on the wall to see if would disappear as it dried. It faded but it didn’t go away. He had done it! Madly he started drawing a picture of Eleanor on the wall. He itched and ached as he worked but he didn’t notice. He was going to have a picture!

It didn’t take very long for him to put up a sketch. He stepped back and took it in, immensely pleased with himself. He stared longingly at the picture of Eleanor he had created. And then, after he taken it in and had taken his pleasure in simply seeing it, he looked at again and realized that it wasn’t very good. Dissatisfied, he went to another wall and started over. Again he sketched and again he stepped back to survey his work. This time it was better but it wasn’t good enough. He tried again. And again.

After he had done several sketches he stepped back and took a long hard look at his latest work. It was about as good as it could be, about as good as he could do, but it just wasn’t very good. There wasn’t that much he could do with damp wavy lines on a wall. He stood there wanting more, wanting something he had never wanted before, something he wanted with a desperation that he had never felt before. He wanted an artist’s paint brush. He wanted the right tool for the job.

As he stood there, wanting and wishing, he became aware that he was holding something. He looked at his hand. There was a paintbrush in it. He was stunned. What was he doing with a paintbrush? Where did it come from? He thought and thought – could he just wish for things, will them into existence? After all, why not? It wasn’t as though he had a real body and that he was in a real place. Maybe everything here was all in his mind and he could make it be anything he wanted it to be.

He thought about it for a while. What should he wish for? He thought and thought and finally decided – he would wish for a steak dinner. When he thought about it he realized that he had forgotten about eating, about what it was like to eat and enjoy food. He hadn’t eaten anything since he died and the memory of eating was slipping away from him. So he tried it. He wished for a steak dinner. He wished very hard.

Nothing happened.

He stared at where the steak dinner should have appeared. What was wrong? Why didn’t it work? Finally he decided that whatever was going on had something to do with being a disembodied spirit. He thought he had a body because he was used to having a body. He didn’t know any other way of thinking about himself. But he didn’t really have a body and he really wasn’t in a bare room. And the only things he could do were things that a disembodied spirit could do. He could paint because that was really making images and that’s something the mind can do. But he couldn’t eat a steak dinner. Steak dinners are for the living. So he did what he could do. He painted a picture of a steak dinner.

Once he got started he wanted to paint everything. First he painted a portrait of Eleanor and then of Penelope. He painted a picture of the house. He painted a picture of the dog. He painted a picture of the office, of his car, of his old car, of his first car, and his bicycle that he had when he was a child. Then he painted a picture of Penelope’s bicycle. He painted a picture of Eleanor in her wedding gown. And then he realized with a shock that he had forgotten about sex, about making love to Eleanor. The dead don’t eat so they don’t think of food. The dead don’t have sex so they don’t think of making love.

He didn’t want to lose that so he painted a lascivious nude of Eleanor. And then he made sure that he would remember everything. He went into a pornographic frenzy, painting pictures of him and Eleanor making love in every position and every way that they had ever tried. And he painted a picture of Eleanor giving birth.

He was working on a portrait of his mother when it happened. It wasn’t the only picture he done of his mother. He had done pictures of his mother and father and the house he had grown up in. This was a special painting though. It was a picture of her as she looked the very last time he saw her. He was almost done with it when he felt a sharp pain that pierced his whole body. His hand shook and he dropped the brush. He knew what had happened. His mother had died. He sat there and cried or did whatever the dead do instead of crying. He worried about whether she, too, was in a cell like this or whether she had gone to Heaven. He decided she must have gone to Heaven. She was too good for a place like this.

When he went back to finish the painting of his mother he discovered he couldn’t finish it; he couldn’t remember any more what she had looked like on that last day. He realized that when things went away up there (or down there, he wasn’t sure which) they disappeared here too. Things that had already gone away were safe. He could still picture his father from memory but the only pictures of his mother that he had were the ones on the walls. This scared him. When Eleanor died the only thing he would have of her would be the paintings on the wall. He set to painting with a will.

Gradually, without even noticing it, he became totally absorbed in his painting. People died and records vanished. He itched, he twitched, he moaned and groaned. He didn’t notice. The room was larger now, large enough to hold the incredibly elaborate mural of his life that he was creating. He didn’t notice that either.

In an earlier age he would have vanished within a few generations. Roger White, however, died in the information age. Data files don’t vanish. They are archived and forgotten. No person remembered him. No person saw his name. But the data was there in forgotten repositories. While that data remained, the Archivists book was not closed and the painter remained, endlessly, mindlessly painting.

In time even the forgotten disappears. Repositories are scrapped. Accidents happen. After some thousands of years there was but one bit of data left, one last remnant on Earth of Roger White, husband of Eleanor, father of Penelope. It wasn’t much – a bowling team roster with his name on it, a file on a disk stored in a forgotten sealed vault in Spain – but it was enough to keep Roger White’s Book in the Archives.

The file could have lasted indefinitely; however an earthquake struck one fine summer day and smashed the vault and all its contents into rubble. The last evidence of Roger White ever having existed was destroyed. In that moment the painter and the painting became one. And in that moment Roger White’s Book of Life vanished. When it did, the Archivist smiled. It was good. He needed the shelf space.

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This page was last updated February 18,1998.
Copyright © 1998 by Richard Harter