BY PETER A. GRAMAZIO
“Immortality!” The words dripped from Cassandra’s lips as she explained her cause to Hugo. This was the passion, the desire, Cassandra had been known for all of her life; it would drive her, consume her, and- if the tone in her voice was any indication -she would not stop until the subject of it was hers. Cassandra was always the strong one, the healthier of two sisters born of entrepreneurial parents who had been pioneers in the field of real estate. “Imagine it, Hugo! Everlasting life free from sickness or disease.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Hugo sighed resignedly. Cassandra was obsessed with whatever it took to prolong her life, from diets to exercise routines to organic cleanses. She had not always been so dedicated to a cause; she had been carefree once. Cassandra Whitehall was known for reckless behavior within the circles of up-and-coming socialites. She had little regard not only for herself, but for whoever her behavior happened to affect. Her twin sister, Arial, was the balance for Cassandra’s lifestyle. They were inseparable, two sides of the same coin: Cassandra often frolicking with the “bad boys” of the upper class, while Arial’s smile and down-to-earth mannerisms brought in the contractors and working-class boys. Everything they did was orchestrated in tandem; a synchronous dance that made each of them whole.
That was, until Arial was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Hugo remembered that day in October of 2001. Arial had returned home from New York City, released from Mount Sinai hospital where she had been treated for injuries sustained in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Cassandra was overjoyed at her return, not that that impeded her reckless behavior in the slightest way. Cassandra whimsically proclaimed that they were invincible, that nothing could stop them.
When Arial told her in a somber voice that she had contracted a cancer from inhaling the debris, and that it was terminal, Cassandra laughed it off. She told Arial that they would go to a “real doctor” and he would tell Arial the truth: that the Mount Sinai doctors were wrong and that Arial was fine.
Cassandra’s reaction when they returned to the manor would stand out in Hugo’s mind forever. The shocked look on her face when the doctors told her that chemotherapy was not an option, that the cancer was terminal. Arial smiled and bore the news stoically, even unto death, but Cassandra wouldn’t accept it. Her socialite life fell apart as Arial got weaker, and Cassandra waited on her hand and foot until the moment Arial breathed her last.
The funeral had been aa closed casket; Arial had wasted away to but a shadow of her former self. Hugo tenderly recalled the painful moment when they had lowered the casket into the earth, and Cassandra had thrown herself atop it, tears streaming from her eyes and a heartbreaking sob escaping her lips.
That day, Hugo reminisced, a portion of Cassandra was put to rest as well.
“Are you listening to me?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Snapping out of his reverie, Hugo continued to dust the shelves and tidy up the library in the manor where Cassandra had spent hours rifling through various texts and documents. “I think that would be a grand idea, however the very concept of immortality is fanciful and in the realms of science fiction.”
“There are ways to become immortal, Hugo,” Cassandra said, sipping from a glass of wine. “You just have to know where to look.”
“And despite your best efforts Madame Cassie, and all of this laborious research, have you found any?”
“Don’t call me that. Cassie and gone. She’s dead and buried with Arial.”
“Very well, ma’am,” Hugo sighed, and then continued to make his point. “The library left to you by your dearly departed parents has done nothing but cause you to suffer a lack of sleep and an overabundance of headaches.”
“I’ve learned some things in this tomb,” Cassandra retorted. “There was a text that gave me some idea as to what immortality is, and for Arial’s sake, I will have it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” was all Hugo could say. Looking at Cassandra, who was in the best physical and mental shape she had ever been in, he could not help but think her mad with grief. Despite her efforts to change, Hugo realized that she was still the same spoiled socialite, reaching for the golden ring of the carousel because she felt entitled to it.
Cassandra, unaware or uncaring of Hugo’s worried look, sat down behind her desk and logged into her laptop. She booked several flights, often checking a text to confirm a location or two. She registered at several hotels and ignored a number of travel warnings cautioning her of tumultuous civil and governmental problems in the countries she had on her list. Regardless of any threat, she would seek out the wise women and men of the world, and find the path to her immortality. She began organizing the travel itineraries into folder, grimacing when she remembered Arial had been the one for the organizing and academic pursuits, and wrinkled her brow as she pondered what to name the master folder.
Looking over at the pile of books, she thought of the closeness she had once had with her sister. One translation stood out, and feeling proud of herself for her choice, she entered the name of the master folder: “Project: Gilgamesh.”
Hugo went about his duties as the weeks following Cassandra’s departure went on. Cassandra first went to India to seek out the wisdom of Gandhi. Hugo spent hours on the phone with the U.S. Embassy there, trying to assuage a situation Cassandra had caused resulting from her treatment in a gender-biased country.
He shook his head as he spoke to Cassandra on the telephone. “These chauvinistic bastard say I’m not allowed to go in the library because of how I’m dressed! Can you believe that?!”
“And, pray tell, how are you dressed, ma’am?”
“Tank top and shorts, it’s hot here! And, to top it off, these arrogant bastards don’t know anything about immortality, they keep spewing crap about reincarnation.”
Hugo sighed; Cassandra had little respect for other cultures and simply wanted what she pursued. Hugo made reparations without her knowledge, setting up a fund through the Embassy to build and operate a new hospital and school. Using Cassandra’s name for her file folder, Hugo mockingly called it “Gilgamesh” as well. Sighing, he transferred a bulk of money from the estate into it, planning on paying restitution to all the people Cassandra offended. Hugo also began collecting newspaper clipping and paying special attention to her journeys.
The newspaper clipping began amassing. Cassandra was causing ripples wherever she went, and Hugo dutifully made restitutions on her behalf. A year into her sojourn, however, Hugo began to realize that Cassandra was changing, as well. He received a call from her while she was in China, and it was then he realized that “Madame Cassie” was indeed gone for good.
It was early before dawn when she called. “Hugo,” she said, a weariness in her voice that he had never heard before. “I’m in trouble.”
“Criticizing that their cuisine is not Chinese food?” Hugo asked sarcastically.
“No. I got caught breaking into a production factory.”
“Whatever did you do that for?” Hugo’s mind raced, trying to consider what clothing and textile manufacturing had to do with immortality.
“They were enslaving children, Hugo. I had to see it for myself.”
“Ma’am?” was all Hugo could say.
“I was researching acupuncture and looking to find someone who could translate some of the writings of Confucius. The person that I was placed in contact with works as an overseer in the factory, and I met him there. The conditions that these kids work in is atrocious, Hugo! They’re starved and sick. Some of them even look like-“ Cassandra chocked up, not able to continue.
“Like Arial, ma’am?” Hugo finished for her, knowing that she needed to hear it.
“Yes, like Arial.” Regaining her composure, she continued. “I need you to get me in touch with the State Department. And use what we can to try and buy out that factory. These kids deserve better.”
“And what of you, ma’am? You said that you need my help?”
“That is what I need from you Hugo. Don’t worry about me, try and get help for those kids.”
Hugo did as he was told, and the State Department intervened on Cassandra’s behalf. Although the incident did not result in Cassandra nearing her goal of discovering immortality, it did not dissuade her either. As the collection of newspaper clippings continued to grow, Hugo placed them in a scrapbook of what had come to be known as the Gilgamesh Foundation’s success stories. He wondered, at times, if Cassandra herself know about the impact that she was making in the world.
China was but the first in a long line of failures. Cassandra was almost shot in Syria, attempting to help refugees regain their homes. If not for the intervention of local military, she would have lost her life. Israel was next on her travel list, then Iraq, then Afghanistan. All the time she visited these countries and made headlines, Hugo placed the clipping in the scrapbook. Every night, he would read it under the watchful eyes of Cassandra’s parents staring down from their painting in the library. When he was finished, he would place the book under a photograph of Cassandra and Arial taken in a much simpler, happier time- during a sailing trip in the Mediterranean.
As the years went on, Hugo continued his routine diligently. His telephone calls from Cassandra began to wane, and he occasionally found himself wondering if she herself had met an untimely end. One particular night, while enjoying a burgundy and sitting by the warm fireplace in the library, the phone rang.
“Hugo?” a weakened voice asked over the line. “I’m coming home.”
“Ma’am?” Hugo asked, worry and concern evident in his voice. “Are you well?”
“No, Hugo,” Cassandra replied. “I am not.”
That was the extent of the phone call. The following day, Hugo received a short communique from Nepal with instructions on how to prepare the house for Cassandra’s arrival. Hugo looked at the list of supplies and personnel that Cassandra had asked for, and worry began to creep into the recesses of his mind.
It was raining when he arrived at Cassandra’s private airfield. He looked resignedly at the man standing on his right; he was the same doctor that had diagnosed Ariel with her cancer. On Hugo’s left, there stood stoically the lawyer who had drafted Ariel’s will. Despair crept into Hugo’s soul, and as he stood with the professionals outside of the limousine and watched Cassandra’s plane taxi down the runway, he couldn’t help but repress a shudder. Something seemed off, he could feel it down to his bones.
When the plane came to a stop, and the scaffold brought to the door, Hugo could not contain a gasp of horror as he saw a stretcher being wheeled out of the plane. There was Cassandra, breathing mask adorning her fragile mouth, and an oxygen tank and I/V drip following her close at hand. Hugo regained his composure and stoically made the necessary arrangements to bring Cassandra comfortably home.
When she was settled in, Hugo sat at her side and held her frail and withered hand. “I failed, my dear Hugo,” she said, her voice a coarse whisper. “I travelled the world and all I have to show for it is a terminal case of Scarlet Fever!” A coughing fit wracked her small frame as she tried to continue, but Hugo patted her hand and waited for the coughing to reside. “You were right my old friend. Immortality exists only in the realms of science fiction.” Her sentence trailed off in a fit of coughing, and she lay back in bed as her labored breathing began to slow.
“No, my child,” Hugo stated, “You did not. What you found, however, was something far greater.”
“What?” Cassandra pleaded as a tear trickled down her cheek.
Hugo stood up and retrieved his scrapbook from the mantelpiece. He began reading all the clippings to Cassandra, from the onset of her journey until the present. What she couldn’t understand, Hugo translated or explained. He read until he saw the realization dawn on her, and she smiled with her last breath.
Hugo laid her to rest alongside Ariel, and held a very simple, private service. As the preacher read the chronicle of Cassandra’s life, Hugo looked around at the masses who had gathered outside the burial plot to pay their respects. They silently and respectfully kept their distance, not wanting to intrude on the family affair.
After the service, Cassandra’s lawyer approached with documents in hand and a small, scholarly-looking woman by his side. He explained to Hugo that Cassandra had left him everything in her will, and that he would be by the following week to close all the legal paperwork out. The young woman, he explained wanted to speak with Hugo on a different matter.
“My name is Cynthia Reynolds,” she explained. “I work with the city, and wanted to talk to you about Miss Whitehall’s achievements. Do you have a moment?”
Hugo nodded silently and motioned to the young woman to follow him into the manor. It was a simple request, she explained to Hugo. The city wanted to erect a statue in Cassandra’s memory, and she needed Hugo’s signature to use Cassandra’s likeness since Cassandra had no living relatives.
As the years went by, people would walk through the city square and forever look upon a statue dedicated to Cassandra Whitehall, founder of the Gilgamesh World Humanitarian Organization. Until the end of his days, Hugo would smile and say as he passed: “Cassandra my dear, it appears you have found your immortality, after all.