The Naked Man

Titus opened his eyes. Through blurred vision he could make out the ceiling of his bedroom. Someone squeezed his right hand.

“We’re still here, dad.”

He tried to talk, but his throat had become a dry chasm while he slept. All he managed was a faltering cough.

“Here.”

The top half of the bed began to tilt and his head was raised up from the horizontal. A glass containing water was offered to him; the straw ready for his parched lips to close around it.

Over the rim he looked at the small gathering. Aphelia, his daughter, watched him, her pitch black hair tucked behind her ears. Sunlight cutting in through the large window picked out the lines of worry and grief etched into her face. Louis rested one hand on her shoulder. All three of their children were still sat next to them, just as they had been when Titus had fallen asleep.

He stopped sucking down the water and released the straw. In that moment of silence he thought he could hear bird song outside in the trees.

“Thanks. That’s better.” His breath rattled in his chest as he spoke. The wheezing echoed through his bones. It surely sounded like an animal growl to the rest of the room.

“I thought I’d have gone in my sleep,” the old man finally managed, “but you bunch aren’t the angels I was expecting.” He tried to make it light hearted, but no one laughed.

Aphelia gave a small nod towards the screens behind him. “The monitors say it’ll be soon.”

“Unless you’re trying to hold out in the hope I die first.” This new voice was filled with mirth.

Titus turned his head and caught sight of a face wizened like his own, but split with a wide grin.

“What you on about,” another man sat that side of the bed chipped in. “I don’t want either of you kicking around much longer. I’d like to have a few years as chief of this tribe before I follow both of ya.”

For a moment Titus could remember neither of their names. His dying cells struggled to pull up the memories, then it snapped into place.

“Pah! There’ll be less than seven hundred of us when I’m gone and you prattling fools couldn’t run things if there were only seven. I’m glad Aphelia and Louis are here to keep things in order.” His face was set, but the words were soft and there was a glint his eye.

Silence followed between the three friends, then smiles inched up from the corners of their lips. Laughter rumbled in chests and crackled out of their mouths. Titus felt his entire body shake as he chuckled.

“Won’t you lot stop that,” Aphelia scolded them. “If you don’t I’ll have three corpses to deal with.”

“Such a caring family you’ve got there, T,” Solomon, the older of the two men, added between the dwindling laughter. “You’ve taught her real well.”

Titus gave a soft sigh. He turned back to his daughter. “Don’t you listen to those two old dim whits. They’re far more trouble than organising the harvest or the spring festival.”

“I know dad.” She gave the hand she had not let go of another squeeze. “You’ve done a wonderful job all these years, making sure we stick with the traditions of old Earth. This has been just how our ancestors would have imagined it and no one could have expected more from you.”

His eyes darted from her to the children. “I hope you bring more into the world to appreciate it. It might feel that we’re fighting on the losing side, but if you keep doing the right things we’ll have plenty more summers like this one.”

Aphelia was the one who would take over when he was gone, not the old council members. He wanted to instil in her what hope he had always had for the race’s future.

His hand would not respond when he wanted it to tighten about hers. There were other things he wanted to say but he could not find his voice. Weights were dragging on his eye lids. The bed sheets pressed against his ribs making each beat of his heart a labour. After a moment he stopped fighting it and the room was washed away by a wave of relief. His body sank deeper into the bed.

“Oh,” Aphelia said as the tears began to well up in her eyes.

At the moment of passing Calon pulled his consciousness away from the room, the small settlement and the planet that hung below him. Wings of gossamer spread out from his body to once more soak up the light of the star at his back. He let his thoughts reach to Fleia who was bringing her own vacuum engineered shell back to life.

‘It is always so sad when another one dies.’ The pain he was feeling echoed across the distance. ‘How long before they have all gone?’

Her emotion matched his. ‘No more than a thousand years.’

‘And they still will not accept our help?’

‘I tried again when they realised Titus was going to die, but they will not turn away from this simple life they wish to lead.’ She let their minds entwine offering Calon solace. ‘They would not even call me human this time.’

—————

18 September 2009
Titus, one of only 700 mountain gorillas left in Rwanda, died this week at the age of 35. There may come a future when our branch of evolution has dwindled in much the same way, whether through choice or happenstance.

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