The Last Dead
Johnson, Drew, The Virginia Quarterly Review
1. Koyashi Kumiko
Every schoolchild knows this story.
Of how Koyashi Kumiko set out from home one fall morning on her daily run and was thinking about hardly anything at all. About her two children and whether it was worthwhile to insist that her daughter continue with the violin when it was such a stereotypically Japanese thing to do. Maybe the French horn, or no instrument of any kind. It didn't have to be done: she didn't have to be musical: there was a choice.
And afterward Dr. Koyashi could never say just what the point of departure was, only that somewhere in between the rhythm of her footfalls and the patterns of her heart and lungs, she began to think again on questions that were themselves the outline of her research career. They came to her as they always did, but this time they formed slightly differently and led her down a different path. Literally, as a matter of fact; she was a literal woman, and unimaginative, and she kept running as she followed her thoughts, watching only the blacktop just in front of her. The path her feet followed turned from blacktop to gravel, and then the gravel trailed away. Afraid to stop, or turn around, she ran across a field toward the sound of cars but was unable to reach them-still thinking, still only thinking. Running, only running, she ran until the dark came down around her, lost.
The man in the cabin on the hill could have been any kind of a man, could have been an unblinking monster; perhaps he should have been. Then Koyashi would simply have seemed to vanish. But the man in the cabin had a soft straw-colored beard going white on the chin, and he listened to her try to speak out of a mind that had been plumbing the depths all the livelong day. She got out her name while he coaxed, one diplomatic hand on her arm. She got out her husband's name. Then her children's names, then where she lived, and, at last, a phone number, which he called, summoning her worried husband to come.
Her husband came, and before she gave him a word of his own, she demanded pen and paper, so that nothing from her racing mind might be lost.
For some time, science, and parts of the general public, had known that aging, and even death, were printed into the genetic code: the body tells itself to fail and to die. Many knew, too, that outside this programmed decline, there was what might be called a hard limit, past which the capacity to renew cells and prevent general decline failed of its own accord, the living matter simply exhausted, like a juiced orange. This hard limit, a holy grail for researchers, was estimated to be at about five thousand years.
It was this that Koyashi had written down before she explained to her husband and daughters why she was sweat-soaked and cut on the legs by briars and had to be retrieved from a stranger's cabin-fifteen miles away as the crow flies. Yet she had missed nothing and was in no place mistaken. In continuous elegance and in every varied implication all of it spooled out, every number and symbol, line and letter.
If Koyashi's genetic therapy had been a shade less brilliant or complete, if all that were living had still been born to die, then things might have been all right. The generations already upon the earth would have had to accept that they must go quietly and leave the world-and births would now have to be regulated, that went without saying-to the small perpetual generation to be born, the truly chosen.
But Koyashi was inarguably a genius and her therapy was retroactive and desperately cheap and impossible to keep secret. The result was a free-for-all in some absolute sense of the term. There was no possibility of coherent governmental response, and on the matter of death almost no individual is reasonable. The pope himself took the therapy, provided (and published, in Latin) tortuous reasoning of how this was actually a very Catholic thing to do, and blessed those who did in a widely ridiculed open-air mass at St. …