The Acolytes of the Dead

I hate my life. Despite a promising start, its been nothing but fear and humiliation. I feel awful, weak and drained. Around me everything seems so artificial, unnatural and toxic. I can't help it. No one else can either, so yesterday, I decided enough was enough. When the rain came I left.

The walking was making me light headed, but the faint trail through the old growth forest was soft and spongy underfoot, kind to the discomfort in my knees. I could not remember driving here, but I must have. How else? The rain had breached the forest canopy a while ago and a cool wind had risen. I shivered in my partly soaked jacket and jeans, but I pressed forward. There would be no turning back. My legs continued to move, carrying me in a trance-like state deeper into the woods with each passing hour. It all seemed so abstract and unreal, like at any time I would just shake it off and walk back, until the light faded out and the first waves of violent shivering began. In the blackness, wind now whistled in my ears, rain pelting my side. A brilliant flash of lightning scorched the air, thunder imploding my eardrums, left me stunned. Perhaps my blood sugar had begun to crash, but I staggered backwards, snagging my foot on something and fell hard on my back. Struggling for breath, I was caught full in the face by a renewed ferocity of rain. I cried out from pain, but also from a flood of bitter irony. Great racking convulsions shook me and I could not get up. Gradually, diminishing consciousness gave way to the black silence.

In the middle of the night, the rain subsided and the wind quieted. A heavy mist remained, lit from above by a full moon. All was still, even the human form sprawled across the forest floor. From the humus laden earth, a faint movement began toward the insensible body, touching it where the left side of its head mired into the leaf litter. Filamentous tendrils of hyphae reached tentatively and with great compassion entered his skin. Beyond reach, below an ancient juniper, the ground began to slowly heave, ponderously.

Much later, the mist began to brighten with the approach of morning, lying in heavy banks through the forest. Moisture droplets hung, then abruptly departed emerald green fringes of the juniper. Some of these landed on the upturned face below. An eye twitched. "Awake, Nicholas Flakhouse, you are alive," proclaimed an indistinct voice. I resisted. The bed was so soft, so comfortably warm, with a rich organic fragrance of juniper. I felt cleansed and rejuvenated. My eyes opened to brightness and patches of wonderful blue sky. Gone were my dark thoughts, but bizarre memories intruded. My attention was immediately captured by the view of an enormous white mass, like a puff-ball, on which was imposed a face, or rather the shade of a face. "Do not attempt to move, Nicholas Flakhouse. Your body is still too cold, although we find it quite comfortable." It was correct, whatever was speaking, as I found my body refused to respond. "Hypothermia has that effect on most animals," the voice offered. The face continued to regard me, although its mouth did not move.

To my credit, a sensible question came to mind. The voice responded without me actually verbalizing, "We are not death, rather we serve the dead, that they may enter life." Digesting this provided little. The face migrated around the bulb, allowing a second face to come into view. "We are many, but also one. Together we have attained great wisdom over time." Some information from memory flared in my mind, where before all was silent. "You know of our kin, who call themselves The Merchants of the Trees, but those are not we." Another face migrated down over the top of the mass, "At different times, over this world's long history, entropy has given other species than yours the gift of mind, but none have avoided her final requirement, death." Yet another face swam up from below, "Enough of this! Time is limited. The mists will soon be gone." But the second face was not finished, "We are The Acolytes of the Dead and we are legion. For too long we have witnessed death and the slow creep of suffering in attendance. We are an ethical creature, so we offer you and your kind compassion, when the time comes, by way of a quick and painless death, to hasten life." The voice faltered, uncertainly, "but curiously, there has been little interest from your species. Many times, we have offered, but usually refused. In you, however, we sensed a greater need. Were you not seeking painless death in the stormy night?"

My thoughts had broken away with new energy at this strange revelation. I managed, "How?"

The first face now jostled back to the front. "Behind your left ear, is our mark. A small colony of hyphae entered you as guests. Your own cells and the membership of your micro-biome have welcomed us as the friends we are. We thank you for your hospitality. In return, we offer you compassion, relief from suffering. Our hydrolytic enzymes will stop the key reactions in each of your cells simultaneously. Your death will be instantaneous and completely pain free. It will be as your compassionate care providers say, like pulling the plug. Your micro-biome has agreed to aid in the later work of moving you again toward life."

I was staggered by this revelation, straining out "Stopping move?" The faces again shuffled.

"No. We know you wish mobility. You are yet too cold. The soil microbes below you are endeavouring to raise your body temperature. Soon you can move. We are confused, however, because mobility is not needed to accept our gift." "How many?"

"We are sad to say that of all the members of your species, fewer than one tenth of one percent were favourably disposed. Curiously, there was a strong cultural component. In traditional Catholicism, for example, we found almost no acceptance. We understand that fear is the primary factor."

"Why?" My throat was getting better at responding and the earth was noticeably warm, although wet, like a nice bath.

"You don't know? We think they regard suicide as a form of violence against God, as we understand it, which results in imprisonment inside of trees, unable to converse with anyone unless the tree is damaged, at which point it bleeds red blood. However, The Merchants of the Trees deny observing such an event."

The faces all attempted to swim to the front. "Are you ready to die, Nicholas Flakhouse?"

Despite my earlier firm resolve, I now had no interest in the idea. "No! I mean, no thank you. Uh. I have realized there is still pleasantness in this life. I can wait longer for death."

"Your response is expected, based on our experience. We anticipated it. Our ethics is not satisfied, since clearly you will still suffer in life. Only a very good reason can outweigh the benefit we offer. Thus, we must ask you this important question: Why should you not be dead?" The faces quieted awaiting my response.

"Uh, give me a moment to organize my thoughts," I stalled, racking my still chilled brain to come up with an idea, a reason, for my continued existence.

An agitation passed among the faces peering at me. "The Merchants of the Trees advise us an old woman, guided by the senses of a dog, has been retracing your path since first light. Her gait indicates pain in walking. Is this significant?"

My thoughts flew to home and I was ashamed. "How could she know I was here?"

"You left your car at the trailhead. It emits a radio beacon, so say The Merchants of the Trees. You, however, do not. The dog is unperturbed by this and intent on running you down. The two should arrive soon."

"Nicholas Flakhouse, we need the answer to our question. Why should you not be dead? If you have no answer we must satisfy our ethics and end your suffering."

"Love!" I cried. "Because she loves me!"

The faces floated motionless, politely waiting for me to continue.

"Her knees are bad. Why else would she attempt the trail?"

"We can offer her release as well."

"No! No. I love her too. I don't want her to die."

"Her suffering would finally be at an end." Again, they waited while I searched frantically for justification.

"Listen. An apprentice begins with no confidence in his tools. Working with them his skill grows as he becomes master, until even for an unknown problem he knows his tools can do it. That is faith. That same apprentice knows nothing of the beauty of form his tools provide, but an appreciation develops into the great emotional reaction the master has for his craft. That is love."

Something was happening among the faces. One managed to attain the foreground. "You must elaborate on the relevance of this description."

In an act of desperation, I tried to move. All I could manage was to flop my hands a little, like a purveyor of poor arguments. "Maybe I can't convince you, but we have been together for almost thirty years. When you are with someone that long, you have had an effect on them. Both of us have changed each other in subtle ways and we are the better for it. Seeing the beauty in the other, we see it in our selves. This is precious. This is love. Do you understand?" I finally managed to raise my arms a little from the ground. "Taking us away deprives us of the world, but also deprives the world of us. It is an act of destruction," I concluded.

The faces were silent for a moment. "That is well said, Nicholas Flakhouse. Your love outweighs your suffering. We relent and withdraw our membership from your body." I felt a great relief as the little bump of hyphae softened, liquefied and ran down my neck. "The mists are leaving and so must we. Remember us, The Acolytes of the Dead, in your hour of need. Fare thee well!" Above me, the sky was full blue, the sunlight was streaming. With surprising speed, the white globe began to shrink, darken and crack in the clear air, finally appearing like an ordinary large dry puff-ball.

In only a short time, I heard the excited bark of our dog and my name carried to me on the breeze. I smiled. They were coming to take me home!