An old man sat at his ancient desk, that most faithful of companions. It had supported his weighty, isolated mind for nigh on half a century, helping write letters to distant kin that died one by one while he lived past them all. He had finally felt death approach in the last few days. Its hands in its pockets, slinking around the corner and glancing intermittently at its wristwatch, it had the self-justified impatience of youth that is always so strange to the old that have forgotten it.
Thankful that at last that he was almost done with his allotted time on Earth, he had lit a cigarette in an act of finality and called his lawyers to inform them about his last wishes and legal will. It was an act of acquiescence, of collected acceptance, of calm relegation to the inevitable shared fate of all Humankind. Everything was taken care of, except one thing.
He had one last letter to write to a great granddaughter who probably didn’t even know that he still drew breath. The last of his living descendants, she would get everything he still owned. It wasn’t much. The house and what was in it, and the fifty acres or so of land that surrounded it. A thick sheaf of yellowing memoirs. He hoped that the little twenty years young girl would read them, and that she would understand and remember how an old fart had lived for far too long.
That was all he had to offer as the flywheel of his watch wound down. He smiled as he thought about the fact that he would never have to wind it again. He lit up another cigarette, but lost in thought, let it smolder idly.
He had no idea what to write in the letter. It felt like he was supposed to write a cover letter to the resume of his life. So long retired that his bones didn’t even remember what work was, it felt like an impossible task. Rising from the creaking wicker chair slow as his knees would allow, he puffed on the cigarette as he looked at his bookshelf.
He was proud that in a world that was afflicted by the condition of Wikipedia and Google, he still owned a real library. He was pained by the fact that the internet had turned real reading into a passing feeling. He had the brightest hope that on inheriting his library, his great granddaughter would rediscover the joys of the written word and see how it was far more real than the digital one.
Pulling down the King James Bible from the easiest to reach shelf, he thought about the Biblical sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the wrath of God. He thought about the three other Cities of the Plain that were struck down in His anger, and how they are all but forgotten in the present. The sins of Zeboim, Admah and Zoar must have been impenitent indeed that they are forgotten even as Sodom and Gomorrah are remembered. It was only a natural consequence to think about the hedonistic pleasures of the modern world, and how much more immorality was required to push God into wrath again.
The old man hoped that He had been taking anger management classes, just as he hoped that his kin would leave the earth before He lost his temper again. Depressing thoughts before dying, it was certain.
Putting down the Bible, he drew a book from a higher shelf on the collected works of William Blake. It was bound in sable and embroidered with gold, a publication that was as decadent as Blake’s life was chaste. Here was a tragic story about a man who had once said, “Nothing lasts, but nothing is lost.”
It was ironic that the trust that inherited his life’s work, a conservative Christian boor named Frederick Tatham, burned most of his work as it was deemed too heretical to remain. Too blasphemous to exist. When he thought about the fact that Blake was only famous for the remainder of his profoundly philosophical work, he wondered what jewels were lost in Tatham’s fires. Despite Blake’s claim that the soul of everything is immortal in time, so much of what he wrote and painted was as mortal as he was.
The old man wondered about what the ghost of William Blake would have to say if he had seen Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party revel in burning oppositional literature. If he had read Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Burning books is perhaps one of the greatest crimes ever committed by humanity, and illustrates in sharp relief its intolerance and xenophobia. As if our brief human lives weren’t enough of a burning to ash and dust, we attempt to erase each other from memory.
But here in his surviving work, as Blake described the brevity and immortality of things, was a philosophy that was so deeply idealistic and hopeful that it was beautiful even to a dying man. That is because it is a philosophy that postulates transience, a philosophy that suggested that things don’t have to be immortal to live forever. Blake had stood by his beliefs all his life. Even as he condemned the institution of the Church, he had remained a devout believer in the Bible to the end of his days. His last words were hymns and prayers to Christ.
The location of his grave is lost in the annals of time, his gravestone a slab of stone merely stating that he lies nearby. The octogenarian thought it was a wonder at all that we still remember William Blake at all, when so much was lost. He pitied Blake, for he was certain that the Blake we remember is incomplete, as though we read his biography from a half-burned book.
He sat back down at the table, finally having decided what to write. Picking up the battered fountain pen, he set the nib down on paper and began.
“Dear one,” he wrote, “I am your great grandfather and you are the last of my kin. You don’t know me, but if you have read William Blake’s words, you will understand who I am. If not, I leave you his work, and you can discover that for yourself.
“You remain the only descendant of mine who outlives me, and I have come to realize that even though nothing lasts, we live for the preservation of memory so that not much will be lost despite it. I might be mortal, but I am immortal in you, the last of my blood outside my own veins. I pass on, but I hope you will remember me by what I leave you. I hope that nothing will be lost like Blake was. I wish you great bliss in your life, and I will wait for you at the eternal place where your stream meets the endless ocean beyond with the fanfare of foam and froth. Take as much time as you need.
He blotted a stray drop of ink with the care a dying man offers to his last task, deliberately, lovingly, slowly. He ended the letter with the same care, “With love that lasts beyond death, an old man.”
He placed the letter on top of the yellowing sheaf and put the pen away as though he were going to use it again.. Maybe his heirs would treasure it, and then again, maybe not. He sat there for a few moments, wondering if it would matter.
Finally, all his tasks done, he painstakingly rose again and made his way to his porch and settled into his old rocking chair, staring out over the farms and forests, patiently studying his legacy as he waited for death to turn the corner. The lawyers would handle the rest. He was at peace.