AUTHOR’S NOTE: A few thoughts about rewrites. I’ve spoken with some who believe that rewriting is pointless and serves no purpose. Others I’ve interacted with believe that if they’ve taken the time to put pen to paper, then the words on that paper must be gold. I’m a firm disbeliever of both of these schools of thought and instead tend to follow the advice of my insightful nine-year-old daughter, Sophie, who often reminds me that “practice makes progress.” Not perfect. Progress. As in, there’s always room for improvement.
With this in mind, I’ve decided to revisit an old piece of fiction. I have vague memories of really enjoying the end product when I first penned it long years ago. What follows will, I’ve no doubt, be a heavily edited rewrite of that original work. Of this I’m certain.
One final note: This tale was originally entitled THE MAN WHO COULDN’T DIE, but in the last few years I’ve run across that title more times than I care to remember. So it’s been retitled, with no small thanks to Canadian-American author, lyricist, and musician, Neil Peart, for providing the inspiration.
I N T R O D U C T I O N
THERE ARE SEQUOIA TREES, GIANT SEQUOIAS, in the forests of northern California. Centuries old, they live and grow in the appropriately named Giant Forest and Giant Grove, as well as Adler Creek, the Converse Basin, and various other sites. Massive testaments of nature and creation. Unparalleled in their glory and sheer magnificence. They are nature’s immortal wooded skyscrapers. Undying and seemingly incapable of death. No words or photos can adequately convey the splendor of the redwoods, though perhaps John Steinbeck said it best: “The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe.” To truly comprehend their stature, their unprecedented magnitude, one must visit the California forests. I’ve been there twice in my 38 years. I’m not the worst photographer, but photos will never be capable of properly capturing the brilliance of the redwoods, their God-like dominance over the forests.
Giant sequoias cannot grow in Pennsylvania. The east coast climate lacks the requirements to sustain redwoods. The rainfall is too scarce, the summers too hot. I remind myself of these facts as I stand before and stare up at a half-dozen redwoods atop a hillside in the Pocono Mountains. The trees are positioned in a circle encompassing roughly one-hundred yards, though possibly more.
There is little difference in the size of the giant trees. Each stretches to the sky like arms reaching for the stars. Upon closer inspection, I notice that one of the six trees appears older than the others, its bark darker, its roots more pronounced. To the immediate left of this tree, a shovel stands erect, its tip largely buried in the ground. Rust, thick like sugar icing and orange like an Arizona desert morning, covers its metal handle and kick plate. Its wooden grip is withered with age, any protective finish has long since faded.
The grass atop the hillside is lush and thick, at least seven or eight inches. From within the center of this circle of trees, the surrounding view is peaceful, tranquil. The distant mountains, vivid green tapestries. The clouds, fluffy like cotton, hang lazily in the sky, obscuring the sunlight for brief moments. The sun is comfortable and warm, typical of the Pocono spring.
The sequoia trees are not typical. They should not be here. I tell myself this while walking toward what I perceive to be the tallest of the sextet.
A family. A family of trees.
I press my unshaven face against the bark of the great behemoth and wrap my arms around its circumference to the extent possible, half-convinced I’m dreaming.
Suddenly, it’s there in front of me. Somehow I’d missed until now. But I’ve been here for hours, and during that time, early afternoon has given way to near sunset. As the sun again peaked through puffy clouds a long shadow fell behind the eight-inch blades of grass. It became unmistakable. A patch of ground, approximately seven feet by four feet. Raised earth, not quite flush with the ground. As if a hole in the earth had been dug, perhaps with a rusted shovel, and then re-covered, though with little care for neatness and order. I kneel down alongside the previously uprooted dirt. The earth is loose. Empty patches abound where grass had been. I’ve been to enough cemeteries to recognize a freshly dug grave.
I touch the moist soil. The rusted shovel a few feet distant. The great sequoia slightly behind me. I lay upon the cool ground, not atop the excavated earth, but alongside it. I stare at the sky. Cotton clouds and trees. I imagine the magnificent shadow this single tree must cast each morning. The perfect place for a picnic. The perfect place for a grave.
The journal, not unlike my denim jeans, is faded, worn, and dirty. The once black cloth binding of the palm-sized book is faded gray and heavily stained. The gold foil-stamped lettering centered across the front of the book that reads simply JOURNAL is badly flaked and worn away. I’m here because of this book, this journal. Here in the Pocono Mountains, on a late April afternoon. I would have otherwise been at my Philadelphia office, attending meetings and assigning deadlines to ensure on-time publication of the upcoming issue of Philly Scene.
But I’m not in Philadelphia. I’m in the Pocono Mountains. Atop a hillside. Lying on my back in a circle of giant sequoia trees that should not be here. Lying next to what I believe is a grave. Holding in my hands a book that has brought me here. A personal journal, belonging to a man whom I believe lies buried several feet below me. A man who cannot die but who is dead. A man who cannot die. An immortal man who, by now, must surely have succumbed to madness.
It’s his journal. Within its weathered and withered pages is the story of his life, told in his words. Assuming the words are true, it’s an astounding tale. Yet how does one verify another’s life as truth or fabrication? Snopes? Wikipedia? Perhaps I’m swayed by the content of the journal. He writes of a life shadowed in feats typically confined to the exploits of masked avengers found in action films and comic books. As a writer who’s spent a number of years penning heroic fiction, I’m naturally intrigued.
Perhaps I just find his life story interesting.
I wish I could tell you a fascinating story as to how I acquired the journal. I would like to explain how it arrived mysteriously one afternoon with the mail even though it was Sunday and there was no mail delivery. Or how I’d been walking through the Wissahickon Trail last October and stumbled upon an old, semi-abandoned mine, and curiously stepping across the barricades and into a semi-collapsed tunnel wrenched free the book from the skeletal fingers of a long-dead miner.
But those are fictitious tales devised to trigger an emotional response in the reader.
The truth is that the journal was purchased in March during a block-wide yard sale in Manayunk. Purchased along with several vintage Halloween decorations, a wooden soup spoon, and a 1970s clock radio molded in lime green plastic, for the sum of $8.00. I made no inquiries as to where the seller of the journal had acquired it. Why would I? I’d only purchased the journal for its elaborate blue marble endpapers, intending to gut the rest of the book and rebind it with blank notebook paper. Instead, I was soon more interested in the words between the endpapers. Fact or fiction, I kept asking myself as I read page after page. Fact or fiction?
The question began to consume me, burning like a trick candle that can’t be extinguished. Like an explorer embarking on a quest that has no end.
Except this quest had an end. It was written in a journal enveloped by blue marble end papers. A definitive ending and a way to assess the question of fact or fiction. Which is what’s brought me here to the Pocono mountains, away from my deadline-driven desk job, away from the city. To a circle comprised of six giant sequoias that should not be here but are here–exactly as noted in the journal. To what appears to be a recently dug grave beneath the greatest of the great–exactly as noted in the journal.
Whether the contents of this journal are factual is unclear. Certainly there are references to actual places and events, but that alone proves nothing. I’ve read the pages too many times and have lost my objectivity. I want only to believe. Although the entries weren’t written in sequential order, but I’ve arranged them sequentially for the sake of clarity and continuity in the sections that follow. The text is that of the author, self-identified as J.M. Lincoln. The journal entries are largely written in the first person in classic diary format. There is, at times, little regard for style. I interpret this not poor authorship, but a result of steam of consciousness scripting, as though Lincoln was viewing his own existence as something akin to a book or movie. In terms of editing, I’ve added section breaks and headings where I felt necessary for clarity and structure, but have otherwise refrained from copy editing the narrative.
The chapters that follow chronicle the life of J.M. Lincoln, and were transcribed from a weathered journal I believe once belonged to him. Is it fact or fiction? You tell me.
NEXT: . . . as a Mad Immortal Man continues.