The worst part about being dead is it’s so disorienting.
The hospital is dark. The only sounds come from the machines: small beeps and the uneven rhythm of mechanical breaths. The footsteps of a night nurse measure out the dark hallway.
It seems like a long way away to those footsteps. A long way away when you’re hooked to one of those machines. And everything fades in and out like an in-between dream, the kind I haven’t had since I was too young to remember them.
One minute you are a patient, doing your best to bear the unbearable, having been moved in all sorts of positions that seem indecent, rolled into a corner, labeled, and talked at by a dozen sets of eyes: caring eyes, businesslike eyes, efficient and overworked.
And the next everything gets even more uncomfortable—all at once like a vise grip. The machines ring out in alarm. All the footsteps come to you quickly. And right after that feeling of falling, you’re light, floating, no more discomfort. And you can see everyone scrambling around beneath. Nothing too serious, it seems like they’ve done this before. You can’t really see what they’re doing—working on that lifeless lump—and you don’t really care.
The people quit moving, the machine quits beeping, and you float, until everyone looks like a little round marble— like you’re looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Then you move fast. You’ve got rocket shoes. You’re falling again—this time straight up, straight up to a light.
And you and the light become the same thing, a light like you have never seen before. Words fail; the light of honeycombs and spiderwebs, layers of layers turning in a slow kaleidoscope.
And before you know it, you’re sitting here, naked—except a hospital gown— plastic tubes still hanging from your nose, in some kind of office, and you think to yourself…
“This can’t be right?”
There is this little old woman and her husband sitting next to you.
“Would you like a candy?” she asks. She’s speaking Chinese. And interesting thing is you can understand her—as if you’ve always known Chinese—as if it’s really a minor difference.
Her husband leans forward and says, “I wouldn’t eat it. It’s poison.”
“It’s not poison. Be quiet. It was a gas leak,” she explains.
There is a woman behind the desk, in front of her an antique phone and switchboard. The phone buzzes and the lights flash. She pulls a pen from her tightly sculpted 1940s hair and writes something down. Satisfied, she puts the pen in her mouth.
Showing no respect for the fact that you’re recently dead, she’s talking to someone on the line.
“I understand but you’re just going to have to hold.” There are dozens of flashing lights and she doesn’t seem too concerned. “Uh-huh, yeah, right, I understand. Well, there’s a reason for everything and if we knew the reasons we wouldn’t be in purgatory, okay? So please hold.”
“You need to go get your little book,” says the Chinese woman with the cookie.
“From the lady” Her husband leans forward and smiles. “Go…go.” He motions toward the desk.
“He acts like he’s never been here before,” she tells her husband.
So I go up to the desk.
“Hi. Do you have any unfinished business?” she asks me.
“Unfinished business, family secrets, reassuring words of love, revenge—”
“Okay, here is the…” She pulls out a pamphlet or something. “You need to reread this handbook. Let’s see here.” She shuffles through a file. “Yeah, you are due for a reevaluation. So reread the handbook and think about your lives.”
The pamphlet she hands me reads:
The Pamphlet on the Eternal Energy: Taking Time to Reflect upon the Different Forms Your Eternal Energy Has Taken
I take my pamphlet, and I sit back down.
“Anyone who dies in the year of the horse will be reborn restless as a wanderer,” the woman says to her husband.
“We died in the year of the horse,” he says.
“We are not like him.”
A red light bulb glows and a bell rings. The Chinese couple stands up and gathers their things, like their train has arrived. They turn toward me, smile, and nod their heads. They walk toward the giant doors at the end of the office. I looked in as the doors opened, but all I could see was a blanket of white light.
She left a fortune cookie for me. I open it. It reads, “This is not a riddle.”
“Reflect upon my lives.”
I tried. I really did, but trying to remember something that didn’t happen is not easy.
“Will I be next?” I ask the lady.
“Have you thought about your lives?”
“You better take this seriously. You are up for reevaluation. This doesn’t happen every day, and besides, this young gentleman is a VIP.”
There is a small boy from a small African village sitting where the Chinese couple used to be. He is swinging his legs back and forth. He is speaking Bantu.
“Hello, old sir,” he says.
“I want to try something,” he says, and he stands up, and walks around very gingerly. This makes him smile. He jumps very high, and this makes him smile from ear to ear. “When I was alive, my legs could not do this. I had metal sticks to walk with like this.” He straightens his arms like crutches.
“Do you remember being an antelope?” he asks.
“Do you remember running with four legs?” he asks. He laughs because he can tell that I don’t know what he is saying. “I was sick,” he continues, “I was sick. I got very warm, and I began to dream with my eyes open. I could see everyone crying, but I couldn’t touch them. And now I’m here. Please try. I think you can try.”
“Please try what?” I ask.
“Please try to remember— remember walking with four legs.”
So out of respect for the VIP, I do my best.
At first, it is like a snapshot scene of a deer in the woods at twilight, but then in a flash, I’m a deer, startled by a sound in the leaves, ears turned back looking…listening for danger. I trot out in a circle following the lead of another; instinctively and without thought, I move to the left spreading out the awareness of the group. In front of me there is a doe with a white patch over her right eye.
The boy laughs. “I knew you could remember.” He is jumping around with excitement. He looks like he could have been a deer too.
The ornate wooden doors swing open, and again, I try to see inside, but everything is a soft opaque brightness.
The VIP has been served.
With supreme delicacy I manage to remove the tubes from my nose.
I begin to read my pamphlet: Chapter one: overcoming your disbelief
There is a picture of a tree with many roots. Each root is a flower and from the many branches spring more flowers.
“Are you the tree or the flowers?”
“Don’t even ask me…,” the receptionist says, “I know what you’re thinking, and don’t even ask me. Everyone is always asking me about the secrets of the universe.”
“I’m tired of it.” She turns the pages of her Cosmos magazine.
So I think real hard and that does nothing. So I try the opposite, and something that I found very difficult in life is much easier in death. I have no awareness: no thinking, no stomach, empty. I look down and I remember.
Barefoot on a dirt road, the feet of a child, strong sturdy feet, my peripheral vision becomes more clear. This memory becomes more secure. Surrounding the road is jungle.
In front of me a line of children are scampering forward.
It’s Father calling me. It’s an old language, an ancient language, nothing I can name, but I know it throughout. I know its tones that move up and down, the way it repeats words and parts of words for emphasis. I know how it can spread itself out in sparse notes like the first heavy drops of uneven rain.
“Little horse, run home as fast as you can, and I’ll meet you when the sun sleeps.”
“There must be some mistake.” A voice takes me away from my memory and returns me to the waiting room. A woman is sitting next to me.
“I should go straight to heaven,” she says in German.
“You need to read your book,” the receptionist says.
“But this book is wrong. I know the book,” the woman protests.
“The only book is the book in your lap.” The receptionist smiles and returns to her magazine.
“This is an outrage!” The woman looks around waiting for someone to acknowledge her complaint. She turns to me and puts on a pleasant face, but underneath there is suspicion and superiority. “Are you a religious person?” she asks.
“Not really…I don’t think.”
“You don’t think? Well…I do. I know. I study it. I teach it. I know it in detail, and this is not right.” She looks with contempt at the book in front of her.
I feel relieved; finally somebody worse off than me. I look down at her book. It’s different from mine. It reads… “Purgatory: when something’s missing.”
I focus back on my feet, my nothingness and the chattering woman blends away into the crowing of a rooster and the dawn of another world.
The story of little horse
“I can remember now. I can remember more.”
“Maybe you can remember with your silent voice,” the receptionist says under her breath.
It’s nighttime and my sister is asleep. She’s snoring. Everyone is getting ready for the midnight festival. The smell of butter soup fills our home. Round solid walls and a roof made from tightly woven giant leaves. The dirt floor is covered by faded rugs. Everything is coarse. Everything is safety.
The smell of the butter soup is heavy, intoxicating. Mother stirs it evenly. It’s almost hypnotizing me, making me sleepy, sleepy like my snoring sister. Father comes in. He’s dressed for the festival in dark make up; the bones of animals tied to his ankles. I hear the sound of the walking skeletons.
My eyes must be closed. Father pulls the blanket onto me, heavy.
“Little horse running into the dreamworld as fast as he can. Run. Run.”
He takes the butter soup. He leaves my mother—no women no children at the midnight festival. Men carry the bones. Men wear the paint. Men confront the dark.
All night the chants and the calls of the sky without the moon— bravery and apologies for brave deeds.
In the morning you can see your breath, and Father would take me out early while my sister is still snoring; we would watch the breaths coming out of the roofs of all the village. We would walk into the forest and wait for the deer, and he would tell me that if a tiger comes— if a tiger comes that he would make all kinds of noises and that I was supposed to run, run as fast as I can and if I get lost I just need to follow the river. There are always good spirits along the river.
Mother has hands like an elephant’s elbow. And they never get tired pulling the clothes in and out of the river. My sister is leaning over and putting her hands in the mud pretending she is a mother.
I shouldn’t be here. I should be in the fields. I should be hunting tigers. I throw rocks across the river. The air smells like rain and a fast shower comes and pours itself on us. I stand straight up and open my mouth. Giant drops of water go up my nose. And then it’s over, and you can see the rain running away following its cloud.
Mother scoops up the basket and we trail behind, sister so close she almost makes mother trip. The air smells different. It smells like fire.
The men are yelling, “Soldiers are coming!” Something’s wrong because mother drops the basket and all the linens get dirty in the mud.
In the village everyone is running, everyone. Me and my sister, we hide in the hut, under blankets. Father is there.
“Little horse! A tiger is coming. When you hear me say your name two times, I will make all kinds of noises, and you take your sister and run, run. Run along the river. Run day and night until you reach the temple. When I say your name two times…”
He hides us again. My sister is squeezing me so hard I can’t breathe. Everyone is screaming and men are yelling deep threatening yells.
It’s louder. It’s Mother and Father. The men are in our home. “Stand back. Stand back.” The men hit someone. Mother is screaming. They found us.
The men grab me by the neck like I am a calf. My sister is still holding on. They throw me down. Again, they threaten my family.
I’m ready. I’m waiting. Say my name two times and I’ll run. But Father doesn’t. He’s frozen. He cowers next to Mother. Say my name two times, but there is nothing but silence and fear.
The men take us outside and put us in a line. There are many other children. We are prisoners. I can’t understand this terror; this insanity of terror.
But most of all I’m angry, angry at father. The men are soldiers of the king. They have weapons I have never seen before. As we walk through the village everyone cowers like Father did.
I hold my sister’s hand and walk. We are headed to the long road. I am not afraid.
I am angry.
And then I hear it. I hear it!
“Little horse, little horse!”
“Little horse, little horse!”
All the soldiers move quickly to the front. I know what I am doing and I am as fast and as strong as father would expect. I grab my sister’s hand and we run; one of the other children pauses and then follows us. Her name is Gana.
There are sounds of weapons and violence. Father is cut down like long grass. And I run. I am little horse, and I run.
I carry my sister along the river, and I would not let them rest, my sister and Gana, because if I rest I might cry. I can’t cry so I keep running. Until finally I am exhausted and I pray, “Please don’t let them see me cry. Please.” And the fast moving cloud came running showering us with giant drops of water and I cry; my weakness washed away and hidden.
After two days, we reach the temple and no words are needed. They make us warm and give us food. As we sleep, an old monk leans forward. He has one brown eye and one that is white. He whispers to us,
“The king cannot enter the temple. Any king who enters the temple will turn to dust.”
I awaken from my memory.
“Where did the lady go?” I ask the receptionist.
“Back in a body to try again.”
“What do you mean?”
“I told you not to ask me.”
“Did she go through the big doors?”
“Did… how did she end up in a body?”
The receptionist has lost her patience. She looks up and answers me in a steady disinterested tone, “The walls were ripped away by giant flaming monsters and terrible and wonderful spirits fought over her until she fled from the conflict finding safety in the womb.”
“You’re standard re-birth. ”
I went back to the life I had just remembered, and the other days passed through in glimpses, as if the real moment of that life was in the running along the river and everything else was an echo. I remember staying at the temple and growing old. I remember protecting the children who came to the temple just as I did. I remember the sadness in my heart from what Father did for me, and no matter how much I gave, no matter how many children I kept safe, it wasn’t enough to fill that emptiness.
I remember the taste of that life—bitter and strong blocking out all other flavors.
“Hello, sir.” A gentleman has joined me in the waiting room. He speaks to me in Spanish.
“This is very unexpected,” he says with a mild curiosity. He seems to be taking death pretty well.
He reads aloud from his pamphlet. “Every flower in the orchard is in its place like the musicians in an orchestra—each as producing the right frequencies of complimentary vibrations, each as harmony.” He turns to me to ask.
“Mine is different.”
He goes up to the receptionist for clarification.
“Excuse me. Excuse me.”
“She doesn’t like questions.”
“Why are they different?”
She looks up and removes her reading glasses. “They’re all the same.”
He looks again. “No. They’re different.”
“The words are different but they’re all the same.” She returns to her reading.
He stands there confused. “I don’t get it. I am a scientist. I should be able to figure this out.”
“Do you remember having four legs?” I ask him.
“Are you crazy? Maybe I’m crazy.” He wonders for a moment. “I’m going to talk with the lady.”
That is fine with me. I need to reflect upon my lives, and I have no idea how many that might be.
The streets are cobblestone. I am walking behind a vegetable cart being pulled by a goat. The vegetable man turns to me, nods, and waves as if I am good luck.
The town is busy. I enter the church. The afternoon light shines through the stained glass, and colors the stone walls and floors. It somehow thickens the air. The wood creaks as a few old women rise from their prayers. They smile as they pass again as if I am a good luck charm.
I take my place in the front of the church. My will places me on my knees. I am not speaking my mother tongue, French, but Latin.
I bathe in its ritual clarity. I always feel as if it is not my voice that speaks but a universal voice; one that I may only humbly strive to understand; one whose sounds give greater meaning to my intentions.
My prayers are hard pressed in my mind and soft in my heart. I am studying to be a priest. My will is bringing me to my knees, because I have sin in my heart; sin which feels like joy; sin that I don’t understand.
Not the love of Jesus Christ, but the love for a woman.
It is another day, and I am in the office of the priest. I am ashamed.
“It’s in this time that you are very vulnerable, at this time in your learning as you are just beginning to open to God that you are most vulnerable.” He reaches forward and grabs my arm. “Trust me. I know. You must fortify yourself against these failings with prayer and devotion. Empty yourself and be filled with the words of God, with good works, and trust in God. The only salvation is through prayer. You must submit yourself to that action knowing that every attempt is a failure, but with the goal of it being less so.”
I listen. I am ready to obey, but I doubt. “I am uncertain. Why God would put this in my heart if it is sinful?”
“It is not sinful; it is wonderful, but this wonder is not for you. For you there are greater wonders, wonders that will fill you with stillness.”
It is after evening mass, and there she is, Marie Capulet, standing on the steps of the cathedral waiting for her mother to finish talking with the priest.
On her face there is a white birthmark across her right eye and down her cheek. There is a matching streak of white through her hair. The “marked one” she is called. On the very steps of the cathedral, I cannot take my eyes away from her. She leans gracefully, bored, waiting to resume her leisurely walk home.
And then it happens. The moment that if it never had occurred, I could have banished my evil thoughts through strength of will, but after that moment, I cannot.
She turns, catches my gaze, and blushes, and the blushing makes her white mark stand out even more.
At night I pray again and devote all of my efforts to controlling— more than that— destroying these thoughts which are of no use to me, only a burden, an obstacle to be overcome. But it is in sleep my will is conquered; I walk through a garden, and the spirit inside me overflows and runs free, holding her hand as she disappears behind flowers. I relish in this release of the struggle only to awake and turn against myself with renewed shame.
This continued for some time until on one of those Friday evenings after mass, as she was waiting for her mother to finish her weekly conversation with the priest, I moved quickly toward her and slipped a letter into her pocket like a spy.
Right there, on the steps of the cathedral, I am a great sinner. I have written a love letter.
Week after week I wrote new ones, and week after week, I received the same reward, her smile and her complicity. My shame began to lessen as my doubts increased.
My advisor had become more worried about the cloud he could see in my face. He brought me to the monsignor for guidance.
The old man smiled through his eyes as I completely unburdened myself before him. He sat in silence, his fingers fidgeting over rosary beads.
“Oh yes, Love. This is nothing new. This is a stumbling block; the virtue that is also a vice. You see it is both. You may wonder how it is a virtue and at the same time a vice. It is both, depending upon where it leads you, depending upon from where you start.” He stands up with great effort and looks through the small window in his study.
“There is a wonderful songbird that sings in the forest and anyone with stillness in the heart can hear it. It sings in the night, and for those who are deep within the darkness of the forest, it is a guide to lead them out, but for those who are almost free from the forest it is a tempting song that leads them back in where they are lost again.”
“How do I know where I am?” I ask.
“It’s not so much where you are, but who you are, and for that you have to know yourself.”
“You’re next,” the receptionist says.
“No. Not you. The scientist.”
“Him, but I’ve been here longer.”
“Exactly, besides he’s figured everything out,” she says.
“He has? You have?” I ask him.
“I have.” He looks different. His eyes tear up. He looks serious… reflective.
“It’s all right in the booklet.” He hands me his book.
“You see in my complete devotion of myself to my science, my system of disbelief, I followed the heart.
“And the heart, it always knows. It is honest. The holy spirit for me it was atoms: the secret unity of all things, all things in every detail, as the waves that move to give the appearance of form.”
Then a serious and joyful look came across his face.
“I am ready for what may come. Without hope, I am ready.”
“Good luck,” he says to me.
Like the others, the doors open and he enters. Again, I try to peer inside but all I see is light. I am convinced that anyone who enters those doors must become blind. The receptionist is having nothing to do with me again, so I return to trying to remember. I focus on the love letters. I focus on the glow of the mark across her right eye.
I can’t believe it, but there it is, sitting on my desk. It is a letter. This time the letter is for me. I sit on the edge of my bed. The envelope is damp from the light rain. There are only a few words.
~From the moment I saw you I knew you were not a priest.
Priests don’t have eyes like you.
I feel no guilt in this letter.
This is God’s will~
I am stunned. I am elated. I am lifted and released.
There is a knock at the door. I quickly hide the letter, and open the door. She is standing several feet from the door, wet from the faint rain. She is standing in a dark shadow. Her mark is somehow illuminated by the moonlight, making her darkened features glow like a negative.
There is resolve in her hesitation. She steps forward into the light from the door. Her lip is swollen, her eye purple; someone has hit her. She takes me by the hand and leads me into the darkness of the trees beyond my quarters. Nothing is said. She leans into me and we listen to the rain falling its way through the leaves.
I will follow her through any darkness.
This is what is meant for me. This is what this life is for.
The sounds in the distance are thunderous, but they are not thunder. They are war. We sit alone with only the glow of a fire. We open the window and listen to the crackling bursts of the burning wood and watch the flashes of war brighten small circles on the dark horizon.
From poverty to poverty on the brink of war, we are still. We are enjoying this bizarre moment of time. Through giant windows, the kind you could stand in, she says “The rabbits in the hills have all run underground. The rabbits know when there’s war.”
A winter morning demands more of you. It calls you to attention and requires work. As she sleeps, I attend to its calling. On the horizon the sounds of war have ceased, but the machinery is still moving, just beyond our perception.
Summer evenings require less. On days when the sun stays out long after everyone is home from work, and everything that needs completion is done, in those moments was the greatest pleasure of all my lives: to sit there by her side as she read her novel; the smell of coffee filling the apartment; the pressure of her shoulder, which varied so slightly as she turned the page; the feel of the summer’s air pushing itself through the windows and nothing else—calm contented alertness without thought.
But it is winter again, and she has been coughing and ghostly white for many days now, and in this city of war and poverty there is little to do. I try to keep her warm. I try to keep her dry. I bring food she cannot eat and I pray.
I pray with effort as I know it shouldn’t be done. I pray with the veins in my neck, even though I know that is wrong. I beg and I plead. I weep until I claw the floor. I wish that I had never taken her to this place. I am supposed to be sick. I am the sinner. I know this is not prayer, and in those moments of exhaustion I no longer pray for miracles, just that she is taken care of.
Pressing her hand and waiting, with her eyes she shows me that I am an infant next to her, a day old next to her wisdom.
Accepting all. Forgiving all.
Somewhere in fever and dream she left.
I remember the taste of that life. It was sweetness. It was not her that should die like that. It was me. I should have died sitting there holding her hand. Sweetness that leaves you thirsty, only wanting to press her against me and never letting go, to sink into her and be lost.
“My god, what have I done?” A man says to me in my language. He has no pamphlet; there are no instructions given to him by the receptionist. He is serious and distraught. He talks to himself as if we are dream people. He talks as if he is possessed.
I think that he must be very fast at reflecting upon his lives.
“At one time every moment of truth looks the same. It is uncut and whole. All attempts to name them are fruitless. It is no wonder that from these attempts at naming that so many problems are born. Wicked deeds created as systems lay claim to truth, and with every ounce of effort the distance from their goal increases.
“And so it was my task to protect them from these rules, these rituals. It was my calling to tear this down and therefore renew the pathway to truth, to provide a new route free from hypocrisy, free from the tainted instruments of humans.
“And in this, I have created new rituals, new forms, new hypocrisies. For every breath of spontaneous wonder there is a mechanism that tries to catch it. And I accomplished nothing, just another lost life in the circle of thinking.”
He puts his head between his knees for a moment to mourn his life. “I have wasted my life.” He weeps.
Then, to my surprise, the receptionist stands up from behind her desk. She walks toward our bench. She is much taller than I would have guessed. She sits next to him and comforts him.
“No lives are wasted,” she says.
The doors open and she leads him into the light. I wonder what he has done to deserve this kind of assistance. After the doors close she returns to her desk, and shoots me a hard, indifferent look that seems to suggest that I return to my reflection.
It is a new life.
Fire and Ice
The smoke from the train pollutes the air with a mechanical smell. I am covered from head to toe in a black dry dust. I take a wet rag and clean my eyes. They glisten in contrast to the dirt. I don’t notice that in the first-class train compartment someone is watching me, a young girl with a white birthmark over a pale eye. She studies me like she knows me. She is moved by my filth and the way my clean eyes reflect the sunlight.
It is a moment that will affect the whole of her life. It is a moment that will lead her from a life of luxury and nobility to one of hardship and filth.
I don’t even turn my head as the train whistle blows. I return to moving blackened rocks from one place to another. I continue until the sun is setting. The boss yells at us and we stop. He yells in Hindi.
I wash with the rest of the workers in the river. I don’t join them in their gambling. That night I am moved by the image of a train—that train. I decide I must follow those tracks.
That train had gone beyond the frontier, where the workers toil in the mines, lifetimes spent separating precious stones from average rocks, and I spent years in those lands, working where work would find me, sleeping where the dirt was flat, always with this searching feeling inside that there is something here for me. There is something that I was destined to discover, whether it be a precious stone, a person, an idea.
Then I got a cough, a dry cough that wouldn’t go away. I got so weak I couldn’t work. I got weak so I couldn’t eat, and they put me in a place where there were a lot of people like me.
If we were animals they would be kinder and take us out and kill us, but here they come in with masks and put wet towels on us and take away our dirtiness, and when things were getting really bad, there she is. She owns the place or something. She sits down next to me, no mask…nothing.
“Do I know you?” she asks. There is a white birthmark over her right eye. I have never seen her before but I know her.
All I can do is nod, and she holds my hand. As the last of that black mess fills me up, there’s no more breathing, and with the simple act of holding my hand and watching over me, she washed away a lifetime of dirt in just those minutes.
My thirst was quenched, so I died.
I marvel at my efficiency. I am able to hold the memories of these lives in my mind and turn them over quickly and nimbly. I don’t even revisit the waiting room, just a glance to see the receptionist sitting in bored meditation, and then I return to another life.
And from that life of wasted dryness and dirt I was taken to a land of ice, where heat and dryness become security and home, and all the world outside is frozen water, or freezing water: in hard sheets that jet out of the ground like a mountain, in pelting stones from which you must find shelter, and soft snowflakes that dance in falling spirals.
On crisp nights when there was no water in the sky, I saw more stars than in any of my lives. On other nights the moon would light up the snow, and my family would sit and listen to the call of the wolves. And the language we would speak to each other had words that became long, as every idea was built upon, until words became sentences.
This life was like this for many years, a life driven by the sky, snow, and ice. And the internal life becomes contemplation as the external is busy with the work of survival.
For many years this was life, until I lay down in old age and my grandchildren came to say good-bye.
“Grandmother,” they said, fighting back tears, too young to understand the nature of my departure. “We brought you gifts for the great journey.”
They brought me a blanket, a brush made of bone, and a doll. And in the middle of a strong wind and storm, I left that body.
In the waiting room again, and the effort is lifted.
I see myself as a horse running full speed with the other horses, wild in a group kicking up thunder and dust. How is it we stick together, but each one is so spirited and unpredictable?
I remember myself as a crocodile: slipping beneath the grasses and sinking to the green darkness of the inky river, the flash of moving mud marking a startled fish. I remember sitting in that silent stillness until motivated to the surface by hunger.
“Are you done messing around?” the receptionist asks.
“I think so.”
I look at my booklet. It’s changed and on all the leaves of the tree, there is a life. On each there is an individual life. If I look closely at each leaf, I can see unique textures and stories of every life. The effort is gone. In fact, it is as if they are wherever I look; whatever I see is layer upon layer of life.
Tragedy, joy, sorrow, anger fold onto each other until all is warm and all is light.
I am standing at the door. I pause and look back at the receptionist.
And the giant wood doors look like they were carved from ancient South Pacific canoes and I felt no fear as I stepped inside.
There was no grand display. There are no fireworks or inter-coiled luminous spirals suggesting the fabric of the universe.
There are plants and flowers, and the sound of water; and the walls and the ceiling fall away as if the world behind these doors went on forever. A man is standing before me. He is wearing natural linen. The folds of his face match the carvings on the ancient doors. He opens his hands and welcomes me.
“Are you God?” I ask.
He smiles. “Are you?”
I say nothing. He motions for me to follow him across rocks placed in a stream. The garden is natural and organic, but everything seems to be in its proper place.
“I am here to welcome you.” He says. A butterfly flutters in slow motion between us. Every beat of its wings a sustained breath, a long exhale followed by a powerful breath. This continues.
“I am here to give you a warning.”
The man is gone. In front of me is a desk placed just beyond the stream. The receptionist is sitting behind the desk. She seems even taller, at least seven feet tall. Her skin is darker, her eyes wider; her nose flares, her hair has blackened and is straight and long.
Between her eyes there is a sparkling diamond. It reacts brilliantly to the subtle movements of her head. She speaks in Bengali. The name badge on her right lapel reads “Librarian: level three.”
“What you are about to receive are words. And as such, they are incomplete and false.”
We are no longer in the garden. She is sitting behind the same desk but it is in a very busy library. The stacks of books rise thirty or forty feet, and the rows are too many to count.
“These are a deception that takes you farther away even as they try to bring you closer, and that is the best that words can do. The thousands, the millions, the infinity of words behind me is a repetition; and to say it has all been said before is plagiarism.
“But accept these words that are spoken in good faith.”
We are no longer in the strange library; we are on a street corner at night. The street is lit up by a half a dozen neon signs advertising XXX and other smut in flashing reds. It is no longer the librarian talking to me but a homeless man. The filth of his clothes seems to fit right in with the dark shadows shuffling by. There are prostitutes. There are thieves.
“You wouldn’t happen to have any cash on you, perhaps a ten-dollar bill, fifty francs, some yen?” he asks.
“No, I don’t think so.” I’m not even sure I have pockets.
“I am the prophet, my brother, the profiteer, so strap on yourself and let the revolution begin. Here, on the corner of sin and salutations, I bring you insight to which the card houses must tumble—the card houses upon which the great illusion is built—the card house… there’s nothing wrong with the card houses, nothing wrong with `em, my friend. So let’s get started…where was I?”
“Words. You know the thing about words is, don’t you? You see this sign.” He is standing a few inches away from a flashing sign that reads ‘Live Nudes!’
“I see it.”
“Now examine it. Put your eyes up against it till they hurt, little gas particles or some shit moving around real fast; I’m pretty sure of it. You see what I’m talking about. When you get right down in it like that, it’s all vaporized, and it’s the same if it is some smut sign or the most holy and sanctimonious writings.”
He stands up and leans in to me. Behind him a gunshot is fired and several people scatter in fear and shouting. He is unaffected, inspired by what he has to say.
“You see it is, and always will be, a matter of the wordless. That is where it is, the wordless. There are those who understand without words. For the rest of us, we stuck with the words.”
“You sure you don’t have any tens on you, some lira, maybe a gold piece?”
I do have pockets, and in one of the pockets there is a fifty-franc note.
“All right! Well I tell you what. I’ll answer any question you have tonight. Tonight is our lucky night.”
I think for a half a minute, and then I ask, “Which religion is right?”
“Oooh man, that is a popular question. You must fear for your soul.” He smiles. He gets even closer and becomes serious for a moment. “Which religion is right?
“Let me tell you that.
“When they are right, they are all equally right. When they are wrong, they are all equally wrong…”
He enjoys this. He laughs.
“Shit. It ain’t no secret code… but it does have the perfect hiding place.”
“Where is that?”
He wheels his arms around his head like a prizefighter who just landed the knockout punch and snatched the bill from my hand.
“What are you going to do with the fifty francs?” I ask.
“None of your damn business.”
An employee of an adult bookstore looks into the street to see the homeless man talking wildly to someone who isn’t there, wheel his arms around like a prizefighter, and bend down to pick up some money he found on the ground.
“This is the place for your questions.”
The contrast is startling. Instead of being in the dark and filthy street I am in a classroom. There are no desks, no chalkboards. The children sit on pillows on the wood floor. The walls are made of patterned vanilla paper and they glow from the sunlight outside. The teacher and all of the children wear the same serene peaceful expression. Their bare feet stick out of loose comfortable linens.
One of the students raises her hand. “How can it be everywhere?”
“In every detail all things are evident. From all things we can unfold every detail.”
The teacher rolls back one of the paper walls, and we see two women eating lunch in the public park of some metropolis. They are wearing the clothes of successful business. Their lunches come from Styrofoam containers and paper bags. They are happy to have the time in the park to eat their lunch together. One of the women puts her cup of coffee between her legs. She twists her back just slightly, and the cup breaks. The hot coffee spills and burns the woman’s leg. She jumps up, dropping her cheeseburger on the ground and sending the cup of coffee flying in the air.
But it’s too late. The coffee has stained her beige pants. She tries to turn and look for a stain but she just turns in a circle. She is unable to see the thick brown upside down smiley-face stain on her bottom. She doesn’t even notice the birds fighting each other for the cheeseburger.
Her friend holds out a napkin and tries not to smile, too much.
The teacher shuts that window. “A bird does what a bird does. A human does what is human.”
The student turns the Styrofoam cup over and over in her hands, and the class does the same in their mind. They meditate upon its history, its function, its poison, its impermanence, its fragility, its economics, and the moment in time when the cup broke. The children laugh a joyful laugh; they understand the Styrofoam cup.
Another student raises his hand. Under his right wrist, there is an ink imprint of a rabbit. “Tell us again about understanding.”
The teacher turns to a blank wall and as he directs his hands toward the wall, the image of a dragon can be seen as a dark silhouette illuminated from outside. “Understanding is becoming a new person. It is a new ring encircling the older ones. It is the will that enables the spirit to grow, and for the will it is always hard, impossible work. At the same time it is effortless, spontaneous, and easy.”
The rabbit asks, “How can it be hard impossible and effortless at the same time?”
“It is the trying that is hard, and it is the doing that is easy. Look at this dragon. It has both legs and wings. The dragon sees other dragons fly and glide, but it cannot. It sees that for them it is effortless. But the dragon who hasn’t learned to fly, it can only imitate. It knows only legs not wings. So it runs. It runs with great effort as hard as it can. It even thinks for a few moments that all this running is flying.
“Then, when the time is right, the wings fill and take over for the legs. Then the dragon understands how understanding is hard impossible work and at the same time effortless and easy. The will without the spirit will never fly. The spirit without the will will never move.
The child with the mark of the rabbit raises his hand again. “How can you tell if you are running or flying?”
“By the effort or ease of your heart. Children we have a guest.” All the children turn and look at me. They all smile wonderfully. “He is going to meet the creator today, for an evaluation.”
The children are very excited, and they all stand up and move their pillows out of the way. They stand in two opposing rows creating an aisle for me to walk through. At the end of the aisle is another door. It is a door of white wood, with handles of white gold.
“There is nothing more to see here,” the teacher says.
I begin to walk past the children. I have no expectations. My mind is unprepared and flexible.
“Say hello for me,” says one of the children.
The door dissolved and I entered. It was a familiar room, a small apartment with green carpet. I hardly recognize it because I remember seeing it from the floor up. It is where I spent the first few years of my most current life.
I remember the space between the couch and the coffee table that was my own personal tunnel, the space under my parent’s bed where hiding became breathless waiting, the tired weight of staying up past my bedtime wrapped in a red blanket on that couch, the noises and the lights of the adults blending with my dreams.
“Tell me about your reflections.”
It is the Bantu speaking child from the waiting room, the VIP.
“I knew you could do it,” he says. “Sit and tell me about your lives. Tell me about the animal lives first. Tell me about the animals.”
So I tell him about being the deer, the horse, the crocodile, and many more. I pull from the leaves of my memory and choose only the animals. He is delighted, especially about the crocodile. There is something extra funny about that.
“I think I like the animals most of all. They are my favorite,” he says.
“You have favorites?” I ask.
“In this form I have favorites. But you didn’t expect to see me in this form, did you, old sir? You expected to see someone more like this.”
He changed. It was as if that small boy aged before my eyes and became seventy years older. He had become powerful, gray, and wise. He is wearing regal robes, and we are now in an observation room perched on a mountain top. Beyond us, there is a fiery horizon.
He walks slowly around a small table that has an ancient map on it—a map of all creation. He looks out the window toward the horizon.
“Tell me what your reflections have taught you.”
“I have learned—I don’t know.” I am having self- doubts. But I figure if there is ever a time to let go of self-doubts it is when you are dead and talking with your creator. So I try to give in to the flexibility of my mind.
“I have learned that what seem to be big differences in life are only different shades of the same, (when you are dead you can see all this); it is the thread of experience that continues from life to life, that, it is sometimes the simplest of experiences that connect us, like walking in the hot sun.”
We are no longer in the observation room. We are beside a woman walking through the heat in the brush of Africa. She is almost meditative as she focuses on the rhythm of her gait.
“That content feeling you get putting one foot in front of another and the dry heat that turns thinking into an inarticulate hum.”
We are in the desert of America, beside a coyote that trots at quicker pace than the African woman. We are in China following a farmer as he walks through the fields. In each, the expression is almost the same, a heat-affected glazed look. In each, there is something very similar about the way they walk.
They could be the same.
“It is when thought becomes controlled that experiences flow across the thin boundary of one life to the next.” I look up and we are back in the observation room. The adult version of the VIP smiles.
“What about your current life? You have spent much time trying to remember the other lives, mostly because you didn’t believe, that you didn’t reflect upon the current life.” He looks down at the map as if it is a reference for him. “Did you spend your days trying to save children from Kings? Did you spend your days searching for the marked one?”
“You gave up on me.” It is a woman’s voice. It is Marie Capulet, at the age when she died but with no sign of illness. She radiates beauty. Through the giant windows, there is no war or poverty, but lush green. The rabbits in the hills are out to play.
I move close to her, but I stop short. I am happy to see her, to see her smile.
“Is this the form you prefer to see me?” she says. “You wanted to see me like this, distracted by the illusion of the mark, filled with the idea that one thing is more special than another.”
“I just wanted to see you again. I just wanted to know you were OK.”
“All you have to do is look into yourself, and then you will know if I am OK.” She moves to the window and takes her old seat. The mark over her right eye is larger than before. It is decorative and brilliant.
“What about the present life?” she asks. “We can’t forget about that.”
This life, it seems the hardest to remember. Although it has passed, it seems that I am writing it new with every thought. I don’t even remember the language of this life. There is no great moment of revelation, no great moment of revolution.
There is a domesticated softness that does not allow great evil to enter, and the soft walls that protect it have become its only danger. There is the repetitious glow of mechanical devices that become the pulse of life. There are commercial realities to choose from, with varying degrees of weakness, humiliation, love and success.
I recall faces and family. I see work and recreation. I see a list of events that scroll before my eyes with a comical speed. Everything pushed forward with good intentions. It seems a normal life, but in death you have 20/20. This life of domestication was punctuated with moments from previous lives, moments that emerged as karmic surges.
-waking in the middle of the night while my wife and children slept, standing in the yard, listening and watching a distant thunderstorm, moved by the flashes of lightning and the quiet sounds of muffled thunder, moved in unexplainable ways to my knees in prayer, a prayer unlike this life, free from the walls of the church in the not-quite darkness of suburban night, alone except for a basset hound who had followed me outside to lick my bare feet.
-a life punctuated by an odd hobby, an obsessive interest with unfamiliar languages, languages that are no longer spoken and no longer of any use, none of which I can speak, all of which I can describe.
-A karmic character driven forward by an insatiable desire to destroy evil kings, what others have described as an unhealthy obsession with what is right, and the evil kings were not hard to find. They reside in rigid dogma, in policies and administrations that cling to self-preservation, in the pettiness of power for power’s sake and the fear that feeds it, in all the attitudes that limit, that divide, that strive to conquer.
I engaged in this battle even though the sanctuary walls only reached my classrooms, beginning when ties were required and ending with Hawaiian shirts. But beyond those moments, I think this life is too ordinary. I should have done more to honor those of me that came before.
In short, I am ashamed. This life is so ordinary.
Marie leans forward and holds my hand.
“When you really take a look at it, you realize that life isn’t made to be ordinary.” She takes me in her arms and comforts me.
I think to myself that this is heaven.
“I have to go now,” she says.
I am back in the garden with the same man who greeted me. His hands are clasped in a praying position in front of his heart.
“We’ve come to the time of choices. We’ve come to where all roads lead: to the end, to the beginning.”
He smiles and I notice that his lips are tattooed on the inside, small dots in a spiral.
“There is, of course, a question, but you are not even ready for the question. So you must choose a new body. You must follow the direction of your lives and choose a new life.”
I wonder what the future will be like. I think this time I will write this down. I just wonder what language I will use.
He smiles at my naivety.
“I don’t think I can choose just one life.”
“You will choose one way or another. Your end is now beginning.” He unclasps his hands and bows to me.
The garden is gone and I’m walking through space. Slow-moving frames of existence rotate around me: the river and little horse, the sunlight through the stained glass of the cathedral, the ink-like water of the crocodile, the shower of shooting stars viewed from a snowbank.
The images spin at me with great speed one upon another.
There isn’t one I want; it’s all of them, all their pain, all the wonder, all that is life, to take everything in at once. And the spinning increases in speed, and there is an image of a horse, not one horse but of a hundred wild horses racing in circles, and as I am overcome with light and movement, I pause to admire how the horses remain united despite the strength and independence of their spirit. I wonder at the invisible chords that bind them.
It is the middle of the night in the desert of what is now called Australia.
The elders are doing a ritual. There is a new star in the sky, and they are celebrating its birth. The star erupts in consuming spinning explosions, a delicate balance of its desire and substance.
It is the men who celebrate the new star, the men who decorate themselves with ash and paints and move in trancelike accordance to the drums.
The women are busy with something more important. They have lit small fires in a circle. They are doing chants of their own. Intense screams pierce the night. There is blood and then the cries of a new life. The women move closer with their blessings, and they approve.
The oldest of the elders leaves the star ritual and greets the child. He holds the child up to the sky to see the stars for the first time again.
“This little ancient one has made a wise choice.”