How People Died When the World Was New
By Natalia Theodoridou
To understand the places you’ll see and the people you’ll meet on your journey, traveller, you need to know this:
When the world was still new, there was no death among humans. But when people became too many for a place to carry, or the food, the water, and the wool too scarce, or the pain too great, or the time too slow, a solution had to be found. And so, in the great wide world with its great wide seas, people found all sorts of ways to stop living.
The people of the Endless Plains in the East, where the grass grows green for three parts of the year and turns to ash in the fourth, gathered at the edge of their settlements once every year. They brought chairs from their homes and arranged them out onto the plains just before dusk, one chair for each person who had grown too old, or too tired, or too sad from all this living. And each one took a seat, and they all sat in front of their people, and the people shared their goodbyes and farewells, and smiled and cried and waved and said some words. And when the first stars came out, those who were to go on living returned home, and those who were to die stayed in their chairs, frightened, but eager for what would come next. In the morning, the living returned to the plains and carried the empty chairs back to their homes. So, traveller, remember: in the Endless Plains in the East, always be the last one to sit, and only do so with reverence.
The people of the Wide Seas in the South, where the weather is always cold and the food is hard to come by, lived until they could no longer support themselves and their loved ones, either in kind or in wisdom. When that day came, and it could come early or it could come late, they got up with the first light of the morning, when everyone else was asleep. They tiptoed out of their homes, quietly, barely breathing, so that no one could hear them, because if they did they would no doubt try to stop them, and went to the back room of the house where each had stored their death raft. The death raft was the first thing all the people of the Wide Seas in the South learned how to make when they were children, and it was their most prized possession—for they knew that one day it would be their only possession in the world. So when the time came, they carried their rafts to shore, pushed them into the water and climbed on. They took no food and no water and they left their clothes behind in a little pile on the beach. With time, they wasted away, and they became so thin that their bodies were now nothing but bones and ligaments as fine as threads. This is why, I’m sure you know as all travellers know well, the Wide Seas in the South are so crowded with rafts that drift forever, aimlessly, filled with the most restless of bones.
The forest people of the North were not as quick to accept such ends and seemed to never tire of living, and so the North became the most overcrowded place in the world until the wise people of the tribes came together and decided what was a good amount of years for one to live. When people reached that age, no matter whether they were still well or not, or whether they were loved or hated by those around them, they were tied up and put face-down into coffins that were then nailed shut with iron and lowered into the ground. Once every ten years, the living used to let the dead out of their graves to roam the world as they once did. They still do this, the forest people of the North—but the dead have grown tired, and they don’t always come out any more.
The people of the Great Lakes in the West were fortunate enough, because their land was kind and abundant, and so they could choose to leave life whenever they wanted. But it was not unusual to see young people electing to end their living; passions, they say, ran high in the West, because days were much too long, and nights much too short. And so, every time someone wished to die, they went to the shore of their favourite lake and found a heavy rock to tie around their right foot. They paid the ferryman to take them to the deepest part of the lake; the price is uncertain and somewhat contested—some say it was a gold coin, some a piece of cloth worn against the skin, others a lock of hair. And, once there, they stood up on the boat and jumped into the water together with their rock. This is why, if you go diving in the Great Lakes in the West, you will see all these people floating near the bottom, boys and girls and others, young and old and middle-aged. They will be waving serenely in the wet half-dark, free at last, you might think, of the joys of days and the cruelty of nights. And then, for a brief moment, you might wish you too were so.
If only, traveller, the world were still new.