Plot Synopsis Caroline Norton's 'The Undying One' by Emma Bailey
Isbal, 'The Undying One' of the title, tells his story to Linda, the woman he loves, who was forced by her brother to marry a man named Carlos. Isbal's story begins with a short tale of how everything dies except himself. He is cursed to wander the earth. He recounts his travels first through the different religious faiths he has encountered on his travels and then through those he has loved. His first love Edith is also the first to hear his tale but it is so horrible that she dies from hearing the tale. He explains his grief and the injustice of her death through a series of powerful images of battles, tyranny and oppression. He is in a war-torn Spain when on the battlefield he sees a woman and her child mourning the death of her husband. She is trying to wake the soldier from his sleep and at the sight of this Isbal is moved so much that he falls in love with the woman, Xarifa. They are drawn together by their mutual sorrow and when the orphaned child calls Isbal 'father', he sees a chance of happiness. They live together contentedly but Xarifa senses something is wrong. It worries her and she is often fearful. One evening by the river Guadalquiver, she confronts Isbal with her fears. She has seen that while she has grown old he has remained as young as when she first met him. Not wanting to know the reason for this extended life, she takes her secret to the grave. Although Isbal is distressed by Xarifa's death he takes comfort in her son's imminent wedding. A great wedding feast is enjoyed until someone mentions that they have heard a terrible tale about a man doomed to live forever. This man has wandered up and down the earth with Cain's dark sign branded on his brow, so the wedding guest says. Isbal tries to laugh this off but his son knows the truth. Their close relationship is shattered at that moment, and they glare at one another. The son cannot forgive Isbal, and though the bride takes pity on him, when he awakes in the morning they are both gone; he is alone again. He takes up his wanderings again and this time they are recounted through all the terrible sights he has seen. Isbal takes delight in these sights now; to see others suffer seems to offer him comfort. He witnesses an inconstant lover confessing his sin, a widower weeping at the loss of his wife, a father weeping because he has had to bury his children rather than they him, a guilty wife and her husband whom she is asking for forgiveness, a parricide, a woman wishing desperately to meet again the one she loves, a poor child leaving home in search of a better life, a widow mourning the death of her son, an orphan, casualties of disease, deformed children, and finally, in Ireland, a mother attempting to murder her child. He watches as she desperately wrestles with her maternal instincts and the greater urgency of drowning the child. Seeing another chance of happiness, Isbal rushes to intervene, offering the mother gold if she lets him keep the child. Isbal's intervention brings the woman to her senses and she snatches the child from him, returning the gold and demanding food instead. Before Isbal has time to answer this demand, the woman expires. Isbal therefore takes the child as his own and their relationship blossoms into that of father and daughter. He names her Miriam and they live alone on an island where she is a dutiful daughter, spending all her time with him. Isbal notices that as time goes on Miriam grows sad and he realises that she is in love. He cannot stand to let her go though and eventually his jealousy leads him to murder her. For his crime he is tortured on the rack and left to human bloodhounds and wild birds of prey. The pain he suffers is of no significance to Isbal; he is instead overjoyed at the prospect of dying. His torturers are unable to understand this but still he is denied the death he so desires. While he is incarcerated he has vivid dreams of Miriam and what he has done. In a vain attempt to resurrect her he first writes her name in the clay of the floor and then makes a model of her image. His jailer, in a moment of cruelty, destroys the figure that has given Isbal comfort in his despair. Isbal remains in prison for one hundred years in all and still the release of death does not come. As Isbal and Linda remain on the shore, their moments of happiness together are destroyed by the sight of a ship. Linda's brother is on board the ship; he has come in search of his sister. A storm is rising and as the ship moves on, it heads towards danger and is eventually wrecked. Isbal believes that now he and Linda can die together and they venture into the violent sea. It is only Linda that perishes at the hands of the waves, however, leaving Isbal alone once more to continue in his eternal wanderings.