Katabasis

April 2015

Resurrection just isn’t what it used to be. You don’t need a golden lyre or a silver tongue or wings that buffet life. All it takes is a consent form, an MRI, and a wire transfer the size of your mortgage.


I’ve been thinking about our history class, Ben, where we met. You sat in front of me on our first day and just before class you swung around, slapped both hands on the back of your chair, flashed me your charming, gap-toothed smile and said, “Well, Steven, it’s just you, me, and all these girls.” You winked. “Aren’t you glad you took Classic Mythology?”

It’s cute to remember. Back then you still pretended to like girls. I’m sure I grinned like an idiot when you introduced yourself because before that I didn’t think you knew my name.

I keep thinking about my final essay, the one you wrote for me, with the three ancient myths about raising the dead: Norse, Egyptian, Greek. You said that in mythology those things that come up again and again are the things people care about most. I don’t buy it. If they cared so much then why do all their stories end so bad?

At least in mythology people get to die well — nobly in battle or by some grand, terrible betrayal. They never die of quiet, stupid, out-of-nowhere things like pneumonia.


Norse: The gods agreed to bring Baldr back if all the world would mourn. All cried out in grief for him, all except for one.


I was all cried out by the time your parents came by our house, a week after your funeral. They shoved a potted hibiscus into my hands and settled on our couch across from me, gazes down, arms intertwined.

Your dad spoke first. “We’re considering some post-mortem services — we’ll cover the expense.” He took a tri-fold pamphlet out of his breast pocket, and with two careful fingers slid it across the coffee table toward me. “The advances in artificial neural networks have been incredible. We would really like to see what they can offer.” He paused. “But we need spousal consent.”

I remembered seeing those pamphlets fanned out over the guest sign-in table at the funeral home. The logo for “Renaissance Laboratories” was a happy blue, bookended by cartoonish white wings. A woman, surrounded by family, looked up at me from the cover with hollow eyes.

I felt bad for your parents, but I said I’d have to think about it. They pressed their lips into long, flat lines, then got up and left. I sat there for hours afterwards just looking at the hibiscus plant, at its single bright indifferent bloom.

I threw out the plant but kept the pamphlet and gave my consent in the end. I’m weak, Ben. I’m not that guy who can hold out against the world. I never understood that Norse myth anyway because how can you really mourn someone if you know they’re coming back?


The waiting room at Renaissance was like any other: generically cheery pictures of sunsets and sailboats, the distant whine of machines, the faint smell of alcohol. The imaging room was white from ceiling to floor.

“Lie down here, please.” The technician waved her hand toward the bed at the gaping mouth of the MRI machine. “Now, I’m going to ask you questions designed to help you remember your husband. You don’t need to answer out loud. Just concentrate on the memories and our equipment will do the rest.”

She stuck headphones in my ears and blackout shades over my eyes. The bed hummed in my chest as it ferried me backward.

She questioned me in her flat monotone for the next few hours. How did I propose? What did we do on Saturday afternoons? Did you prefer a Windsor or a half-Windsor knot?

I tried to remember you the best I could.


Egyptian: Isis scoured Egypt for the pieces of her husband, but one was forever lost, so Osiris drifted in half-life, one foot with the living and the other foot beyond.


I was stuck in a sort of limbo, dazed and drifting day and night, in those weeks of waiting. Finally Renaissance called, asking us to come in and preview your 3D simulation. Their policy was not to build the cybernetic model until the family had had enough time to interact with the reconstructed personality.

A charming, gap-toothed, hollow face smiled out at me from the middle of the projection sphere. “Well Steven,” you-but-not-you said, “it’s nice to see you again.”

Your parents started crying. 3D Ben cocked its head, its hand on its chest, mimicking sympathy.

I left them to interact with it alone.

It was so much like you, Ben; I don’t know why it felt so wrong. But seeing it made me feel sick. How could I think my mind could hold the most important parts of you? You can’t just piece someone back together like that — that Egyptian myth makes no sense. Even if you had everything you needed, a person is more than just the sum of their parts.


Greek: Despite the gods’ commands, Orpheus looked back on Eurydice as he led her from Hades. He watched, still gripping her hand, as she faded into oblivion.


They call it Katabasis — that epic descent into the underworld, the triumphant return to life. I tried to rescue you. I failed. I took back my consent. I came back empty-handed. Just like all the rest.

But I know if I spend too much time with you-but-not-you, the real you will get hazy, even more than you have already. You’ll blend with it, then fade away. I might not even notice.

I want to look back at you, Ben, at those happy, imperfect memories. Looking back isn’t the problem; the Greek myth had it wrong. It would be so much worse to charge forward blindly, gripping your cold, dead hand, pretending that nothing has changed.

About the Author

Jen R Albert uses her day-job as an entomologist as a cover for her moonlight obsession with writing speculative fiction. In stolen moments she reads any and all science fiction and fantasy literature she can get a hold of and even plays the occasional video game. Jen lives in Toronto with her husband and one very large, very hairy German Shepherd. Find her on Twitter @jenralbert