“Ten Thousand Lives” by Bruce Holland Rogers
By the time he was twelve, his family had gone in the camper truck to see 40 of the lower 48 states. Dan had seen desert sunsets in Arizona, autumn foliage in New Hampshire, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Florida Keys. By the time he graduated from high school, his set of states was complete, including Alaska when he was 16 and Hawaii for Christmas of his senior year. He had the bug by then. He wanted to see the world. He put off college for a year to travel by bus as far south as Colombia.
Colombia! his mother said after he returned. Wasn’t it dangerous?
After college he taught social studies. Summers, he travelled. He hitched rides in Cameroon, rode hot, crowded buses in Indonesia and trains across India.
Dan enjoyed teaching, and his students liked the personal stories he told to liven up lessons. But he was happiest in the summer, travelling off the beaten path, trying to discover by gesture just what it was that someone was offering as food. Did it have legs? Did it swim? Some mysteries were never solved.
When he left a place, any place, he was leaving behind the person he could have been had he stayed behind, gone native, learned the language. Every return home was a small wound. What mutilates a man, he read somewhere, is that he imagines ten thousand lives and lives only one.
He found the cheapest way to Morocco, located a shambolic but inexpensive guest-house in Tyrolia, engineered ways to afford two months in Japan and still save for old age. He never married, never seriously considered it. The years mounted up. He retired early, while he still had his health, and wandered the world full-time.
One rainy January night, as he walked to his pension room in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto, he passed through the deserted Praça de Luis Camões with its ring of poet statues and thought of another poet of Lisbon. Dan had never read the poems of Fernando Pessoa, but no one could visit Lisbon without hearing of him and his game of making up imaginary poets. Pessoa’s alter egos were taller or shorter than him, kinder or more violent, more romantic, more despairing. For each Pessoa imagined a life and personality, and wrote poems to suit them. What mutilates a man… Genius! Pessoa had found a way to both imagine other lives and live them. Unfortunately, Dan was no poet.
The next morning, as he packed to depart for Spain, Dan couldn’t find his passport. In its place was someone else’s. Instead of the dark blue cover he expected, the passport in his travel bag was red and bore the seal of Malaysia. The face inside wasn’t his face at all. Somewhere, there must have been a mix-up. But where? He couldn’t think of how such an error could have happened. Then he noticed that the skin on the back of his hand had turned much darker.
When he looked in the mirror, the face looking back matched the passport photo. He was less alarmed than another man might have been. After the first moments of disorientation, he was actually pleased.
Here was a bigger mystery than the mere confusion of passports, yet he did not fret. He immediately realized that now he might be a man who imagined ten thousand lives and lived two. His name had become Ranjit Khoo. He could read the Malay portions of the passport.
When he called to book a flight to Kuala Lumpur instead of Spain, he was pleased by his accented English. He had seen Malaysia before, but now he would see it as a Malay.
Or so he thought. By the time his plane was touching down, he was Swiss. Well, then, he’d fly to Geneva. But by the time he called Swiss International, he was Australian.
It seemed he would always be an outsider now. His passport never matched his itinerary. He didn’t care. It was just as interesting to see London as a Brazilian, to tour Africa as a Japanese.
His changing face, name, and nationality complicated some of his travels. He was held for three days at the Damascus airport with his Israeli passport , but at least his trouble arose as he was coming into the country. It would have been worse if he’d been trying to leave and had no explanation for how he’d gotten in. He was deported back to Frankfurt. He fared no better when he flew out of Helsinki as an Italian but landed in New York as a Nigerian without a visa.
All in all, his life was pretty much the life he would have wished for, had he ever thought to wish for it. He was a citizen of the world and was the happiest he had ever been right up until the day of the hijacking in Chad when his passport changed at a bad time. It changed again as he died of the gunshot wound. The hijackers were all killed in the subsequent storming of the plane, and it remained a mystery to the authorities why the gunmen had chosen to execute a citizen of Cape Verde, and why none of the surviving passengers could recognize the man’s face.
|Stories by Bruce Holland Rogers have won Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, and have been translated into over two dozen languages. He will travel to Japan this year for story research on a Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission Fellowship. He teaches writing at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.|