When I was younger, I went on a field trip to something my brain insists on calling a monastery. I can’t tell you when or how, because so many of the details surrounding it are hard to pin down. Please bear with me. It’s hard enough just talking about it.
I do remember some things, like how high up we were, and how clean the air smelled. Mist curled around the monastery in soft, beautiful wisps, lingering longer than I expected. Where the fog met, clouds gathered, and together they formed a floor around the peak of that place – a mountain, or a plateau. Was it artificial? I couldn’t say.
Yet as high as we were, I never felt cold. Warmth radiated off the place, a humid warmth like meager school lunches. Wet pizza that left little trails of droplets on blue plastic trays right before I brought it up to my face. And it tasted horrible but we would all eat it anyway.
I keep saying monastery but it was more like a nursing home. The stink of oldness and illness fought with the pristine air outside until they gave up and became one smell. My sneakers squeaked on freshly-mopped tile as I walked through the halls alone, thick wooden doors closing behind me. My spit felt weird in my mouth.
A tall man shuffled around a corner, dressed in fancy scrubs, and asked me where the rest of my group was. I knew they’d gotten ahead of me, but I couldn’t say why. Maybe I’d spent too much time reading the informational plaques in the lobby? He told me not to worry, I would get to take the tour like everyone else.
“In fact,” he said, his voice soft and a tiny bit giddy, “we can visit a few of them if you’d like. Do you want to see them?” I nodded, but not eagerly. At the time I knew what he referred to as though it were just a fact about the world – some hard to swallow truth that everyone learned about eventually. Like dying, or the miracle of childbirth. This was a third thing, a fundamental part of being human. Brushing up against it, in the place where it happened, was exhilarating and terrifying all at once, especially for a kid.
He took me past vats of liquid, tended to by people dressed like him. They smiled and bowed when they saw us, and my guide bowed back at them. I probably was supposed to do the same, but I don’t think I did. They didn’t seem to mind.
“This is where the longevity fluid is made,” my guide explained. “It’s created to mirror an amniotic environment as closely as possible while staying fresh for much longer than nine months.” Something in his eyes changed. “Much longer than nine months.”
“What do you make it from?”
“Lots of things. But only things from around the monastery.” He smiled down at me. “You know this area is special?”
I nodded. Everyone knew that. They knew they’d see it someday, unless they chose not to. But who would choose that? Didn’t everyone feel that same deep fear at the idea of disappearing altogether that I felt on those sleepless summer nights, staring up at the ceiling wrapped in sweat-soaked sheets?
“But why?” I asked. “What makes it so special?”
“That’s what we’re here to find out.” His voice was so patient, and his manner of speaking so reverent, that I didn’t dare to prod him for more. “It’s our secondary objective, only coming after…” he trailed off. “This machine does most of the work.”
He showed me the basic details. All the colorful fluids and how they were brewed. I watched as the vats scrambled different ingredients together. Massaging the viscosity out of one, spreading a different one in thin layers. My eyes traced the paths of the machines, the bubbles rising through transparent liquid to the surface. It was hypnotic.
“Enough of the beakers and pipettes,” he said finally. My trance broke. “Let’s go see what you came here to see, huh?” He held out a hand for me to take, and I found that his was shaking too.
I could try and recount the turns I took, how high up I think we went. What I saw out the window, which was just more clouds and pristine grassy slopes. But looking back at this moment in time, peeking through the veil surrounding it, none of that seems important.
What I remember best is the way my whole body shook. My teeth started to chatter, though it wasn’t cold. I felt like I shouldn’t be here, like I was violating something precious. How a surgeon must feel if they realize halfway through a delicate procedure that they aren’t wearing gloves.
He brought me to an inverted dome, larger than a football stadium. I looked up at how high it towered and felt a dizziness so profound I was sure I’d fall upwards forever into the sky and toward whatever awaited all of us there. Lodged into the dome in flat steppes that formed concentric circles around us were rounded rectangular lids about the size of bathtubs. I knew what was underneath each one of them, but I didn’t want to think about it, so I looked up again and tried to lose myself in the oblivion of the ceiling that wasn’t there. But it didn’t feel like oblivion this time. It just felt big, too big for me to hold in my brain all at once. When I saw that clouds had begun to form indoors something bunched up in my throat and I forced myself to look down so I could breathe again.
There were people all around us, looking at the lids, some of them peeking in. All of them had those same scrubs on, the ones that looked like a cross between formal attire and mortuary rags. One of the figures held two wires in their hands, capped with soft pads, and ducked under a raised lid to attach them to something.
Wordlessly my guide took my shaking hand and led me up one of the many stairwells lining the steppes of the dome. We walked for a long time, him glancing to his side periodically as if considering the rows upon rows of lids, until he stopped.
“This one,” he said, and we stepped off the stairs and walked until he found a lid he’d deemed suitable.
“Does it have a name?”
“Not anymore. None of them do. We’re here to help them live out the rest of their lives, however long that happens to be, with dignity and respect. But we don’t pretend they’re something they’re not. Names for them are a thing of the past.”
I saw my own name falling away toward the end of the world as his gloved hands gripped the side of the lid. “You’ll be okay,” he said, and I wasn’t sure which one of us three he was talking to.
He lifted the lid, and I saw what I knew I would see.
It was about three feet long, its skin gray and shriveled but slick and shiny in the fluid of its tub. It reminded me of a seal, except its flippers ended in fingerlike stumps, soft and atrophied. There was something almost embryonic about it and those still, sightless eyes. In fact, the thing was totally still. Were it not for the rhythmic beeping of its heart monitor, and the tubes stuck to its sleek skin with circular pads trailing into the tub’s white walls, I would have thought it was dead.
And then suddenly it moved. It thrashed, and jerked, and finally just drifted. Squeaks escaped its soft mouth. My guide sprung to action, placing his gloved hands on its body and stroking it gently. “Shh. Just a dream. Just a bad dream.” When he pulled his hands away, it had calmed again.
“Did we disturb it?” I managed to ask. I felt like we’d disrupted something too sacred for us.
“No, don’t worry. After a certain point they don’t remember much.” He took a deep, trembling breath, the kind of breath you take when you’re trying not to cry, and closed the lid.
“But they can dream?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know.” He let out an even shakier sigh and grasped my hand. “Let’s head back. Your group must be waiting for you.”
I wish I remembered how we got home, or what the rest of my classmates thought. Maybe then I’d be able to find some trace of the monastery. I’ve looked for years online and I’ve never seen evidence of anything like it.
Some part of me knows I’ll never find it referenced anywhere I check, because it simply couldn’t exist in this world. When I went there it felt as natural as anything else. At some point – and again I’m not sure when – it just stopped making sense with the world I knew. I don’t know where I went or how I got there, but I know for sure that the place is very real. I know deep in my gut that people would go there when they were close to death, and they’d stay there forever, only they wouldn’t be people anymore. They were all just so scared to die, and I was too.
And to tell you the truth, I still am. Because when I go to sleep I still feel those sweaty sheets around me and, staring at my ceiling, I know I will end up in that dome one day, motionless and mewing, wasting in that liquid dark. Too much of a coward to let go.
I hope you will be there to keep me company.