A curious little songbird cocks its head as I place a box of unopened letters on the Palladio stone table. It’s morning here at the Evergarden. The sun has begun to rise, casting radial lines of warm light that reach just over arched hedges, clipping pastel-colored flowers along the cobblestone paths.
I’ve wandered this place for what feels like years. I’ve seen many trees, flowers and stones, but never another person nor an end to this vast space. No matter how far I walked the day before, each morning begins at the same stone table, with the same curious bird, in the same warm light, and with the same pain that this box of letters brings. Although these letters will certainly involve people I used to know and love, the pain doesn’t come from love—at least not anymore. No, not from love, but from gridlock, born from the fear of uncertainty. It’s an odd thing, knowing nothing about your home. What I do know is that significant outcomes are usually the consequence of significant circumstances. Whatever led to the creation of this place and to my inhabiting it cannot be insignificant. And I don’t know if it’s worse to continue spending my days wandering this endless landscape without purpose, or to pay for answers with sorrow and heartbreak that will stay with me until the end of time. I want to know the why of it, but . . . the why could be too much.
Maybe finding a new path today will help. I bid the bird farewell and begin walking toward some high arches in the distance.
The Evergarden is evergreen and ever in bloom. It has 256 different species of flower, each frozen in time at its blossom’s peak. There are 128 species of trees, 64 species of luscious grass with interleaved blades, and 32 types of stone.
Massive stone structures find themselves in the company of deep green vines, which, in turn, intertwine with the bright foliage that rests along the steel arbor trellises. Everything is in perfect order, as if an artist had painted directly onto reality.
Rounding the corner of a brick wall, I spot a patch of chrysanthemums nestled against a stone pergola. The chrysanthemums are my favorite. When I was a young girl, I would walk with my mother and father in our garden, where purple, white, and yellow chrysanthemums lined the stone wall. We would each pick one and sit there in the afternoon, counting the petals to see whose bloom had the most. The purple ones always did.
Sometimes my father would keep the petals after we counted. He always seemed to collect organic bits from around our garden and house. He was the chief research scientist at his company, NData Medical Technologies, and always studied other species’ secrets of life. There’s a lot we can learn from these beings, Naomi. Some would say they have figured out living better than we have. Many of them have unique properties that can help people like us live longer lives, and who wouldn’t want to live a longer, healthier life if they could?
A longer, healthier life. This made me think of Finely, our pet goldfish, who, after an out-of-tank near-death experience left him without much (any) perceptive ability, had managed to reach an astonishing 40 years of age, kept alive by a special food bioengineered by my father. Finely definitely lived a longer life, but not so much a healthier one.
One day in our garden, the warm sun felt too hot, and the stone path felt too hard under my feet. I grabbed onto my mother, feeling almost too exhausted to stand.
“Oh honey, you look flushed! Why don’t we sit at the patio under some shade?” said my mother as she placed the back of her hand on my forehead.
She helped me back to a seat under the covered patio. Soon after that, my father brought several flowers for us to count. I tried to count the petals, but my eyes wouldn’t focus, and I saw too many of them.
My father said, “Don’t worry, Naomi, it’s just a little heat exhaustion. Once you feel better, we can spend the whole day out there and even plant new flowers.”
I had no idea that day would never come.
Over the next few days, my condition worsened. I felt hot all the time, not just in the sun, and my legs felt shaky everywhere, not just on the stone path. I couldn’t even make it out of bed, much less to the patio. I felt . . . frail.
My father’s company employed some of the best doctors in the world and had access to cutting-edge diagnostic equipment (some of which were unavailable to the public), so he wasted no time turning my room into a space-age medical laboratory. The familiar warm lamp light in my room was now overpowered by the bright glow of equipment screens dotted with the colors of various LEDs. I could see the machines react to every movement, every breath I took, every heartbeat. They were like a living extension of myself, with every bodily signal being tracked and analyzed in real-time.
Being a child at the time, I hadn’t really thought past what a drag this was. I only thought about how much I hated being in bed all day and how, once I was better, I would tell my friends about how I had been so sick that I almost died. But then I’d tell them how my father, the smart doctors, and all the fancy equipment saved me. I thought about this the way a child would: like part of a plotline in some movie. I wasn’t thinking about actually dying.
That all started to change the following week. None of the tests or medications seemed to help. I could feel myself getting worse. I couldn’t eat anything, and just thinking about food, even the special treats my mother would bring, would cause waves of nausea to wash over me. Every time I tried to move, I felt like some old machine with all its gears and hinges rusted in place, howling with squeals and shrieks as it struggled to start up. My thoughts shifted from impatience and what I would do after getting better to being scared of getting worse. What if you never get better? This question would sometimes creep into my mind, and I would shut my eyes as hard as I could and shake my head to get rid of it.
One day, I remember hearing the muffled sounds of an argument at the foot of my bed as my awareness stumbled through a hazy fog of lethargy. I could barely make out what they were saying. Rapidly progressing . . . alternative . . . dangerous . . . must be explored. Then, and I’m not sure if it was hours or seconds later, I heard the front door slam, and I saw my father storm past my window to his car.
Sometime later, I awoke to my father placing a bunch of stickers all over my head, each with a clear wire attached to it that was almost as thin as a strand of hair. He moved quickly but with the jittery energy of someone who hasn’t slept in days.
“. . . Dad” I groaned, as both question and acknowledgment.
“Just hold on for me, baby. Almost done,” he said. “There we are. Bill? Bill, are we up and running? Yes? Ok, Naomi, I’m going to ask you a bunch of questions. Ok, sweetie? Now don’t worry about the answers being right or wrong. Just say whatever you think of first, ok?”
He held up a picture. It was of himself.
“Who is this?” he asked.
“That’s you, Daddy!” I said.
“Very good. Now, what is the first story about me you can think of?”
I told a story about how Mother and I had cooked a special breakfast together all morning for him one Father’s Day, but I accidentally used cayenne pepper instead of black pepper. His face got red and sweaty with every bite, but he ate it anyway so I wouldn’t feel bad.
“Very good, sweetheart. Now, how about this one?”
We went through different pictures for a long time. Some triggered happy memories, others sad, and some were related to scary dreams I had. We also solved school problems and did quizzes. Some strained my brain, like quickly saying the color of letters which spelled different colors (the word “blue” written in red crayon, for example). On one of the machines, I saw a three-dimensional image of my brain. As we went through the questions, I watched as different sections lit up, and pairs of numbers that looked like coordinates were recorded in a table on one side of the screen.
“Did I do ok, Daddy?” I asked as I watched my father’s eyes dart around, lost in the data.
“You’re perfect, Naomi,” he said without looking away from the screen. “Now, you should get some rest.”
I hardly saw my father over the next few days. I heard him drive up to the house but not come inside. I remember seeing my mother stand outside with a worried look in her eyes as my father walked past carrying two big bags, leaving a flurry of chrysanthemum petals in his wake.
One evening, I stirred awake to muted yelling outside my room. It was my parents. You can’t . . . lose you both . . . have to try. Then the front door slammed shut, rattling the house, which shot me out of the hazy fog into cold awareness. After the sound of my father’s car faded away, all I could hear was my mother weeping. She stood outside my room for a long time.
“Mommy?” I called out. It must have startled her as she drew in a sharp breath. I can still remember the sound of it, the sharp, sudden inhale of someone being ripped out of an entire lifetime of emotions they just experienced but did not have the chance to process. After a minute, the door slowly opened, and she came in and sat on the bed.
“Naomi, honey, I . . . need to talk to you.”
I remember her eyes were puffy, illuminated by the soft glow of blue LEDs as though the equipment was trying to help tell a story of despair.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked.
My mother looked down at my hand as she held it.
“He . . . something has come up with his work, and . . .” she looked up at me. “He has to go away for a while.”
I felt completely frozen. I could feel the blood drain from my face, and my hands turned cold.
My initial shock sank into the depths of the large pit in my stomach, making room for fear. Thoughts flew through my mind at a rate I could not control. Why was he really leaving? Did he know I would die and couldn’t bear to be around when it happened? He just . . . gave up? What’s going to happen to me? I started to hyperventilate; the escalating hums and beeps of the equipment echoed my panic.
“Breathe, Naomi. It’s going to be ok,” said my mother, adjusting one of the dials on a machine. My reaction seemed to snap her out of her own anguish.
My breathing calmed, but tears began streaming down my cheeks.
I asked, “Is he leaving because he . . . thinks I’m going to die?”
My mother winced with a pang of sadness that stabbed to a depth I may never truly understand. She looked down for a moment as she took a deep breath, her bottom lip quivering, and then met my eyes with a resolute gaze.
“Sweetie, you are not going to die. We’re still just trying to figure out how to make you better, and your father’s trip may be able to help with that. He’s doing it for you, Naomi. He would do anything for you, and so would I. We both love you so much.” Mother’s voice wavered as tears of her own pockmarked the bedsheet. “Now, please, try to get some rest. The medicine should be kicking in.”
The days felt different after my father left. They felt . . . indistinguishable, like frames of film blurred at the edges to the point where you can’t tell where one ends, and the next begins. Doctors seemed to float around in my bleary state of existence. Their movements were choppy, like random pages missing from a flipbook.
At some point, the gyrations of doctors and colors began to settle, like how water swirled in a glass comes to a rest. I remember everyone standing around my bed, and then, suddenly, they were gone, except for my mother, who held a bright purple and white chrysanthemum. She smiled and sat down on the bed like she had the night she told me my father had left, except she looked tranquil, and her eyes held a steady gaze of adoration. She placed the flower in my hands.
“This one is for you, Naomi. Let’s count the petals together.”
Each number she spoke sounded more distant than the last as the light in the room started to fade away from the edges, leaving only the brilliance of the flower, shimmering as if under the warm sunlight in our garden. I began to walk toward the flower, following Mother’s voice, which slipped further away until it was a distant echo.
I return to the table at the Evergarden, where I am once again greeted by the little blue bird. I take the first envelope out of the box, open it, and remove the letter. My heart starts to crawl into my throat.
If you are reading this, then you have made it to the place I call the Evergarden: the best parts of our home garden, scaled up to a large, beautiful place where a lifetime of discovery waits.
I am so sorry I had to leave, but I could think of no other way to save you. After we exhausted every conventional treatment method to no effect, your illness was deemed terminal. I considered this a valid assessment in the realm of conventional treatment, but as a medical professional, I have never limited myself to this realm. The need to shift from conventional to unconventional was clear, and so I began searching for other solutions.
My company was in the early phases of experimental research into transferring the data and behavioral tree of mammalian brains into a virtual environment where the subject could continue life with all their memories and personality traits intact. It is the chance to live forever and still feel like you.
I started to map all the addresses of stored memories in your mind and model your emotional and behavioral circuitry. This process went extremely well, and we were confident we had enough information about your brain to successfully locate your stored memories for extraction and build a model that would emulate your personality and decision-making logic; we had your behavior and a map of your data.
The only piece we had not solved was the actual transfer of memory data. In every test prior, extensive inflammation of the subject’s brain would cause data corruption of both the transferred and remaining portions of the data, manifesting false memories and aggressive behavior. A vegetative state and, ultimately, death then followed.
We worked day and night to figure out how to transfer the data while maintaining its integrity throughout the process, again exhausting all conventional methods.
One evening in the lab, I noticed a tingling sensation on some of my fingers. I had been deep in thought, unconsciously fiddling with something in my pocket. Chrysanthemum petals. I discovered the sensation was due to compounds in Chrysanthemum indicum, which contain anti-inflammatory properties different from those of typical steroidal and non-steroidal drugs. I wondered if a concentrated form of the extract, if potent enough, could be used to keep the swelling at a level that would not interfere with the transfer process. I gathered as many of the purple chrysanthemums from our garden as I could and formulated an incredibly potent compound.
I was confident in this new approach; however, the problem of testing it remained. Advancing studies to the human testing stage would take a long time, and we could not afford to wait. At the same time, I could not bear the thought of the potential side effects corrupted data would create for you. I had to be sure it would work, so I decided to test it on myself. Telling your mother that I would not be coming back was the hardest thing in the world, but this was the only way I could be sure.
As you now know, the test was a success. However, there was another complication. Because there was no time to accurately model my behavior, only the data of my memories were transferred, which you have here in these letters. This essentially means that I am a read-only dataset that you cannot interact with, but in an effort to still be relevant in your later years, I spent my final days thinking about what our family’s life together would have been and the strong person you are and will continue to be. I hope you still feel like a part of me is with you, not just as a record of the past but also as a companion in the future.
When her time comes, your mother will join us, and I look forward to the day when we can count the petals on the flowers in our garden.
I love you with all my heart,
I fold the letter and place it back into the box. Although I now know the tears on my face are produced by an emotional algorithm, they still feel real as a gentle breeze dries them, cooling my skin. I look up at the bird, which in turn cocks its head. And just as I begin to think about this as rudimentary programmed behavior, a gust of manufactured wind carries a soft howl from the distance, which the bird immediately turns to and flies away. As it disappears into the orange light, guided by song, the feeling of hope from knowing it might find who it’s been waiting for fades away into a terrible awareness.