Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Eternal Misfit (Part 1 of 3)
This is a short story I wrote a few years ago that was published in Dialogue. I’ll break it into three parts because it’s fairly lengthy. The idea came to me one day when I was wondering what living in the terrestrial kingdom would be like. Trying to put flesh on the bones of that question revealed some perplexing paradoxes.
For some reason I can’t explain,
I know Saint Peter won’t call my name.
Some of the functions in the celestial body will not appear in the terrestrial body,
neither in the telestial body, and the power of procreation will be removed.
I take it that men and women will, in these kingdoms, be just what the so-called
Christian world expects us all to be—neither man nor woman, merely immortal beings
having received the resurrection. —Joseph Fielding Smith2
Kim had been in the terrestrial kingdom for five thousand thirty-six years, two months, and seventeen days when it occurred to him that he3 was bored. He was in the library, perusing a treatise on monarchic democracy written by a senator on the fourth planet from the star Sigma Draconis, when he quite suddenly lost interest in, well, everything. He rolled up the parchment scroll, returned it to the retrieval system, and walked out into the perfect sunshine.
When Kim reached his home, he was surprised to realize he wanted to go into a bedroom and lie down; but since terrestrial beings do not need sleep, he did not have a bedroom. So he went to the sofa in the parlor and stretched out. He took a deep breath and sighed.
“What’s wrong with me?” he wondered aloud.
No answer came.
He lay there for a long time. How could anything be wrong? The terrestrial kingdom was like Utopia, Shangri-la, the Garden of Eden, and Camelot all wrapped into one. The weather was mostly sunny and warm, with a slight breeze to caress the nerve endings and an occasional rain shower to refresh the plant life. Social order and perfect peace reigned. A hunger for learning permeated the very atmosphere, and the resources to facilitate learning were endless. There was no sickness; in fact, terrestrial bodies were not only incorruptible and indestructible, they were endowed with remarkable spiritual and physical senses. The geography of the terrestrial world was remarkable as well—rugged, snow-capped mountains; fertile valleys; lush, sprawling forests; pure, pristine lakes and streams; deep-blue oceans with white, sandy beaches; magnificent sandstone formations; but no wasteland. During his mortal probation, Kim had lived in Utah. He knew wasteland. On drives through Nevada he had marveled at how dull and mind-numbing certain tracts of the Earth’s surface could be. But there was no Nevada here, and certainly no Sin City, because there was no sin. The inhabitants of the terrestrial kingdom were not perfect, but there was no intentional evil, let alone gambling; in fact, there was no money. Who needed money when everything was free?
Kim wondered what was wrong. For over five thousand years he had been contentedly blissful. Oh, he knew that the terrestrial kingdom was technically a sort of damnation, but the terrestrial world was the degree of glory he had earned—it was where Kim belonged. The Lord’s judgment, he knew, was merciful. When he had stood before Jesus at the end of his stay in the spirit world, he recognized that he wasn’t fit for the celestial kingdom where he would have been miserable among all those who had lived a more consecrated life. The terrestrial world was the one he had sought out all the mediocre days of his mortal probation.
Kim’s sole regret was that he had let Julie down. She had always lived for celestial glory and had cried tears of sorrow at their eternal separation. Though she had been given to another, she had visited him from time to time during the first thousand years. Eventually, however, her visits had ceased. They had precious little to talk about. Whatever they had shared in mortality had been silenced by their diverse resurrections—hers to a degree of feminine perfection unimagined to mere mortals, and his to a neutered, sexless physicality that left him without the passions that made marriage not only possible but intensely desirable. He was incapable of feeling for her now what he had felt in mortality, let alone arousing in her those same feelings. Of course, in mortality he hadn’t been all that successful at arousing feelings in her either. And the irony wasn’t lost on him that back then she had been the one largely uninterested in intimacy. Go figure.
But this one regret had been mostly washed away by the pleasures and relative perfections of this terrestrial paradise. For over five thousand years, the Spirit had brought him peace and contentment, light and truth, and eternal learning. Here, memory was complete and perfect: so perfect, in fact, that Kim had taken it for granted for a long, long time. Why dwell on the past when it was there for perfect recall at any instant? But now he did turn his mind to the past, his past, and he wondered.
Kim had met Julie at the BYU Twenty-third Ward’s opening social in September 1977. He was a newly minted RM, fresh off the plane from Copenhagen. She was a twenty-year-old English major struggling her way through Shakespeare and Dickens and Henry Adams. They somehow ended up together after the party, walking around the block again and again and again, talking and talking and talking. Finally they got tired of walking and stopped at the old Joaquin School, where they sat on the swings in the playground until three in the morning.
“Tell me about your family,” Julie said.
“Oh,” Kim answered, “there’s not much to tell. My family’s been in the Church since pioneer days, both sides. My parents are pretty ordinary Mormons. And I’ve got three sisters.”
“Do they tease you?”
“Endlessly,” Kim laughed. “But I can dish it out too.”
“I’ll remember that,” Julie said, flashing her best smile. “But tell me, what do you want to do with your life?”
“Sheesh,” Kim exclaimed, “you ask easy questions, don’t you? To tell you the truth, I’m not sure. I mean, of course I want to get married and raise a family, but I don’t even know what to major in. I’ve thought about accounting. My dad says it’s a ticket to a good job.”
“Sounds boring,” Julie suggested.
“Well, yeah, I suppose it does. But I don’t really have strong feelings about anything else. I guess the worst I could do is prepare for a decent job. Why did you choose English?”
“Because I love literature.”
“So, do you want to teach?”
“I can’t imagine myself as a teacher,” Kim answered. “But I wouldn’t mind marrying one.”
They stared into each other’s eyes under the starlit Provo skies, and something ignited there that was never extinguished. Well, at least not until Judgment Day.
Kim had graduated from BYU in accounting the year after Julie earned her English degree and two years after they married in the Provo Temple. He landed a job with WordPerfect, made a decent salary, moved to Novell when it bought the carcass of WordPerfect, then bounced around from one high-tech startup to another after Novell laid him off. In the meantime, he fathered three kids, attended soccer and basketball games, track meets and tennis matches, piano recitals and parades. And somewhere along the way, the fire that had been kindled while he was knocking doors in Denmark burned low. He stayed active in the Church, but a certain spiritual urgency was gone. While Julie became more devout and spent countless hours fulfilling Church callings, Kim floated from one low-visibility position to another, making a negligible impact in people’s lives. But he didn’t mind. He didn’t have any need for either the emotional burden or the time commitment of leadership.
After the kids were gone, Kim came to the conclusion that accounting really was boring. He toyed with the dream of writing a novel, but it always remained a dream. Though he read a lot of fiction—not the light-weight stories most Mormons preferred, and also not the sort of novels one might call fine literature—he couldn’t find either his own voice or a story that simply had to be told.
And now, more than six thousand years later, he remembered that dream, and he no longer wondered what was wrong. He had his answer.
* * *
Later that day, Kim arranged a trip to the East Sea, where the weather was perfect and the ocean view from the dunes spectacular. He sat on the beach for hours watching the waves slap the shore, but the sound wasn’t as soothing as he’d hoped.
Back at his cottage, Kim pulled out a portable keyboard and started typing. He tried to begin a novel about life in the terrestrial kingdom; but just as in mortality, he had writer’s block. This time, however, it wasn’t because of his own limitations: There simply was no story to tell.
He pushed the keyboard away, leaned back, and put his feet on the tabletop. He thought about the library in Caldora, his city. One whole floor was devoted to fiction. The greatest novels in the galaxy were collected there. But to his knowledge none of them had been written in the terrestrial kingdom. All were composed by mortal authors.
“So,” Kim said to the wall, “what is it that makes a great novel?”
The wall didn’t answer, so he did. “Lots of pages and a great plot?” He laughed grimly.
“Right, and what makes a great plot?”
“Suspense, adventure, conflict, good and evil, personal weakness, sin, violence, natural disasters, irony. And romance.” He laughed again. “Guess what we don’t have here?”
“No wonder nobody’s writing great fiction.”
It then occurred to him that no one was writing history in the terrestrial kingdom, either. Of course, with perfect memories, the inhabitants of the terrestrial world didn’t need a record to remind them of what had happened. But events aren’t history. History requires interpretation, the carving of meaning out of a series of events. And without the drama of power struggles, wars, natural catastrophes, or social upheavals, the events of the terrestrial world didn’t seem worth interpreting at all.
“Nothing matters here,” Kim muttered.
And there in the solitude of the cottage, he made a decision. He didn’t know where it would lead him, but he knew he had to do it.
That night he packed up his things and returned to Caldora.
The next day, Kim went to the Caldora library and climbed the stairs to the music archives on the fifth floor. He had narrowed his choices down to three: Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Claire de Lune by Debussy, and a rock song his daughter had played back when Kim was in his fifties. He pulled all three music spheres from their respective shelves and stared at them in turn. They were primitive and unsophisticated compared with the complex but emotionally sterile music of terrestrial composers, but all three had a yearning, aching passion that was missing from the music of Kim’s world. Finally Kim decided on a sphere and carried it to the mammoth central hall of the library, where hundreds of tables and desks were scattered out among the bookshelves beneath a cavernous ceiling that glowed like the full moon.
Kim found a table near the middle of the hall and set down the sphere. He touched a light spot on one side, and a line appeared. He slid his finger along the line from left to right, then touched a black arrow that appeared beneath the line. Suddenly staccato strings filled the air, joined by vocals harsher than any terrestrial voice could produce. In a place that had known only hushed, studied silence for more than five thousand years, the singer’s aching lament about ruling the world, only to end up sweeping streets and sleeping alone, was shocking. Patrons stood up from their tables and desks and craned their necks to see what was happening. Kim leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and let their scrutiny wash over him. A hint of passion stirred inside, something he hadn’t felt since mortality.
The music ended, and still all the eyes in the hall were staring. Kim left the sphere sitting on the table, stood up, smiled to himself, and walked out of the library. As he reached the exit, the rapt silence was broken by a rush of whispered exclamations. He kept walking.
1. Coldplay, “Viva la Vida,” Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends (New York: Capitol Records, 2008).
2. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation: Sermons and Writings of Joseph Fielding Smith, compiled by Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56), 2:288.
3. Since inhabitants of the terrestrial kingdom are sexless, their language includes a pronoun to reflect this condition. Unfortunately, English does not include a gender-free pronoun, so I have chosen to describe the characters in this story according to the gender identities they possessed in mortality.