Memento Mori: a short story

Memento Mori — Carstian Luyckx

Henri’s wife had passed years ago. Yet he remained a vibrant, energetic fellow with an undying smile on his face.

His farm had been operating at a slower pace since he was alone, but Henri still managed to produce enough to sustain his simple lifestyle with a little extra when he sold goods at the local market.

His favorite hobby was hiking. Every morning after going through the customary chores, he set foot on the path to the forest behind his farm and marveled for hours, listening to the birds’ melodies, enjoying the scent of fresh wood and wildlife as he reminisced the moments shared with the love of his life while always wearing a bright smile on his face.

One warm morning during his hike, Henri made an unexpected discovery. Branching out from the usual trail, he noticed what looked like a remnant of an extinct track disappearing into heavy brush.

Following this path, he soon emerged and found himself on an abrupt cliff overhanging a valley. Nested far below, deep into the valley was what seemed to be… a village.

Something about the village didn’t feel right, though. On closer inspection, he realized all houses seemed to be of similar height, except a slightly taller building in the center that he imagined to be the city halls. The house walls were gray, as was the sky, and the absolute lack of any colors within eyesight made Henri very uncomfortable, as if it directly contradicted his lifelong love for anything bright and… alive. Even stranger was the shape of the town: houses were organized in concentric circles around the tallest building, which made it look almost surreal.

Stricken by curiosity, Henri decided to follow the dusty straightforward trail that led to the stark town. He soon came upon a discrete wooden sign, on which was engraved in the most mundane typography “Medio — 0 m, 154 inhabitants.”The day was getting colder, as were his feelings. On the way, he noticed tools in the field that seemed out of time — just as if this place had been frozen for decades.

Progressing towards the tallest building in view, he heard a psalm-like, faint humming. The voices did not seem to follow any distinct rhythm, and after seconds of concentrated listening the old man realized that the uniqueness of the sound was not resulting from an unusual melody, but from the lack thereof. It was, in fact, a toneless series of words, exempt of any harmony. How odd it was, he thought, to glorify a supreme being without demonstrating emotions.

He soon arrived at the forecourt of what seemed to be a wooden church, bearing a nondescript wooden sign nailed above its front door, reading:

“He who did not live may never die”.

Intrigued more than worried, Henri decided to have a discussion with one of the townsmen before heading home. Reluctant to disrupt what could be a religious ritual, he sat on the stairs leading up to the building and patiently waited.

Minutes passed, and Henri became increasingly nervous.
The chant finally came to an end right before the medium-sized doors opened to a silent, disciplined crowd making their way back to the streets without a glance at our protagonist. They were all dressed in gray from head to toe. All men were short-haired while women wore a tight braid reaching their shoulders. It seemed to be reserved for adults, though the exact age of the disciples was a hard guess, given their total lack of any style.

As Henri was losing hope of anyone paying attention to him, though his bright red shirt, blue trousers and jovial face sure couldn’t be deemed discrete, the last person to exit — a tall, middle-aged men with a somber facial expression — stopped in front of him, towering over him with an empty face.

-“Hello”, said Henri energetically, as he noticed the expressionless face of his counterpart.

-“Hello”, answered the man in a toneless voice.

-“My name is Henri, and I come from a nearby city. ”

The townsmen didn’t answer. When he realized Henri wasn’t moving, the man finally spoke in a lifeless voice:

-“Our people does not speak with strangers”.

Before Henri could object, the man walked right past him and disappeared into the streets behind. The city was back to its lifeless state. He had no option but to go home.

On the next day, Henri decided to try his luck again. This time though, he had a plan. He had unearthed the dullest clothes he could find, a uniform comprised of a worn-out gray suit and black leather shoes he hadn’t used in years, and practiced mimicking the townsmens’ indifferent facial expression as best he could in front of the mirror. Once bereft of any exterior sign of happiness or colors, he packed a sandwich and water before leaving for the forest.

After an hour of hiking in circles looking for clues, he recognized the mossy tree trunk that he had passed on his way back the previous day. It took him less than 10 minutes to reach Medio again, his enthusiastic stride leaving him panting, leaning on the wooden sign.

After dusting off his old gray suit and catching his breath, he went straight to the main building and waited on the brick stairs before the doors opened to the same neurasthenic crowd regaining their daily activities.

As the unsuspecting mayor — or so he believed — arrived at Henri’s height, he froze, carefully considering the intruder. His face displayed neither signs of happiness nor annoyance. After what seemed an eternity for Henri, the man nodded invitingly towards the building and walked back in — the costume had worked. Once inside, our protagonist discovered with astonishment how different from his imagination the room was.

The building was, in fact, empty. The walls were painted gray, just like their exterior facade, and were absolutely bare. No decorations, no relics, not even chairs for the citizens to rest. Henri was starting to think that the building surely was a peculiar place to hold a meeting. After reaching the room’s center, the man turned around. Despite millions of questions racing through his mind, Henri didn’t dare to point out the lack of furniture and waited for his counterpart to speak in his flat voice:

-“Do you wish to join us, stranger?”

Henri could not hide his excitement for the opportunity he was given to discover what hid behind the masks. He ventured a question:

-“I have discovered your city with great interest and I would love to better understand your…customs. Would you mind introducing me to what it is you worship here, and the set of values your citizens uphold?”

-“I will consent to your request, stranger, but you must promise never to utter a word on this place, should you choose to leave it.”

The man waited for a consenting nod from Henri, then started recounting his story in a soft and polite tone:

-“We call ourselves the Medians. We have lived without contact with your world for two decades, ever since a man named Julius enlightened us with the words of truth.

-The words of truth? asked Henri

-“At the time”, continued the Median with a reproachful glare, “we were lost and filthy people, engaging in one sin after another, missing the shepherd we needed to strive towards a better self. He showed up on a pale and calm night in our village, seeking food and shelter. As had always been done in our village, we were remarkable hosts, though he didn’t partake in any of our excesses, and in exchange for our kindness, he taught us the sacred words, which are summed up in the following sentence “He who never lived may never die”. By experiencing the least of this world only will we get to experience fully the next. He told us a sacred book existed, holding the rest of the teachings, but that he unfortunately did not have it, and thus he would elevate us himself.

He was a simple man, whose passage on this earth was meant to cross ours. Julius taught us that despite ancient traditions, the sole path to light was that of ascetics. Ascending to our greater self can solely be done by resigning all pleasures, all the while renouncing to the negative weights of existence.
Our people have given up freedom, love, pleasure, and pain — all feelings and intentions— in exchange for an afterlife. Everything has to be average, dull, bland, from activities to taste, including our relationships. Only by experiencing the smallest amount of sensations in this flesh envelope will we have a chance at meeting the one true God. Hence, we rebuilt our town and our lives around the sacred words. The only distinctive sign of our town is this building, taller than others to be easily found from afar, though our townsmen seldom leave the place. The rest of the town is organized into a perfect circle with 3 rows of houses, so no one can reside in an better or worse place than others. Jealousy has been nonexistent ever since.

Our people are never kind, nor mean to each other. We obviously don’t engage in love or friendship. When a feeling is inevitable, we must compensate it to reach the absolute balance. Food must not be good nor bad, it simply feeds us. There is no place for folklore or tradition, as we consider the past to be a chain of mistakes for which our ancestors will be held responsible in a trial of the afterlife. We hold no ceremony for our dead, nor do we celebrate life.

In medio, you will find no art. You won’t find children, as we can never allow ourselves to experience climax, the ultimate form of pleasure. The youngest member of our community was born 21 years ago, right after Julius left. You won’t find alcohol either, except as a medical supply and hygiene product. We exist, simply to endure our short passage down here before an eternity of bliss.

When Julius left, one week after his arrival, he promised that he would be back to bring us our sacred book — he has not returned since, but we have faith that he will honor his promise. Fortunately, one of the emissaries we sent out got word of where to find this book, and is on his way right now to share its contents with us. He should arrive in a few days. We won’t hold any peculiar event for it, as you guessed, but we will hold the daily meeting and finally read through the other commands that our people should obey.

Now I will ask this once, stranger, do you wish to join us or disappear from our sights forever?” He unfolded his arms, one stretching towards the door, the other inviting Henri to sit.

As the man’s bland face clearly expressed that a debate was out of the question and staying definitely wasn’t an option, Henri ushered a quick thank you before turning around and heading straight back home. Thoughts streamed into his mind as he paced back to his farm. How could a whole society possibly bear a life exempt of the very characteristics that made us human? Our emotions, expressions, love, all of these were the only reasons our time on this earth was worth it! “Should that imply that I’ll go to hell,” he thought, full of resolve, and as he pictured his late wife in his mind, he thought “it would still be worth it”.

Henri sat upright in his bed all night contemplating whether he should try to help these strange people or forget about this whole story. “It is my responsibility, as an emotional being, to help those that lack such feelings” he ended up realizing before collapsing into a dreamless sleep.

When the first rays of the sun pierced through the window into his room, Henri decided to visit the local library to find out if he could gather a source for the sentence that became the sacred words of their unusually dull cult. The problem was, he had no idea where to start. The words could figure in virtually any book, fiction or otherwise.

After failing to find any clue in the “Religions” section, he decided to ask the librarian if she’d ever heard of such a reference. “It does ring a bell”, she said as she shuffled through books, not even looking at him, “but I can’t recall its source. It is certainly not from a religious book, so I don’t think you should persevere in the Esoteric department. Maybe try your luck in Sci-fi.”

Predictably, our energetic old man worked twice harder for the rest of the day, and only when the librarian informed him that the building was closing did he realize how long he’d been searching.

During the following days, he visited the library daily, unrelentingly clearing one shelf after another. On the fifth day, as he was shuffling through books left and right, reading names on shelves, frantically trying to identify anything that could help him, a book with a red cover caught his attention: the author’s name was “Julius Durant” and the book was called “Memento Mori”. “That first name isn’t too common” he thought as he pulled it out of the shelf.

On the back cover figured a short biography of the author preceding the story’s summary:

Julius Durant (July 2nd, 1935 — May 24th 1998) was an American fiction writer & sociologist most known for outlining in fictional work the dangerous world of sects, gurus, and group enrolment. He brutally died of a heart attack on May 24th, 1998, days before going for along planned hiking trip.

“Memento Mori” recounts the fictional story of the Oozo people, so eager to believe in afterlife that they’re enticed to adopt a new religion from a guru that claims that adopting a lifestyle devoid of happiness is the sole path to paradise. The book explores the entrenchments of hope and despair in the human mind, and opens existential questions for characters and readers alike.

Henri jumped right to the first page of the book where a one-page poem was written as an introduction: “Memento Mori, a hymn to life”. As he started reading, his heart stopped. “Oh no, they got it all wrong”, he muttered. Blood rushed through his mind as he finished reading the page, haggard. He couldn’t yet comprehend the implications of what he had just found, yet an intuition ran deep inside his soul that this was bad news.

Heart pounding in his chest, he dropped the book on the floor and rushed as best as his old age allowed him to towards the exit. “I need to get there before the revelation, I can’t let that happen” he thought, as he painfully set one foot after another, passing his farm and venturing into the woods. “He never got a chance to get back there and to explain them that it was all just an experiment. Or maybe he did it all on purpose, to study them. It is a catastrophe. There’s probably still time… probably”.

When he finally arrived to the village, panting and covered with scratches from the vegetation he had rushed through, his legs nearly gave way at what he first saw. It was too late. The envoy had returned with the book.

Laid out before his eyes was a scene of an unbearable violence. Should the seven capital sins ever be represented in real life, this is what it would look like. A display of every emotion and desire, closeted deep inside an entire town’s people, exploding all at once in what had probably been a night-long orgy of all excesses.

The ground was shiny with bright red blood. Wretched, intertwined bodies covered it, some still dressed, others bare. The Medians had binged through happiness until death. Too much, too quick. Some couples gave their last breath in the act, nude in the streets, while other still had greasy hands from their carnivorous frenzy, devouring all the food they had always forbidden themselves from eating. Dusty musical instruments had been pulled out from caves, and used until they had broken, while a lifelong supply of 90 proof disinfectant bottles remained in the rigid hands of those with an inclination to drinking.

It looked like what ended it all was the excessively contained rage of a few, that had ultimately burst into a criminal streak, with visible wounds on many of the villager’s throats and chests, before taking their own lives. The silence was deafening.

Henri fell on his knees, breathless, grasping on the last bit of strength remaining in his fragile body and grabbed the torn out page lying next to the blood-covered book on the ground to read the poem once again:

A hymn to life

He who lived may never die,
For dying is a privilege reserved
To those who enjoyed the virtues of existence,
Food, flesh, friends and family,
And whose radiance propagated to their peers.
As bright mornings followed dark nights,
Rewarding their commitment in the face of adversity,
Men have always borne an obligation to bliss,
While holding truth as a compass.

Of those whose existence was a long, lifeless series of days
Their trespass will be as mourn as their days,
And instead of a lasting legacy,
Their remains will eternally,
usher to the ground:
“what a waste of an existence were we.”

Memento Mori.”

Henri lifted up his head, and of all the grueling details he could have noticed about the scene, only one, in that instant, stood out: it was their expressions — one he had never seen on their faces. Everyone, from young adult to elder, from woman to man, regardless of the way they had passed away, gave out their last breath with a wide smile on their face. They were, for the first time, radiant.

The previous tale begins a series of hopefully thought-provoking short stories around the theme of the upcoming AI-driven world and its consequences, including amortality (solving aging) & the disappearing of AI-less jobs.
As the unavoidable“death of death” approaches, the natural consequence of an international race to the Holy Graal of technology, pondering the way we approach progress becomes increasingly critical.
“Memento Mori” (Remember you’ll have to die) is a latin expression first used by Roman emperors after claiming victories, reminding their generals that despite their achievements, they would never escape the grim reaper. Reminiscing about the vanity of our own existence, the saying takes on new meanings as it also conveys that nothing gives more meaning to life than Death itself, and its abrupt end would mark the end of any social and biological purpose that all living species have been carrying ever since a single bacteria, on a twist of fate, duplicated for the first time.