How Did it Feel to be Eaten?
By Amit Gupta
“I was an elderberry,” I announced, glowing with pride.
“How did it feel to be eaten?” he asked.
It seemed an odd question, but a response came unbidden, so I voiced it, “It was an honor.” My words surprised me, but they felt true.
“The Queen of England ate me,” I added. How did I know this? Who was he? My cheeks flushed with embarrassment. I didn’t feel like a berry. Did berries feel embarrassed?
“I didn’t know she was the Queen at the time,” I admitted.
“Yes,” agreed the man who I could not see and did not know. “Let’s try another.”
I was in again and felt immensely powerful. I sparkled in the sun. The land beneath me rose, I stood, and I felt a caress on my shoulder. A child. We danced. I rolled, crested, and rumbled; she banked and cut on her board, gliding gracefully along me, her speed blowing droplets of me right off her wetsuit. We became one.
We reached the shore, and I crumbled, making room for others like me, and others like her.
That was a short one.
I awakened again.
“Do you know where you are?” asked the man.
To my surprise, I did. “McLeod Ganj,” I answered. “India.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Who are you?” he echoed back.
I rolled the question back and forth in my mind, where a cloud of sensations now coalesced into limbs, my own. The concept of limbs soon followed. I felt my breath and moments later understood (rediscovered?) the idea of breathing, of air, of lungs. I found my feet, hands, neck, stomach, and back.
Not an ocean wave. Nor a berry. I was human. But who was I?
“Tell me about your first experience,” he said.
I told him of my first memory inside, of being a seed. I pulled nutrients from the soil, burst from my shell into the earth, stretched up and plunged down until I was a shrub. I drank energy from the sun, chose where to spend it, which parts of me to grow, where to direct my roots. Don’t ask me how I knew how. I just did.
The next year I learned what drought was. I pulled my own roots back to allow my seed to drink; I nearly lost myself.
But it worked.
I found luck with wind, too. I altered my scent to attract more birds and, through their droppings, introduced a few of my seed to faraway fields. I lost thousands this way. So many lives cut short; it hurt even now. The love I felt for my seed was incomparable. Like the love of a mother for her babe, multiplied by thousands, tempered by the need to sacrifice many. I loved them as they took root and became me, loved them as they withered and died.
In time I inhabited hundreds of thousands of beings. Like a bee colony, I was a single consciousness, a small nation of kin, spread across a symphony of activity and generations of beings.
I evolved subtly, in just a handful of generations. I picked my hardiest descendants, my most exquisite branches, my tastiest fruit. I scattered my best as far as I could.
In four generations, I made it into an orgbio farm. In two more, I found myself in one that sold to the private green markets where the royal chefs selected their produce.
They made me into a pie. She ate me. And it was over.
A lump formed in my throat as I described these years. Plants thought and felt a lot more than I had realized…slower, but much, much deeper.
Suddenly, a massive force bent my head back and pulled something heavy off my face. Blinding white light filled my view, and I remembered what it was to see with eyes. The light became floors of pale, polished concrete and walls washed to a dull off-white glow. A plump mat cushioned my bottom, loose white robes covered my body, and my hands lay open on my knees. In front of me, a man in dark red robes, legs crossed, head shaven, one hand gently cupped in the other.
I knew him. “Oh…You’re…you’re…”
“Sri,” he said, studying my face with eyes like still pools of water.
I swung my arms back and leaned into them. I began to remember who I was. I had arrived the day before (that it was a day, not years, seemed preposterous now) wearing the thick armor of reporter’s skepticism. I had wanted to see if the rumors were true, though I already knew they couldn’t be. Now I was finding the truth far heavier than I’d prepared for.
“These lives weren’t real,” I stated uneasily. “Were they?”
“As real as any experience in this world,” Sri said.
I nodded, unsure what he meant.
“For a plant, it is quite an achievement, young one, to have the Queen of England eat you!” Sri said, placing a hand on my back.
I fell forward, forgetting I had muscles and bones, that I could resist the force of his hand. I had become accustomed to swaying in wind, letting it pass through me.
“The first time is always a profound journey, but you went further than most,” he assured me.
I steadied my voice. “Of course, I was planted in England and given lots of care so…”
“It’s not what we are given, it’s how we experience it,” Sri said.
“How long?” I asked, swallowing hard. “How long was I…gone?”
Sri cupped his hands together and drew them apart. “For you, many years.” He paused. “For me, a few moments.”
“How?” It felt like–” Sri cut me off with a curt shake of his head.
“Do I choose, or…do you?” I stammered. But Sri simply met my gaze and adjusted his robes. His eyes seemed to speak for him: it does not matter; you’re missing the point; be still.
“I’m ready to go back in,” I said, not feeling ready at all.
Sri unfolded his legs and leaped to his feet, walking to one of the tall, rectangular openings cut into the walls of the room. Beyond him, blue sky stretched endlessly to the horizon, treetops poking at it from below, greedily drinking sunshine as they marched down the hillside. I now felt kinship with them as strong as what I had with Sri.
“Tomorrow,” Sri said. “Today, meditate, rest.” He turned and walked out, leaving me to my thoughts.
In again. Eighteen years old, a boy. I’d just moved to New York City, to the Upper West Side. My mom beamed when I got the acceptance letter from Columbia. I was glad it made her happy. People came here to make a dent in the universe. It was where all those movies were set; it was the center of the world. But walking down 8th avenue, passing bodegas and banks, fruit stands and cabbies, I felt like I was watching a movie, not in one.
Ten years passed. A Wharton pal got me an interview at a startup in San Jose (“It’s a rocket ship, don’t worry about which seat you’re in, just get on!”), a friend of my father’s put in a word with one of their VC’s LPs, and I got the job. We were changing the world, but changing the world looked a lot like updating CRMs, tracking KPIs, and mileage runs to level up my airline status. The game was fun at first.
I’d meet friends at rooftop bars, and in the warm South Bay night, we’d exchange secrets. It wasn’t long before we each slid into the C-suite, hopping from company to company, many moving to LA on our way up. ‘Work’ became firm handshakes, name drops, and false smiles. I signed the papers on my first condo, in Santa Monica, and celebrated sitting cross-legged on the floor, alone with a six-pack.
I was 43 when I spied Alice across a crowded pool deck choked with expensive suits, ironic cocktails, and sharp laughter. She was blond, tall, and had belonged to the same Princeton eating club as my dad. My parents loved her.
She quickly began to run our household like a corporation: making sure we gave to the opera or the Broad or whatever was in that year, attended the right parties, read the summaries of the right novels. Jason was born a year later. It felt easy, in a way. We moved to West Hollywood, got a seaside ‘cabin’ in Malibu. Plenty of movies were set in LA, too. But it still felt like I was only watching.
Eight more years passed slowly. I traced a curve along the right fender of that first Porsche, and I thought I felt something, something rising within me. “You feel it, right?” the salesman grinned up at me from just slightly below. He was just slightly obsequious. I was just slightly annoyed. “Yeah,” I said. “I guess so.” He smiled wider.
I built a climate-controlled temple for the Porsche, the perfectly restored Alfa Romeo Sportiva, and a parade of supercars. When I spent evenings in my office, dreading going home to Alice and Jason, already having made up some excuse for needing to work late, I’d think about taking one for a drive. But I never even went down to look at them.
Fifteen more years like that and I stood grayed and hunched at the floor-to-ceiling windows of our second Malibu estate. Before me, the sun’s last light was fading on the horizon of the Pacific. Behind me, Alice was reminding me that the foundation was essential, that these ceremonies inspired people. I thought of the shoebox in the cellar where I tossed the awards. “I don’t understand why you’re wasting everything you have,” she said. I didn’t understand, either. I had done all that she’d wanted. Why wasn’t she happy?
When I awakened in that now-familiar white room, I eased my back to the floor, feeling every one of the eighty-five years I’d just lived in my spine. Melancholy and sweat soaked my skin, flooding my nostrils with an acrid scent. My bones had the weight of bricks, my muscles ached as if I’d been beaten.
Sri touched my knee. I heard him rise and pad around me. “It will fade,” he said, sliding a cool, dry hand just above my neck to cradle my head as he tilted the headset off. “It is life.” He ran his fingers through my hair, smoothing out damp clumps, then laid my head down gently and padded away. A moment later, he returned and placed a damp towel on my forehead.
“Welcome back,” Sri said.
I knew who he was and where I was; I recognized my body immediately. Two months had passed since I’d arrived at this mountain outpost, and with practice, this part had become easier. But this transition was particularly difficult–for I knew I had failed.
“I made a lot of money,” I offered.
“Yes,” Sri said, betraying nothing as usual.
I laid still, my limbs sprawled outward, without will or ability to move for what felt like an hour. Gusts blew through the room and sent fallen leaves swirling in the stone courtyard outside. Birds twittered urgently, making final preparations for their journey to warmer lands.
“I wasted it,” I said finally.
“Every life is an opportunity for understanding,” Sri said.
“I should have been winning!” I protested. I was having trouble letting this one go.
“Is it a game?” Sri asked.
I sat up and shook my head. “I was given so much.”
Sri watched me intently. “You’ve walked this path before. Made much more–billions–and found contentment,” he said.
“I remember. I wasn’t a humanitarian, didn’t create a single foundation or charity that time,” I admitted. “But I was at peace.”
“The difference?” he asked.
I looked past Sri, down a hallway with dozens of doors. Behind each was another like him paired with another like me. I’d meant to be here for a week, two, tops. But that first week had felt like a hundred lifetimes, and the journalistic separation I’d feebly hoisted in my defense had fallen in minutes. I’d lived thousands of lives but hadn’t written a single word. Perhaps my decision to remain here was report enough.
I wondered how my progress compared to the others. I could almost see my competitiveness. I blamed the life I’d just finished living, still fresh in my mind.
I brought my eyes back to Sri. “I was content that other time I made billions because I pursued my fortune with focus. I meditated, read widely. I bought up shares of a beleaguered fracking company, leveraged it into controlling interest in a U.S. cable conglomerate, diversified into French Fintech, CPG, hedge funds. I knew what mattered to me: money. No moral qualms, no existential dithering. I just went for it.”
“This time?” Sri asked.
“I collected what others valued.”
Sri nodded, smiling, but I was frustrated. “It’s clear now, but why couldn’t I see it during the eighty-five years I just lived? No matter what I learn, when I go back in, I’m a child again.”
Neither one of us said anything, and Sri kept nodding and smiling like his head was mounted on a spring.
“But I did see it, didn’t I?” I asked, knowing Sri wouldn’t answer me.
He didn’t. If I wore those red robes, I would answer these questions, I told myself. I held my face empty of expression; I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing my irritation.
Finally, he asked, “Why did this life move you so?”
I jerked back as understanding suddenly hit me. Before I came to McLeod Ganj, hadn’t I been this man? My life had been defined by indecision. Was there a god? Had I chosen the right career? The right partner? Uncomfortable with uncertainty, I climbed the ladders placed in front of me, not caring where they led. I collected bylines, not sportscars.
It made no difference.
My mouth fell open. Sri simply nodded. The look on my face was all the answer he needed.
“Now, tell me why you still suffer,” Sri said.
I cleared my throat. “Because there is no shortcut?” I tried.
Sri stared at me silently.
“But I thought that was the point,” I protested. “Didn’t His Holiness create this place so we don’t have to suffer through millions of lives and deaths before our spirit can leave this realm behind?”
“Does it feel like a shortcut?” he asked.
I shook my head. It decidedly did not.
“Suffering is not something to avoid, young one. Treasure it; receive its wisdom with gratitude. His Holiness’s gift to you, and to all of us, is the gift of experiencing many, many times more suffering than we could before in a single Earth-bound body.”
Well, great. At least he was talking.
For three days, I was a mosquito. Then a fish ate me.
I reached up and slowly lifted the headset up over my eyes, turned to look at Sri, and smiled. He smiled back, and I saw pride behind those placid eyes. Were monks allowed to feel pride?
“Life 31,523,” he said, lifting one eyebrow to invite me to speak.
I eased back on my haunches, crossed my arms behind my head, and closed my eyes. My body felt loose, light, my mind serene like I’d just had a massage. The heaviness and disorientation I was used to in these transitions were absent.
“Okay,” I said, “Here’s what happened…
“I started fully grown. I was small, but I wasn’t an infant. That was weird. I had fur, a snout and tail, four paws, floppy ears. It was apparent right away that I was a dog. But just as quickly it became clear that something was wrong with me. I was paralyzed.
“I couldn’t move my paws, couldn’t smell, couldn’t see. I could feel my body, but I was stuck inside it. I was in a dark, dark place for a long time.
“And then a giant hand grabbed me. I felt it raise me into the air, hold me aloft, then shake me. I yelped. I barked. I screamed. I couldn’t even hear my own cries. Then it dropped me.
“It took me somewhere–I could feel the movements–and then for a long time everything was still. I had no other experiences to compare it with at the time, but now I can tell you it was like the lives I’ve spent in a coma. My mind awake and alert, my body dead. With no idea of how long it would last. I think it was days, but it’s impossible to tell.”
Sri’s face revealed nothing.
“I was picked up again. This time, I was dropped almost immediately, then raised up a few feet off the ground. The hand that grasped me felt smaller, damp, the fingers more delicate. It squeezed my torso, hard enough that if I had been breathing, I would have stopped. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t breathing.
“The hand pulled so hard at my ears I thought it’d tear them off. Then my entire head felt like it was swaddled in a warm, wet, leaden blanket.
“I could barely believe it. I fumed and raged and screamed and clawed–but it was only in my mind, nothing changed. I wept, resigning myself to a life of suffering with no end. Then I found my salvation.”
I got up, grateful for arms and legs that responded to my commands, eyes that showed me where to go. I swung my arms in wide, joyful arcs as I walked to a small metal pitcher on the floor. I poured myself a cup of water, took a sip, and felt the liquid cool my tongue and slide down my throat. I closed my eyes and savored every bit of sensory input without judgment.
“You were rescued?” Sri asked.
I turned back to him. “No. Each day they squeezed and slobbered on me. They bit me, pulled an eye from my face, pulled my insides out, then stuffed them back in, crudely mending my flesh with needle and thread. Each day brought new indignities and unimagined pains.”
I drained my cup and filled it again, noting that I felt no aversion to the life I was recounting, nor attachment to the body I’d reclaimed.
“I couldn’t prevent the tortures. But I learned to float above, to observe, not resist. I practiced this, hour after hour. Day after day.
“I finally stopped hoping for rescue. I simply…was. This was all I knew, all I would ever know. I paid close attention. I experienced…more fully than I had in any of my lives before. I reveled in it.
“After they tossed me out, crushed me under a mountain of refuse–I remained at peace.
“In that form, as my life slowly ended, my body decomposing, I glimpsed my past lives. I began to understand my place in all this…that hadn’t happened before. I didn’t know it was possible.”
I finished and looked over at Sri. He grinned from ear to ear. I felt nothing, wanted nothing. We sat still for long minutes, my mind empty, effortlessly noticing everything but clinging to nothing. I could have sat like that forever. Finally, he said, “You’re ready. It takes most over a year to get here. And I’ve never seen anyone do it except from the human realm. To reach nirvana, as a stuffed dog…” He shook his head.
“It’s not about what you’re given…” I said. Sri nodded, beaming.
“Thank you, Sri.”
“Welcome to The Middle Way, Khadija,” I said. “My name is Sam, and I’ll be guiding you through. His Holiness blessed Virtuana Buddhism five years ago when it became clear that technology could enable the rapid movement between realms, cycle of death and rebirth, and improvement of karma required to reach nirvana within a single Earthly existence. Since then, millions have followed this path, and now many of us remain here to help others follow.”
We sat cross-legged, facing each other. She fidgeted in her loose, unfamiliar white garments, clenching and unclenching her toes, brimming with questions. I beamed at her, imagining waves of loving-kindness emanating from me and washing over her.
She smiled back.
Khadija was my first, and I had promised myself I’d give her a gentle introduction. I’d nurture her curiosity, hold her hand, provide the detailed answers it had taken me lifetimes to learn, the ones Sri could have simply given me if he’d chosen to.
She cleared her throat. “So how does it work? How long does it take? Does it feel real? It’s like a shortcut, right?”
I opened my mouth to answer but thought better of it. I shut my eyes and let my body sway gently in the nearly imperceptible breeze that blew through the room. I felt the strength of a wave rising inside me, the stillness of a plant in the night, and parts of countless other lives that lived within me now. I laughed to myself.
I opened my eyes and gestured for her to put on the headset beside her. Once she did, I began the program.
I’d come to this mountain outpost six months ago to help the world understand the whispers of this new order, promising salvation in a single lifetime. If I were honest with myself, I’d come not intending to explain it but to explain it away.
I’d lived “only” tens of thousands of lifetimes to reach this point. Perhaps it was my time as a reporter, my ability to train my senses on another’s life, to learn their story, understand how their mind worked, that let me progress so quickly. If so, it had made the suffering no more bearable. And no less instructive.
Sri couldn’t have made it easier for me, I now realized, and I couldn’t make it easier for Khadija.
Her body jerked, and I knew she was back.
“How did it feel to be eaten?” I asked.
By Tina Connolly
I really loved how this story mixed technology with a spiritual discipline. One of our associate editors, Darusha Wehm, pointed out how uncommon it was to see that, and to see it done so well, and I happen to agree.
We just finished up watching The Good Place here at my house, and there will be no spoilers in this outro. But as early as season 2 they were exploring some of these similar ideas–what happens when you artificially create an environment that allows people to grow over the course of multiple lives. Both that show and this story are, I think, wonderful examples of optimistic speculative fiction, and the idea that, given the right support, people could actually change for the better.
I also like stories that make you immediately wonder, what would I do if I were in the world of this story. I find the idea of trying this very tempting, and I can easily understand the reporter, who is just planning to report back on it, and then finds he doesn’t want to leave.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from Maya Angelou, who said: “All great achievements require time.”
Thanks for listening! And have fun.
About the Author
Amit is a science-fiction writer with a background as an entrepreneur. His projects have been featured in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, NPR, the BBC, and more. He’s appeared on the CBS Morning Show bearing a tray of cupcakes, and starred in a Toyota commercial based on his life. After a brush with death in 2012, Amit decided to take up fiction. His stories take an optimistic look at the problems and opportunities technology will create in the near future.
About the Narrator
Peter Adrian Behravesh is an Iranian-American musician, writer, editor, audio producer, and narrator. For these endeavors, he has won the Miller and British Fantasy Awards, and has been nominated for the Hugo, Ignyte, and Aurora Awards. His interactive novel is forthcoming from Choice of Games, and his essay, “Pearls from a Dark Cloud: Monsters in Persian Myth,” is forthcoming in the OUP Handbook of Monsters in Classical Myth. When he isn’t crafting, crooning, or consuming stories, Peter can usually be found hurtling down a mountain, sipping English Breakfast, and sharpening his Farsi. You can read his sporadic ramblings at peteradrianbehravesh.com, or on Twitter @pabehravesh.