ORbits presents a selection of stories which made the shortlist of the Oxonian Review Short Story Competition, 2013. We begin with Timna Fibert’s ‘My Life Without Breathing.’
Underwater there is a thing that I call The Deathless Moment, that creeps up on you when the memory of noise has become a static image and you regress to pre-reality, resealing the membrane of suspended time. In that Moment, when there is no hope of communication or self-expression, when you are alone in the perpetual half light and the sun bends its fingers, struggling, down to uproot you, you reach the spot of unmeaning at the heart of reality. It rises to meet you in the brooding depths as though from the mouth of some monstrous sea-creature, a bubble filled with nothing, somehow realising and containing itself by the sheer, baffling fact of its emptiness. And as it hovers for a moment in front of you it trembles from the pressure of your perception, trembles but does not burst. It hovers in front of you and you observe it as you might an eagle that alights, unafraid, on the ground before you, and looks into your eyes with all the majesty of meaninglessness. And then it passes and bursts when it reaches the surface, so that you are left trying to understand why you cannot understand, trying to define the nothingness by its outline. But it is gone, and you return to the surface and soon forget.
19th of June, 1997. We are three children and it is summer. Our parents on the bank are talking about holidays abroad, perhaps a little bored by the pastoral idyll, perhaps lulled by the hazy knowledge that the present is never worth talking about. Against the algy on the rocks, our feet are naked and slippery. I hold my breath and I am underneath it all. I can see the faces of my two brothers above me constantly reconstituted by the water, I can see their stick-legs clammy and green, crisply intruding on its ubiquity. I wonder idly whether I am dead, whether I will ever die and I think fearlessly about death, and in that moment I am born, for it is the first time my mortality has ever had an opposite. Living is simply the absence of death, an impossible state of chaos straddled by equilibrium. It is defined by what it is not. So as I hold my breath and watch the trappings of my young being contorting above me, I am confronted for the first time by the Deathless Moment, which holds non-existence up to me as a mirror. I do not look away. No longer ‘we’, but ‘I’, I am alone on the oxygen-free planet of consciousness, not because I am unique but because they are part of the ‘not me’ that constitutes my edges. Those strange green legs, the banalities of adulthood, perhaps even my own body, they have shape, they have order, and so they are Other, they have a role as the chambers through which the intangible winds of existence blow, ineffectually raging against a perpetually solid reality. I break the membrane of the water and pant under the oppressive stability of sunlight.
Life is defined by these moments, when we feel suddenly how alien it is to think in the sheer cold inhumanity of the universe. Moments of oblivion, when your consciousness is blasted into fragments and reorganized into new forms that sit uncomfortably in your chest, as though someone else’s heart were beating a path through the labyrinth of your biology.
29th of August, 2010. I lead him by the hand to the side of the water and we take off our clothes slowly, with a kind of absurd ceremony. It is almost dawn, and the delicate stars tingle on the cusp of invisibility, about to be overcome by the sun. Poor things, they are only its absence. Stay a while longer, I will them wordlessly, pitying them, loving them for their gentle failure. We wade into the water and I turn towards him, his face darkened by shadow. He could be anyone. And I, kissing him, could I not also? For a moment, selfishly, I question our existence under the fading stars, I question our lives and what I mean and what he means and what we mean together, and I am overcome by questions that I can only answer in isolation, and yet I feel, with an anticipation that burns my throat, that isolation must end here, in the apocalyptic dying of the night as the two of us come together in defiance of loneliness, as one. When he is no longer outside and defining me but inside and part of me, and we have a context for all the individual chaos that rages within us, in each other. Perhaps for a moment we will be initiated into the secret of the Deathless Moment, perceiving it in unison and then forgetting it when apart, left with only an aching feeling of the untogether, the taste but not the memory of meaning burning in our consciousness. I hold my breath.
February 2nd, 2055. I am old. Other people have left me to die, but I cannot accept their definition of death. I must find my own.
I am looking now at a great grey ocean, covered over with heavy clouds, carpeting the sky with malcontent. I take off my wedding ring. In the end, we all die alone. That was what they said, although I hadn’t wanted to believe them. My mind slips around the idea of death like two positive poles of a magnet. This time I do not undress, but enter the water fully clothed, like a baptism.
I have been swimming for thousands of years away from that dark beach, towards the bent horizon. My skin, paper-thin, dry, ancient as leaves, is shrivelled from the water. Shall I die for them? Shall I die and end all of this, and end all of them? Without me, they cannot go on existing; they are my other. I define them. We cannot exist apart, and I can no longer exist.
All these years, I have thought of my own existence. Now, in the middle of the ocean (the land has disappeared) I will come to accept permanently the impossibility of myself. When I free myself from the ugliness of living, of squalid digestion, regurgitation, excretion, I will confront the nothingness that I have seen only a few times in my life, tranquil and vacuous as an oasis in the overwhelming specificity of my life. I haven’t any strength left. The sky has disappeared, and there is only water, pressing in on me, claiming me for oblivion. And there it is, hovering before me, I can see it, closer and larger than I have ever seen it before, coming towards me, parting the waters like a nautilus with its emptiness. So close that my nose is almost touching it, and although my whole pitiful body is screaming in the agony of death I meet it, ultimately, in the depths…
My life without breathing is beautiful. It is beautiful because breathlessness extracts from you routine and banality and ugliness, it leaves you alone with the core of your being, pulsing, close to death, more alive than ever before because you are looking not through the lens of life but the lens of death. And those beautiful things, they become immortal because you cease to measure them with your breath, you cease to decay in front of them because you have accepted death, acknowledged it, and its centrality to the nebulousness of your being. It creates the vacuum by defining its limits. In the Deathless Moment, when you stop defining life by itself, when you stop understanding the chaos in terms of chaos, you are faced briefly and eternally with beauty, and you know not to understand it, because understanding is unimportant. We live always in the presence of death. From it we find all the order and meaning in existence. Do not forget death. It is the only way to live.
Timna Fibert  is reading for a BA in English Literature from St Anne’s College, Oxford.