top of page

Helical Awakening
By Aidan Niles

    Russell opened the door to his hut. The air felt heavy with humidity. Today was the Helical Awakening and possibly the most important day of his research trip. The Rat Priest would open the black gate to the walled-off section of the village. As a child, Russell had been fascinated with Ponce de Leon's quest for the fountain of youth. As an adult, he had searched the world for the secret to longevity. To date, he had found nothing. Neither science nor hidden arcana had yielded answers. Yet this lead to this small village in the remote regions of eastern Africa still excited him. The Rat Priest had confirmed that Dr. Erwin Murinae had been here many years ago. If that were true – then the rumors might be as well. Erwin Murinae was a renowned biologist, geneticist, and genuine headcase whose experiments with animal and human DNA had seen him banished from King's College and Western civilization at large. If he had been here, perhaps some of his work remained to be studied. The Rat Priest promised Russell that his questions would be answered today.

    “Good day to you, Doctor Russell,” Asha said, bowing her head in greeting.

    “Morning, Asha,” Russell said, mimicking her bowed head as was traditional.

    “This is the day you have been waiting for. Today we celebrate our elders as they move on to the next stage of their lives.”

     “I have yet to see any elders.” That was one of the most puzzling things about this village. Nobody looked a day older than thirty.

    Asha laughed. "Oh, Doctor Russell, you have much to learn." She linked her arm through his. "Come with me. It is time to gather."

    Together they wended their way through the small community. Like Asha, everyone was dressed in their best and making their way toward the black gate that resided at the western end of the village. The gate, known as the Osirian Doorway, was all that stood between the village proper and what the villagers referred to as the Duat. According to myth, the West was the path to the underworld. On each door was half of a twisted ladder with letters scattered in the four corners.

    As Russell followed Asha, he smiled as she waved to the assembled villagers. While he never had children of his own, Russell came to think of Asha as the daughter he never had. Her boundless enthusiasm and desire to learn reminded Russell of himself at a young age.

    Russell stood with Asha as the crowd began to grow. Happy chatter filled the air. While he never had children of his own, Russell found Asha to be like the daughter he never had.  It was reminiscent of the street fairs he used to attend back home. As everyone awaited the Rat Priest, an expectation of greatness to be witnessed filled Russel’s insides bringing back memories of his first rock concert. Not exactly what Russell had expected to see or feel while standing in front of the proverbial doors to the underworld.

From the temple on the western end, the Rat Priest emerged. Wearing a simple cloth robe and fur hood, he walked to the front of the Osirian Doorway. Pulling an eye-shaped talisman off from his neck, he inserted it into the lock in the doorway and turned it. A single click echoed throughout the village. Russell saw the black doors part, revealing a large mound with many large holes that looked to be tunnels. Around the outskirts sat additional huts, although they appeared to be more adobe in style as opposed to the traditional wooden huts of the rest of the village.

    “Come,” Asha said. “We enter now.”

    Russell watched as a select group of hooded villagers carried in large baskets full of roots and tubers. Placing a basket at the doorstep of each hut, the villagers returned to the Rat Priest's side. The Rat Priest motioned for Russell to come to join him.

    “Today, we wish our elders farewell as they enter into the realm of Osiris. May their hearts be weighed justly so they may receive final entrance into the paradise beyond.”

    The hooded villagers pulled back their hoods to reveal beady eyes, balding skin, elongated teeth, and odd growths protruding from their lips. The villagers appeared to be both youthful and in good health despite their deformities. One by one, families came forward to hug and kiss each of the “elders” and then walked with them to the huts.

    “Their families will stay with them until they complete the transition,” the Rat Priest explained to Russell. “The tubers and roots will keep our elders fed until they are able to forage in the beyond for themselves.”

    "I don't understand. What's wrong with them, and why are they going to stay in the mound?"

    "There is nothing wrong. This is the next stage of their life, and the mound is home."

    “To the elders? You send them to live here?”

    “It is the right home for those who have completed the transition.”

    As if the Rat Priest could hear Russell’s loud and unruly thoughts, he gently touched his arm. “You will see, my friend.”

    Lifting his arms, the Rat Priest began to chant. He encouraged the villagers to join him until the rhythmic sound of their voices swirled like magic mixing with the hot air and consuming the world around them. More baskets made their way to the front of the mound and were placed next to the holes. A welcoming tradition. Russell watched as enormous naked mole rats emerged slowly from the mound and worked their way toward the baskets. More villagers came forward to pet and speak with each emerging rat. The rats chittered happily, and many nuzzled close. He saw Asha hug a mole rat tightly, tears of happiness pouring from her eyes.

    “They’re pets?”

    “They are family. Our people will spend the rest of the day here sharing their lives and saying their goodbyes before heading back to their homes.”

    “What do you mean when you say ‘family’? And why are they locked behind a gate?”

    The Rat Priest took Russell's arm and guided him to a blanket on the ground, and invited him to sit.

    “You are familiar with the work of Erwin Murinae, yes?”

    Russell nodded.

    “The transformation you see was a gift from the gods delivered to us through Erwin Murinae. We have been granted the blessing of a long and youthful life free from disease.”

    “Then what was wrong with the people with the facial deformities?”

    "Those are our elders. They are not deformed. They are evolving. The time has come for Osiris to welcome his own. What you call deformities is part of the transition."

    “Into what?” Russell’s palms began to sweat. He’d known he was close to a secret, but this was not the secret he'd imagined.

    "Into the large mole rats, you saw. They will live as mole rats for a year or two before they finally pass into the Duat."

    “You’re telling me the villagers turn into mole rats?” Russell asked, trying to make sure he understood the priest.

    “That is the gift Erwin Murinae brought us.”

    Russel wasn’t sure about the ‘gift’ part, but he didn’t want to offend the Rat Priest. “How old are these people?”

     “Somewhere between eighty to one-hundred human years.” The Rat Priest frowned. “You seem upset by this.”

    “I’m trying to understand.” Russell chose his words carefully. Every culture had its own traditions, and this one had been kind enough to accept him into its fold. He genuinely wanted to understand. This was supposed to be the fountain of youth he was seeking. The fountain of youth had been Erwin Murinae’s life’s work. How that tied to elders turning into mole rats, Russell didn’t know. Was this an experiment gone wrong? “Erwin Murinae turned people into mole rats?”

    The Rat Priest chuckled. “Perhaps from a Western perspective, but to us, he gave us a gift of the Gods. Erwin Murinae gave us longevity, youth, and great health. It is the will of Osiris that we turn to mole rats at the very end. Every great gift bears a price. A few years as a mole rat is a small price to pay for the life we have been given. While other villages suffer from disease and old age, we remain strong and youthful. Only at the end of our journey do we transition before finally joining Osiris. What greater gift could there be?”

    Russell remained silent. The last anyone had heard of Erwin Murinae, he had died fighting the Italians in Ethiopia during World War II. A charred corpse was found bearing his dog tags, and everyone believed that his work had died with him. Instead, he had been here experimenting on the local villagers. What the villagers considered a gift from God was really the work of a twisted genius.

    The Rat Priest interrupted Russell's thoughts. "Do not think we have no free will in this matter. The gift must be accepted freely. We all choose. Tomorrow, those of age will drink the Helix I have brewed per Erwin's instructions. All Rat Priests are the keepers of this ritual. It is our sacred trust. Now come and make merry. We can talk more tomorrow."

    For the rest of the day, Russell spoke with families, petted mole rats, and visited with those in transition. Oddly, nobody seemed bothered by the fact that their human DNA, the fundamental elements that made them human, had been tampered with and mixed with that of a naked mole rat. Russell had read about Erwin's experiments, and the Western world labeled his work an abomination.                    Although many believed that he had eventually cracked the code and actually found the fountain of youth. God knows Russell had dedicated his life to searching for the truth. No illness, youthful vigor, and appearance for the bulk of your life span? Russell could see the appeal. But if humanity was created in the image of God, then to tamper with God's work on such a fundamental level was amongst the gravest of heresies. Yet here, in this small African village, even knowing the consequences of the cure for aging, Erwin was a hero.      As the day came to a close, Asha skipped up to Russel, a smile lighting her face. It was time to return to their huts. “Did you enjoy yourself?” 

    “I did,” Russell said. “Although it wasn’t what I had expected.”

    “Yes, it is hard to believe that the naked mole rat I introduced you to is my grandmother, Uma. I could tell she liked you.”

    "It was an honor to meet her. Thank you for sharing your family with me." Given it might be the last time Asha saw her grandmother, she was humbled that she had included him on her family visit. "Does it bother you that someday you'll become a rat?"

    She lifted a brow. "Does it bother you that you will become old and feeble? I have heard of your nursing homes. That is not life for me. Tomorrow I drink from the Helix. I am blessed to have this opportunity."

    “What if I could offer you a different opportunity? A chance to come to my world instead of drinking the Helix.”

    “Why would I have to pick one or the other?” Asha seemed puzzled.

    Russell paused for a moment. “You could visit my world. See what you think. We have many wonderful opportunities. Build a life  there if you like.”

    “My life is here. Here is where I have people I love. I have read about your world and seen pictures. But this is my home. The Helix is part of my destiny.”

    “The two things are not mutually exclusive. You can drink and still visit. Although people in my world don’t turn into naked mole rats. That would be something that you might need to keep to yourself.”

    “Perhaps, but I am happy here. Your world can’t be that happy, or else you wouldn’t have come looking here.”

    “It’s not a matter of being happy. Everyone wants to be young and healthy.”

    Asha thumped her chest. “Everyone wants what I already have.”

    “I’m not sure everyone would be willing to turn into a mole rat.”

     "For youth and health? Do you, not age and struggle with disease?"

    “You know we do. But, we have medicines to help us and doctors to treat many of our problems.”

    “But you can’t treat getting old. Your people struggle. How is that better than becoming a mole rat?”

    "It doesn't bother you that you will eventually lose yourself and become something else? That the Helix that you drink mixes your human DNA with that of a naked mole rat in order to give you that youth?"

    “We are all creatures of God.”

    “I guess we are,” Russell said as they arrived at the front door of his hut.

    “You’ll be there at the ceremony tomorrow, won’t you?” Asha asked. “My parents have invited you to stand with us.”

    Russell met Asha’s gaze. “I wouldn’t miss it.”

    As Asha turned to leave, Russell suddenly stopped her. “How old are you right now, Asha?”

    "I have sixteen years. I have reached majority, which is why I can now choose the gift."

    With a wave, Russell watched her walk away. Though he understood that in this culture, she was considered a woman with all that it entailed, he couldn't help but think of the sixteen-year-olds back in London. As far as he was concerned, they were still children. They had not yet finished maturing. Yet Asha was about to make a life-altering decision at such a tender age. Russell wasn't sure how he felt about this. Asha was so sure of her decision, but he'd been so sure of his decision to pierce his ear and get a tattoo when he'd been eighteen. Both decisions he'd come to regret. The hole in the ear he'd allowed to close and the tattoo that had seemed deep and meaningful he kept hidden. What did you really know at sixteen anyway?

    Tomorrow was supposed to be a day of celebration; Russell couldn't help but feel like he might be losing a friend. Would the elixir change her personality? He might not like his tattoo, but it didn't turn him into someone else or something else that he might regret later in life. What if the DNA mutated so the village children were born as mole rats? He shuddered, wondering if those possibilities had been considered. Still to never grow old. Too never know disease or illness. To have that quality of life. Wasn't that valuable too?

    'Every gift comes with a price,' the Rat Priest had said. Russell wasn't sure if the Rat Priest or the villagers knew exactly what price they were paying. He wasn't sure their decision was wrong either. He thought about the broken Helix on the Osirian Doorway. Erwin Murinae had broken the double Helix and rebuilt it. The thought was mind-boggling.

    Russell laid awake thinking for a good portion of the night. His eyes were gritty by the time morning arrived. Splashing his face with water, he dressed quickly and went to meet Asha’s family at the Rat Priest’s temple. Other families waited with their teenagers as the Rat Priest began the ceremonial ritual. A small glass bowl filled with a translucent cloudy liquid was passed to each youngster. Russell stood with Asha and her parents. He watched as she accepted her bowl.

    Asha gave him a reassuring smile.“This is a good thing, Doctor Russell.”

    Russell smiled back. He watched as the Rat Priest raised his arms and motioned for the youngsters to drink. In that bowl rested the very thing that countless men spent their lives looking for – renewal and rebirth. The First Emperor of China, Juan Ponce de Leon, all of the countless souls that had been seeking the font of eternal life, had failed. Yet, he, Russell Huntington, had found it. The Rat Priest filled another bowl and held it out. It took Russell a moment to realize the bowl was for him.

    Russell stared at the bowl. Forever young and healthy. There was no denying the allure, but if he drank, could he really return to the outside world and belong? Would he still be himself?

    The Rat Priest’s gaze met Russell’s. “You have dedicated your entire life to finding this. We would welcome you to our community when your time comes. Would you like to drink?”

    Russell wiped his sweaty palms on his hands as he turned to the North. If he packed his bags and headed North, he could make it back to London with ease. He could sit on the airplane, sipping hot coffee and reading a newspaper.

Turning back, he faced the Black Gate of Osiris. The broken Helix on the door stood out to him. Behind that door lay the land of the mole rats. He would pass beyond those gates as his human form slowly twisted and morphed into the grotesque creature with hairless skin, elongated teeth, and a fleshy tail. Worse still, he would eventually lose the ability to speak. God knew if he would even be able to comprehend the world around him anymore.

    And yet was it any worse than the slow decline into age? Knowing his bones would ache. His skin would wrinkle even as his hair thinned. Living in a body that could be wracked by cancer and disease. He could lose his mind to dementia, becoming a confused shell of his former self. Whether he died in a sterile hospital bed or sleeping in his home, the last twenty years of his life would be a gradual decline into infirmity.

    All those years chasing the fountain of youth, and not once had he thought to ask himself if he would drink. He looked at the bowl in his hands. Adam and Eve had been doomed to old age and infirmity by God when he expelled them from paradise. In a strange twist of fate, in his hands was seemingly the key to Eden. And yet the key wasn’t free. It would come at the cost of his humanity. He would be deviating from God’s plan.

    He spent a long moment thinking. Looking out into the crowd, he made his choice.

bottom of page