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MIT Technology Review
Fiction

The first murder

A fiction story about identity.

August 19, 2020
Daniel Zender

When did the shadow begin to follow you? 

It did not touch you as a child, on those summer days spent climbing the pecan tree in your parents’ backyard. Nor did it touch you as a student seated in the wood-paneled lecture halls of law school. It kept its distance as the years passed, as you matured into responsibilities, habits, tastes. 

You are given to formal attire. You are even-­tempered and good at compartmentalizing. You do not speak more than you need to. You credit this to growing up an only child in the company of reticent adults. You have achieved what you are supposed to achieve—an office job, a house, a car. You have kept the same sedate occupation for two decades, parceling out the wealth of the dead amongst the living. You live in a semi-detached colonial with a gabled porch in a neighborhood of lawyers and professors. When you are not walking, you drive a Volvo—a solid, unpretentious vehicle. Only in establishing a family have you fallen short. Your wife became disturbed by your equanimity, mistaking your composure for lack of sentiment. In fact, you were deeply hurt when she left, though perhaps you did not show it. 

But with time the abandonment hurts less and less, especially as you find pleasure in your solitude. You follow your routines religiously. Weekend mornings begin with an unhurried breakfast, the Daily Inquirer, a walk. Once a week you drive to the allotment on the edge of the city where you grow marigolds and petunias, tomatoes and broad beans. The company of your plants is as stimulating to you as that of friends, of which you have very few, as most of them left with your wife. But your true passion is the opera. You attend a performance twice a month, an indulgence which marks the passing of the weeks. Your emotions find catharsis in the opera—circumspectly, in the darkness. 

The opera house is as familiar to you as your own home. There are 11 rows of seats curving around the balcony where you like to sit. If it is available, you always purchase seat 56A, third row from the front, which affords as good a view as the first row but for a lesser price. It is an aisle seat, close to the exit, which means that you can be quick about leaving when the opera ends. 

The opera adds variety to your schedule. You know you will see an opera, but you do not know what you will feel, though you know that you will always feel something. 

The shadow first descends upon you on the night of a performance. You go to see Il Primo Omicidio. Alessandro Scarlatti, 1707. You read the pamphlet. “Evil has no recourse. Cain kills his brother Abel and commits the first murder in the history of humankind …” 

A biblical opera is not normally to your taste. You prefer the passions of the great love affairs. Is it because you have failed at your own? And yet you go because you have heard of the world-renowned director. His name is Castellucci—a genius, or so the papers say. You were lucky even to find tickets. 

You ensconce yourself in the familiar darkness of the theater, though not in your usual seat, which has been booked by someone else. However, at 63B you are not far from your accustomed vantage point. You settle in, feeling a thrill of anticipation in spite of the biblical genre.  

The stage is mostly bare, except for when God appears, a pixelated white shadow against a dark backdrop.

And indeed when the curtain rises you are taken aback. The first surprise is that Cain and Abel are women. Or, rather, women cast as men. Modern dress—slacks, dress shirts, the uniform of casual businessmen. Hair short and slicked sideways. The singers’ movements are protracted, drawn out. Biblical, epic gestures. The first murder is epic not only because it is the first, but also because it is brother upon brother. 

The stage is mostly bare, except for when God appears, a pixelated white shadow against a dark backdrop. There is a glittering gold altar. It descends upside down, like a giant knife, above Cain and Abel. There is the scene of the sacrifice. Steam rises from two machines. And then, one stops. Cain’s sacrifice to Yahweh does not take. At the end of the opera you sit blinking until people trip over your legs. You stand, let them pass. You sit down again and stare at the stage, enthralled by the magic wrought on you.

When you find your parked car, you notice the smashed taillight. Accident or vandalism, it does not dampen your mood, though you instruct yourself to take the car to the shop in the coming days. 

Shop lights whirl about you on the drive home. Laughter filters in from restaurant tables set out in the warm night. As you wait for lights to change, your eye falls upon a billboard. White letters illuminated by floodlights against a black backdrop. Trans-migration. Painless. Quick procedures. Human-animal. Male-female. Animate-inanimate. 777-7777. The letters fog and fade out toward the top, miming a transmigration into the billboard. The light changes and you press on the gas. 

At home, you prepare for bed, still basking in the glow of the beautiful evening. Out of habit, you turn on the news. A video loops. A man, in the cage of his skin, running. A silent shot. Death. You are struck by the movements of the police officers and the man, which are hasty, inelegant. You think of the opera. The man’s end is neither epic nor biblical.

The magic of the evening gives way to the video. The feeling of contentment leaves you. Even when you turn off the news, the image of the man hangs in the emptiness. As you brush your teeth you pace up and down the hallway. You spit into the sink, wash off the foam around your lips. You think of how far removed your life is from that of the man in the video. You live in the good part of town, hold steady, well-compensated employment. You attend the opera, even travel to Europe on occasion. Your life is circumscribed. You go to bed, reassuring yourself that sleep will efface the image from your mind.  

But when light breaks your first thought is of the man. 

As you drink your coffee you guide your mind back to the opera, the cross-dressing Cain and Abel, the upside-down altar. You recall the wonder it evoked in you. You forget the video long enough to make the mistake of turning on the morning news. The video appears. You turn off the television. You switch on your phone but there, too, it plays. 

Over the next days you go to the office. You have gleaned from the news that the man in the video has left behind unpaid rent, traffic fines, credit card bills. To whom will this inheritance of debt pass? 

You drive to the allotment and attend to your flowers and vegetables. You cook lamb braised in wine. You read a biography of Michel de Montaigne. But as you go about your routines, you find that the man runs after you. In your sleep and in your waking moments, he runs toward you. Always he is present on the edge of your vision, or directly before your eyes. When he falls, he falls on top of your chest. 

DANIEL ZENDER

One night you wake up gasping for air. You mistake the dampness along your neck for blood. When you go to the bathroom to splash water on your face, you look in the mirror and see that the skin has begun to crack. Hair’s-breadth cracks, almost invisible. It is age—you are growing old—but you sense that the disintegration runs deeper.

You decide you must pull yourself together. A week after Il Primo Omicidio, you go to the opera again. When the bell rings you find your seat in the balcony. This time it is a light opera, befitting the mood you wish to enter. The singers under the spotlight divert your attention. Bewigged sopranos and men in tights. The lead baritone hits a depth in his throat that reverberates in your ribs. But, unusually for you, the opera leaves you cold.

At home, you make yourself a tea. You sink into an armchair and stare at the wall. You pick up your phone and play the video. You play it again and again. You cannot get enough. The clumsy escape, the raised gun. The death is real, and yet the movements seem like a pantomime, awkward and inadequate. 

You have always thought only of yourself. But why should you not? What has come over you? The man is dead. What use is it to dwell on it? It does not concern you. You are here, walking about the world. And yet each time the man runs, dread rises in your chest. Why did he not stay put? He would have been better off if he had.

The next morning is a Saturday. To avoid encountering more news of the man, you do not open the paper. Instead you go for your walk earlier than usual. The air is fresh outside; it has been raining. But even outside there is no relief. You sit on a park bench and stare at a desolate playground. Rain has swept children away. You think of the opera. Not the frivolous one you attended last night, but the other one. 

The women dressed as men come back to you. The billboard with the transmigrating print. You are familiar with the movement. People who enter into other bodies, selves—the bodies of animals, or the poor, or of women, or of men. A rebirth into a new identity. Those who transmigrate into the bodies of the less fortunate are accused of tourism, voyeurism. Less is known about those who choose to go the other way. 

On Monday, from the office, you dial the number on the billboard. You explain what you want. The voice on the other end is briskly helpful—you are given an appointment. 

In the meantime you make arrangements. You give notice at work, making up a family emergency that requires you to move to the opposite coast. You have enough saved to get you through the next year at the very least. The opera is your one extravagance; otherwise you are parsimonious. 

Ten days later you arrive at a bare, white office space. You sit opposite a woman who flicks the pages of a magazine too quickly. You wonder what transmigration she is about to undertake—does she seek to accompany the dog that sits quietly panting at her feet? 

Before long an attendant calls you into a room. You change into a hospital gown behind a curtain. You put on glasses. Then you are instructed to lie on a hard bed—it looks like a sun bed. There is a cushion for the crooks of your knees, though not one for your head. 

You think of what you have glimpsed in the news this morning. The video has caused such an uproar that the policemen have been taken into custody. There are investigations. Politicians and police chiefs have been standing somberly before the press. The man’s mother and his wife weep in front of the cameras. 

The attendant draws the lid closed and you are cocooned in light. The bed hums and vibrates beneath your limbs. You close your eyes. 

When you wake up, you can feel a tingle along the skin between your fingers. The bed slides out and the attendant tells you to rise. She leads you to a mirror. You take off your glasses. A man stares back at you. His skin is not your own. His hair is dark, though peppered with gray at the crown. He mimics your movements—when you turn left, so does he. When you lift your chin, he follows. When you touch your shoulder, he reaches for his. 

But not everything has changed. You are still thin. You speak in the voice and register that belongs to your old self—well-enunciated, resonant, its statements infiltrated by a formal, lawyerly vocabulary. You feel familiar thoughts and impulses stir in you, and yet already you sense the effect of the mirrored reflection upon yourself, a reflection to which you are attracted, and from which, simultaneously, you recoil.  

After you pay, you step out into the street. You blink, turn left and right, adjusting to your new body. You look boldly at those who walk past. An unmistakable spark comes into the eyes that flicker over you. A woman gives way on the pavement as you approach. A man barrels forward, seemingly oblivious to you, and you are forced to step aside. 

DANIEL ZENDER

Your new identity involves much bureaucracy—driver’s license, passport, health insurance card must be updated, and so you stop to have your photo taken. You pose in front of a white background. Keep your lips closed, the photographer tells you. A flash. You put an envelope into your pocket. At home, you are startled anew at the strange face staring back at you, its tight smile melding into the regard of two mysterious eyes. 

Over the next few days the knowledge grows on you that you are mostly invisible. And when you are visible, eyes glance at you with a mindful apprehension—different from what you experienced in your other body. You have sensed it all along, even before your transmigration—there is a fear that gives strength and a fear that takes it away. 

You look for your likeness in the world. You are present and absent in ways that are new to you. You pay attention to the cadences of the voices that address you. You brush against strangers in the street and see what reaction your touch evokes. You attend a neighborhood council meeting, just to see what happens when you rise to speak.     

You go to places you have frequented, and others you have never been to. You visit the sour clerk at the coffee shop at which you are a regular. You have always wondered if his ill humor is reserved for you or is all encompassing. You step into an expensive restaurant and anticipate the hostess’s response. Will she give you the table by the window? 

On a walk, you wander into an unfamiliar neighborhood. You immediately sense the air thick with hostility. People stare at you. Is it the video looping in the news? You wait for the lights to change, resisting the temptation to look over your shoulder. You think of the man running. He had been strolling, too, when he had lost track of his surroundings and strayed into a neighborhood of elegant columned houses. A police car—lights whirling silently—had drawn up beside him.

You hurry out of the neighborhood, across the avenue that divides one section of town from another, relieved when you reach home. You have crossed over. Was it to rewrite the fate of the man in the video or to rewrite your own?   

A month into your transmigration, you read that Il Primo Omicidio has moved to a city two hours away. It is a final run. You are seized by the impulse to see it again. The opera, the video, the crossing over. They are mixed up together in your mind. Another viewing feels fitting, like the conclusion to a ritual.

 The opera house in the next city is larger. There are many hallways and entryways and balconies, and you get lost trying to find your way. You take your seat just in time and wait for the darkness to swallow you up. The curtain rises. A vast blue horizon comes into view. Cain and Abel march onto the stage. Again you experience the magic of the scenery, the upside-down altar sparkling under spotlights, the steam machines, the God on the projection screen. In the darkness, you forget who you are, what you have become. The lights come up. 

On the highway, the darkness is as complete as that in the theater. You cannot see your hands nor the tip of your nose, which is normally how, during those rare moments when you forget, you recall that you have crossed over.

There are few cars on the road. Fluorescent lane markings dart out at you hypnotically. You think of the murder scene—Abel sleeping in a field under starlight, blades of grass frozen in mid-motion as though snapped in a photograph on a windy day. Cain stealthily approaching, carrying a rock. 

Your hands on the steering wheel turn red, then blue. You glance at the rearview mirror. It takes you a moment to realize that the whirling lights are for you. You are confused only for an instant. The taillight. In the tumult of the previous weeks, you never visited the car garage. As you slow down you are tense with expectation. You have been waiting for this, or something like it. 

You come to a stop on the hard shoulder. The police car parks behind you. Your hands continue to flicker red and blue. You see a door open, an officer step out. You roll down your window. The noise of the highway washes away the cozy atmosphere of the car. The officer walks toward his own silhouette reflected in your side view mirror. The beam of his flashlight dances ahead of him. Finally he is at your window. The light is blinding. It hovers over you, dashes briefly into the car, then returns to your face. 

He asks for license and registration. And your moment of truth arrives.