It is the story of John Auden and the Faioli, and no one knows it better than I. Listen
It happened on that evening, as he strolled (for there was no reason not to stroll) in his favorite places in the whole world, that he saw the Faioli near the Canyon of the Dead, seated on a rock, her wings of light flickering, flickering, flickering and then gone, until it appeared that a human girl was sitting there, dressed all in white and weeping, with long black tresses coiled about her waist.
He approached her through the terrible light from the dying, half-dead sun, in which human eyes could not distinguish distances nor grasp perspectives properly (though his could), and he lay his right hand upon her shoulder and spoke a word of greeting and of comfort.
It was as if he did not exist, however. She continued to weep, streaking with silver her cheeks the color of snow or a bone. Her almond eyes looked forward as though they saw through him, and her long fingernails dug into the flesh of her palms, though no blood was drawn.
Then he knew that it was true, the things that are said of the Faiolithat they see only the living and never the dead, and that they are formed into the loveliest women in the entire universe. Being dead himself, John Auden debated the consequences of becoming a living man once again, for a time.
The Faioli were known to come to a man the month before his deaththose rare men who still diedand to live with such a man for that final month of his existence, rendering to him every pleasure that it is possible for a human being to know, so that on the day when the kiss of death is delivered, which sucks the remaining life from his body, that man accepts itno, seeks it!with desire and with grace. For such is the power of the Faioli among all creatures that there is nothing more to be desired after such knowledge.
John Auden considered his life and his death, the conditions of the world upon which he stood, the nature of his stewardship and his curse and the Faioliwho was the loveliest creature he had seen in all of his four hundred thousand days of existenceand he touched the place beneath his left armpit which activated the necessary mechanism to make him live again.
· · · · ·
The creature stiffened beneath his touch, for suddenly it was flesh, his touch, and flesh, warm and woman-filled, that he was touching, now that the sensations of life had returned to him. He knew that his touch had become the touch of a man once more.
"I said 'Hello, and don't cry,' " he said, and her voice was like the breezes he had forgotten through all the trees that he had forgotten, with their moisture and their odors and their colors all brought back to him thus:
"From where do you come, man? You were not here a moment ago."
"From the Canyon of the Dead," he said.
"Let me touch your face." And he did, and she did.
"It is strange that I did not feel you approach."
"This is a strange world," he replied.
"That is true," she said. "You are the only living thing upon it."
And he said, "What is your name?"
She said, "Call me Sythia," and he did.
"My name is John," he told her, "John Auden."
"I have come to be with you, to give you comfort and pleasure," she said, and he knew that the ritual was beginning.
"Why were you weeping when I found you?" he asked.
"Because I thought there was nothing upon this world, and I was so tired from my travels," she told him. "Do you live near here?"
"Not far away," he answered. "Not far away at all."
"Will you take me there? To the place where you live?"
And she rose and followed him into the Canyon of the Dead, where he made his home.
They descended and they descended, and all about them were the remains of people who once had lived. She did not seem to see these things, however, but kept her eyes fixed upon John's face and her hand upon his arm.
"Why do you call this place the Canyon of the Dead?" she asked him.
"Because they are all about us here, the dead," he replied.
"I feel nothing."
They crossed through the Valley of the Bones, where millions of the dead from many races and worlds lay stacked all about them, and she did not see these things. She had come to the graveyard of all the worlds, but she did not realize this thing. She had encountered its tender, its keeper, and she did not know what he was, he who staggered beside her like a man drunken.
John Auden took her to his homenot really the place where he lived, but it would be nowand there he activated ancient circuits within the building within the mountain. In response light leaped forth from the walls, light he had never needed before, but now required.
The door slid shut behind them, and the temperature built up to a normal warmth. Fresh air circulated. He took it into his lungs and expelled it, glorying in the forgotten sensation. His heart beat within his breast, a red warm thing that reminded him of the pain and of the pleasure. For the first time in ages, he prepared a meal and fetched a bottle of wine from one of the deep, sealed lockers. How many others could have borne what he had borne?
She dined with him, toying with the food, sampling a bit of everything, eating very little. He, on the other hand, glutted himself fantastically, and they drank of the wine and were happy.
"This place is so strange," she said. "Where do you sleep?"
"I used to sleep in there," he told her, indicating a room he had almost forgotten; and they entered and he showed it to her, and she beckoned him toward the bed and the pleasures of her body.
That night he loved her, many times, with a desperation that burnt away the alcohol and pushed all of his life forward with something like a hunger, but more.
The following day, when the dying sun had splashed the Valley of the Bones with its pale, moonlike light, he awakened and she drew his head to her breast, not having slept herself, and she asked him, "What is the thing that moves you, John Auden? You are not like one of the men who live and who die, but you take life almost like one of the Faioli, squeezing from it everything that you can and pacing it at a tempo that bespeaks a sense of time no man should know. What are you?"
"I am one who knows," he said. "I am one who knows that the days of a man are numbered and one who covets their dispositions as he feels them draw to a close."
"You are strange," said Sythia. "Have I pleased you?"
"More than anything else I have ever known," he said.
And she sighed, and he found her lips once again.
· · · · ·
They breakfasted, and that day they walked in the Valley of the Bones. He could not distinguish distances nor grasp perspectives properly, and she could not see anything that had been living and now was dead. So, of course, as they sat there on a shelf of stone, his arm about her shoulders, he pointed out to her the rocket which had just come down from out of the sky, and she squinted after his gesture. He indicated the robots, which had begun unloading the remains of the dead of many worlds from the hold of the ship, and she cocked her head to one side and stared ahead, but she did not really see what he was talking about.
Even when one of the robots lumbered up to him and held out the board containing the receipts and the stylus, and as he signed the receipt for the bodies received, she did not see or understand what it was that was occurring.
In the days that followed, his life took upon it a dreamlike quality, filled with the pleasure of Sythia and shot through with certain inevitable streaks of pain. Often, she saw him wince, and she asked him concerning his expressions.
And always he would laugh and say, "Pleasure and pain are near to one another," or something such as that.
And as the days wore on, she came to prepare the meals, and to rub his shoulders and mix his drinks and to recite to him certain pieces of poetry he had somehow once come to love.
A month. A month, he knew, and it would come to an end. The Faioli, whatever they were, paid for the life that they took with the pleasures of the flesh. They always knew when a man's death was near at hand. And in this sense, they always gave more than they received. The life was fleeing anyway, and they enhanced it before they took it, away with them, to nourish themselves most likely, price of the things that they'd given.
John Auden knew that no Faioli in the entire universe had ever met a man such as himself.
Sythia was mother-of-pearl, and her body was alternately cold and warm to his caresses, and her mouth was a tiny flame, igniting wherever it touched, with its teeth like needles and its tongue like the heart of a flower. And so he came to know the thing called love for the Faioli called Sythia.
Nothing must really happen beyond the loving. He knew that she wanted him, to use him ultimately, and he was perhaps the only man in the universe able to gull one of her kind. His was the perfect defense against life and against death. Now that he was human and alive, he often wept when he considered it.
He had more than a month to live.
He had maybe three or four.
This month, therefore, was a price he'd willingly pay for what it was that the Faioli offered.
Sythia racked his body and drained from it every drop of pleasure contained within his tired nerve cells. She turned him into a flame, an iceberg, a little boy, an old man. When they were together, his feelings were such that he considered the consolamentum as a thing he might really accept at the end of a month, which was drawing near. Why not? He knew she had filled his mind with her presence, on purpose. But what more did existence hold for him? This creature from beyond the stars had brought him every single thing a man could desire. She had baptized him with passion and confirmed him with the quietude which follows after. Perhaps the final oblivion of her final kiss was best after all.
He seized her and drew her to him. She did not understand him, but she responded.
He loved her for it, and this was almost his end.
There is a thing called disease that battens upon all living things, and he had known it beyond the scope of all living men. She could not understand, woman-thing who had known only life.
So he never tried to tell her, though with each day the taste of her kisses grew stronger and saltier, and each seemed to him a strengthening shadow, darker and darker, stranger and heavier, of that one thing which he now knew he desired most.
And the day would come. And come it did.
· · · · ·
He held her and caressed her, and the calendars of all his days fell about them.
He knew, as he abandoned himself to her ploys and the glories of her mouth, her breasts, that he had been ensnared, as had all men who had known them, by the power of the Faioli. Their strength was their weakness. They were the ultimate in Woman. By their frailty they begat the desire to please. He wanted to merge himself with the pale landscape of her body, to pass within the circles of her eyes and never depart.
He had lost, he knew. For as the days had vanished about him, he had weakened. He was barely able to scrawl his name upon the receipts proffered him by the robot who had lumbered toward him, crushing ribcages and cracking skulls with each terrific step. Briefly, he envied the thing. Sexless, passionless, totally devoted to duty. Before he dismissed it, he asked it, "What would you do if you had desire and you met with a thing that gave you all the things you wished for in the world?"
"I wouldtry tokeep it," it said, red lights blinking about its dome, before it turned and lumbered off, across the Great Graveyard.
"Yes," said John Auden aloud, "but this thing cannot be done."
Sythia did not understand him, and on that thirty-first day they returned to that place where he had lived for a month, and he felt the fear of death, strong, so strong, come upon him.
She was more exquisite than ever before, but he feared this final encounter.
"I love you," he said finally, for it was a thing he had never said before, and she kissed him.
"I know," she told him, "and your time is almost at hand, to love me completely. Before the final act of love, my John Auden, tell me a thing: What is it that sets you apart? Why is it that you know so much more of things-that-are-not-life than mortal man should know? How was it that you approached me on that first night without my knowing it?"
"It is because I am already dead," he told her. "Can't you see it when you look into my eyes?"
"I do not understand," she said.
"Kiss me and forget it," he told her. "It is better this way."
But she was curious and asked him (using the familiar for the first time), "How then dost thou achieve this balance between life and that-which-is-not-life, this thing which keeps thee conscious yet unliving?"
"There are controls set within this body I happen, unfortunately, to occupy. To touch this place beneath my left armpit will cause my lungs to cease their breathing and my heart to stop its beating. It will set into effect an installed electrochemical system, like those my robots (invisible to you, I know) possess. This is my life within death. I asked for it because I feared oblivion. I volunteered to be gravekeeper to the universe, because in this place there are none to look upon me and be repelled by my deathlike appearance. This is why I am what I am. Kiss me and end it."
But having taken the form of a woman, or perhaps being woman all along, the Faioli who was called Sythia was curious, and she said, "This place?" and she touched the spot beneath his left armpit.
· · · · ·
With this he vanished from her sight, and with this also, he knew once again the icy logic that stood apart from emotion. Because of this, he did not touch upon the critical spot once again.
Instead, he watched her as she sought for him about the place where he once had lived.
She checked into every closet and adytum, and when she could not discover a living man, she sobbed once, horribly, as she had on that night when first he had seen her. Then the wings flickered, flickered, weakly flickered, back into existence upon her back, and her face dissolved and her body slowly melted. The tower of sparks that stood before him then vanished, and later on that crazy night during which he could distinguish distances and grasp perspectives once again he began looking for her.
And that is the story of John Auden, the only man who ever loved a Faioli and lived (if you could call it that) to tell of it. No one knows it better than I.
No cure has ever been found. And I know that he walks the Canyon of the Dead and considers the bones, sometimes stops by the rock where he met her, blinks after the moist things that are not there, wonders at the judgment that he gave.
It is that way, and the moral may be that life (and perhaps love also) is stronger than that which it contains, but never that which contains it. But only a Faioli could tell you for sure, and they never come here any more.