Brief Lives is, in its plot, mostly transitional: it gets the characters moving and introduces us to people who will, I expect, be important along the way, but nothing quite begins or ends here.
What we get in this chapter are glimpses and hints, suggestions of much beyond the immediate. The suggestions begin right from the first page, which reveals that not only are there more extremely long-lived people walking the streets of the world than we might have previously presumed, but Earth is not the only planet open to the Sandman’s wanderings — the first panel shows a view of space and the second sentence begins with the phrase, “Even on this planet,” which points not only to other planets, but other planets where there is a sense of time and history, for the sentence continues on to talk of ages and years. Later, when Dream visits Mr. Farrell/Pharamond, the travel agent asks, “You’ll be staying on Earth, then? Nothing off-planet? Or off-plane?”
We’ve known of other planes of reality, of course, from early in The Sandman, but the notion of the Endless or anyone else having access to other planets is not one that I remember being emphasized before. The gravitational force shaping the realms of the Endless and other not-exactly-human characters seemed to be the histories and mythologies of Earth. There was a sense of an infinite amount of possibilities and realities, of stories stretching from here to neverland, of dreams making reality polyphonic and multiversed — but despite all that, there has still seemed to be a universe, singular, and the concerns of The Sandman within that universe so far have been geocentric.
Interestingly, the long-lived people are called “the old ones” in the last sentence of the first page, three words sure to evoke Lovecraft for many readers, and yet these old ones seem at least as different from Cthulhu’s spawn as Gaiman’s Sandman is different from Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s. The gentle allusion serves to open up the universe to us, though, because Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness gives a cosmic history to the Elder Things. Dreams, let’s not forget, were important in Lovecraft’s fiction. “The Call of Cthulhu” contains a strange and marvelous sentence: “In the elder time chosen men had talked with the entombed Old Ones in dreams, but then something had happened.”
What do aliens dream?
It’s a tantalizing thought — dreaming aliens! — but one we have no evidence to continue with yet in The Sandman. (What, exactly, does alien even mean within The Sandman? A particularly obsessive literary linguist might make a dissertation from that question; myself, I’ll just adopt a wait-and-see attitude.)
On page five, Death addresses Bernie Capax, one of the old ones, at the moment his long life ends: “You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less. You got a lifetime.”
It’s a statement that sounds like a motto, something that could, perhaps, be emblazoned on the cover of a book called Brief Lives, but it’s hardly comforting. Birth and death provide boundaries, but much as we might like their simple, blunt facts to be meaningful, meaning comes from the space between.
As a teacher, I have known more parents who have lost children than I might have otherwise, and were I to have one wish that could alter the laws of nature, it would be that parents never outlive their children. There is a remarkable strength in all of the surviving parents I have known, a strength I fear I would not have in their place, though of course none of us can predict how such disaster would affect us. Each of the parents I have known who has lost a child, of whatever age, has worked against the sorrow and anger of loss by extolling the meaning of the life they created, for though the life itself was ended, the meaning could continue. Memory produced the meaning: memory of generosity, memory of resilience, memory of wit and humor, memory of a smile. A memory in a tear.
Memory combats mortality. Nothing may be eternal, but we don’t really need anything to be eternal: we just need what matters to last long enough to help us get through the day.
On an airplane, the Sandman meets a little girl who knows how to fly in her dreams, but wonders why she always forgets when she wakes up. “When you dream,” he says to her, “sometimes you remember. When you wake, you always forget.”
“But that’s not fair,” she says. He doesn’t reply, and in the next panel he and Delirium are instructed to walk through a door marked “No exit,” like a play by Sartre. All the other passengers continue through life, but Dream and Delirium aren’t alive in the same way, and there’s no way for them to get out.
It’s not fair that we always forget how to fly when we wake up from dreams. It’s not fair that parents sometimes outlive their children. Fairness and life don’t have much to say to each other.
Delirium often searches for single words to convey complex ideas, and she fails until, on the last page, she says, “There must be a word for it … the thing that lets you know time is happening. Is there a word?” Yes, there is. Dream knows it, and it’s the last word of this chapter: “Change.”
Change defines our sense of time, and time is essential to our understanding of history and of stories: one thing after another. The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, in a fragment attributed to him (translated by Guy Davenport), “History is a child building a sand-castle by the sea, and that child is the whole majesty of man’s power in the world.”
Change gives us time, and time makes all lives brief, because time is a perspective. Jeffrey Ford’s story “The Annals of Eelin-Ok” is a kind of elaboration of Heraclitus’s fragment: the story of a species whose lives are, by our standards, very brief indeed, for they are lives bounded by the creation and dissolution of sand-castles. It’s one of the most beautiful and wondrous stories I know, because it is our story, too.
Time is happening. Lives are brief. Lifetimes are what we have. Remember.
And build more sand-castles.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.