INCARNATION

She was living an existence filled with misery and suffering, where the only escape would be death. It was all that she could see, despite being told constantly, and from all angles, that it wasn’t that bad. It only made things worse to have everyone who bothered to get close to her offer soothing words of ‘things would be alright, just let them be’; it only reinforced her belief that she was trapped in her own private hell, and that everyone around her was at liberty only amplified her imprisonment.

Despite that terrible understanding, she couldn’t bring herself to die. She assumed that her cowardice for the act was a further punishment, but the reality that she refused to acknowledge was that she was more afraid of what awaited beyond the endless toil of living. It was the unknown that she feared most of all, the things that lurked in the deep shadows of the room before a flick of a light switch banished them; the hidden desires behind the eyes of the men who appraised her whenever she came near them; the subtle chemicals that were blended into her twice-daily glasses of milk. Death was the greatest unknown of them all, and she hid her face whenever she contemplated forcing herself into it. Which was often, often enough that it would cause real concern to anyone who knew about it. But she kept her desire for escape hidden, like an expert spy or a sniper encased in a ghillie suit lying prone in some wasteland of the soul, invisible to all but lying face-down in plain sight.

She couldn’t say if she’d always been that way. The closer she got to her 50s the further removed she was from whatever fading shreds of innocence she’d been born with. Perhaps some great trauma had occurred in her youth; if it had she’d blocked it, submerged it deep in the labyrinthine passages of her mind, buried it in the loamy soil of memory and kicked dirty leaves over it for good measure, making certain not to bother with any headstone. She would never submit to therapy and so such a horrible occurrence, had it even occurred at all, would never be exhumed. There was the more realistic possibility, by her thinking anyway, that she’d been born that way. She liked to imagine that whatever it was that had made her so dark had happened long before she’d come mewling forth from between her mother’s legs in that great spasm of birth. A past life where she’d not lived up to her potential, and so had been doomed to repeat it, and again found herself trapped in a horrible loop of mediocrity.

Was it luck? She didn’t know. She thought that destiny was real, and that fate was predetermined. It was the reason she continued to trudge through her bleak existence, in search of whatever terminal horizon that would bring awareness to a screeching halt, so that she might have another chance to cast the cosmic dice and be born again, perhaps into a life less tragic.

PROFESSOR

“I find it most important to ask new acquaintances whether or not they believe in the soul.” She scribbled the remainder of an equation on the blackboard and stood back to appraise her work, clapping the chalk dust from her hands.

“That’s surprising,” I said. I wouldn’t have expected so rational a mind to have any concern over such ephemeral things. “Are you weeding out the irrational or something?”

“Quite the opposite!” She turned and walked to the lectern, where her touch-terminal displayed the hidden notes for her upcoming lecture. She tapped at it and raised the lights in the auditorium. I waved from my seat. She squinted out, looking at me over her narrow glasses. “I think belief in the soul is critical to determining someone’s good character.”

“How so?” I asked. “I mean, isn’t it an unquantifiable property? How would you measure a person’s goodness by such a scale as belief?”

“My dear boy, do consider your words carefully before you speak! You tend to rush headlong without first assessing the territory you’re diving into. The question itself is rather simple when first posed: it presents only a binary solution. There is either a yes, or a no.”

“You don’t settle for ‘maybe’?”

“A maybe is as good as a no when it comes to matters of belief. Even a half-hearted and hesitant ‘yes’ is still an affirmation that, on some level, the individual entertains the possibility. You’re an engineer, correct?”

“Trying to be.”

She scoffed. “If you are devoting your energies to the improvement of the profession, both within yourself and without, then you are what you desire to be. Until and unless you should give it up for something else, you are what you do. And I would wager you spend the majority of your time dealing with the machinery of engineering. The concepts, the theories. These,” she waved her hand at the blackboard behind her, “mathematics.”

“Very well, by that definition I’m an engineer. Though not a very good one.”

“No, likely not I suppose,” she mumbled, and the PA system amplified what she’d said. “I would wager that you concern yourself very much with the mechanics of it all, yes? The cold science. The rules by which you might construct a framework of operation, something to carry you forward in your burgeoning career, a scaffold or ladder that you can climb to whatever heights will satisfy your need for achievement.”

I stopped to think before opening my mouth. She was right, of course, and I would have rushed to acknowledge it, but she’d wanted me to demonstrate some thoughtfulness and so I tried to fake it. “Yes, when put as plainly as that, it’s hard to deny. But who isn’t like that?”

“No one with half a brain, I would suppose. But the question then becomes ‘what drives you to climb’? The ladder is already built: you simply discover the rungs as you go. Keeping your head up, putting hand over hand and foot over foot, that’s the real key to advancement. But what is motivating that upward motion? We are not automatons, even in the darkest of times. Consider the factory workers who place themselves into enslavement in order to eke out a living. Their lives may seem hopeless and robotic, as though their flesh has been subjugated into the monotonous works of producing goods for a thankless consumer, but they have individual ambition all the same. To put oneself into such a predicament for the simple point of ‘being there’? Who does that? I would argue ‘no one’. It is the soul, that spark of the infinite, that measure of will.”

Again I paused to consider her words. These “lectures before the lectures” had become my favorite part of the week, and every time the old professor had bestowed some gleaming nugget of wisdom. But in previous meetings they’d all seemed practical and applicable to my field. Such discussions of the spirit confused me. “I’m confused,” I admitted.

“Then be confused! It means that your seemingly ordered mind has been thrown for a loop, and is seeking once more to settle into its humdrum paths of least resistance. It wants to be comfortable once more, and along with that comfort find complacency. Here is the gift I’m giving, and reminding you of the importance of contemplating things that may be beyond measure, beyond reckoning, contained in no formula and unprovable. My boy,” she said, turning down the house lights once more to stand in her own glowing pool, “above all things you must remain pliant, and prepared to face the unknowable. That is the true hallmark of genius, and that pursuit shows a true belief in the soul.”

RUNNER

It was cold, but that wouldn’t matter. Cold was a state of body, and she had a great deal of control over that state. It was only an issue of raising the knees higher, pushing off against the rubbery tarmac harder, and swinging the arms wider. Her breath billowed out in foamy white plumes that broke as she ran through them.

The running track was deserted, and the little valley that it sat in was as quiet as a graveyard. A low mist hung over everything, as if to accentuate the metaphor, and the highway that overlooked the training ground carried no traffic. She could easily imagine that a great apocalypse had swept the rest of humanity away, like crumbs from a dirty tabletop.

She passed the line she’d started from once more, and tapped her watch. It was the 12th time around, and she was starting to feel normal. It had been a hard week, one filled with an overbearing amount of external pressure. She’d been as diligent as possible in the removal of stressors from her own life, yet still the outside forces conspired to wreck what little spiritual balance she was able to attain. The solution had seemed simple: meditate more. Exercise more. Love more. Be more compassionate and think less of herself whenever possible, instead substituting those selfish feelings with ones that focused on caring for others. Yet the more she tried to restore balance, the harder the world at large tried her patience.

She felt something give away inside of her, like a black nettle that had lodged itself in her heart falling free, blown into her backdraft and carried away to rot somewhere else. It was that penultimate wave of endorphins, bestowing upon her the preternatural calm that comes with distance running and pushing the physical self to its limits. She sighed, and the run became meditation, and she drifted away. As she slipped further into the unconscious realm of release, part of her wondered why she was so alone in her efforts.