An avid fan of the fantasy, dark-fantasy and mythology genres. Will use adjectives with reckless abandon.
Death by Tucker
Dying is rather overrated. Not the act itself. No, that sticks with you. Especially when it was from an act of betrayal. In my case, it was the betrayal of Tucker, my 2-year-old stallion. I was riding him down the palatial grounds, his chestnut coat gleaming under the afternoon sun. I have made peace with the fact that I’ll never know what startled the poor beast. Tucker reared on his back legs, neighing indignantly and I, already perched precariously on the saddle, was thrown off. As I lay there, dazed, with the metallic taste of blood in my mouth and a ringing in my ears, I looked up and saw a newly-shoed hoof coming down on my head, glinting almost-wickedly in mid-summer sun. A rather remarkable end for a truly unremarkable person.
My eyes fluttered open, then I immediately grimaced and shut them again. Tentatively, I opened them, wincing against the brightness of the room. I was seated in a bare metal chair, it felt cold against my skin, and before me was an equally bare metal table. The room has white-washed walls – the purest white that made the room appear to go on perpetually. That’s when I noticed him.
He was not scary-looking, not by any means, but he was…eerie. His face was beautiful, but in an inhuman, unsettling way. The same way that a flash of lightning in a stormy sky is beautiful; appealing yet uninviting. His eyes were peering at me, unblinking, and they were a startling shade of blue, like a clear summer sky. Under his wide-brimmed hat, some olive-colored hair peeked out. He just sat there, staring at me with an expressionless face; stoic and unreadable like a marble statue. When he finally spoke, his voice was soft and melodic, which made it much more unnerving.
“Welcome to the Ethereal realm”
He said it in a matter-of-factly way, but the pause was inviting. I could tell he had repeated this exact phrase for eons, and always expected the same question.
“Am I-?” I started.
“Yes, you’re dead. And no, this is not heaven… or hell. Like I said, this is the Ethereal realm”
My mind raced. Dead? I couldn’t be dead. I could still feel the metal against my skin, I still drew breath. The man sighed, then continued.
“You’ll get used to it. They all do. My name is Charon”
“Are you-?” The question stuck in my throat
“No. I’m not here to judge you. I’m more of the welcoming committee.”
He drew up his hands, and I noticed that, in his right hand, he held a cane. It was a regal and fashionable cane, with a slender black shaft and a silver handle shaped in the form of a human skull.
“The Ethereal Realm is closest to what you people describe as Purgatory.” He continued. “It is the… holding area for your soul until you die the second death and move on.”
“Second death?” I asked, my mind struggling to come to terms with every overwhelming detail.
“Yes. The first death is what got you here.” At this, here peered at me curiously, and I felt my cheeks redden in shame. He knew about Tucker. Damn that horse
“The second death,” he continued “happens the last time someone says your name. Then you move on.”
“Move on?” I asked. “To where?”
“Some things, even I don’t know.”
He paused and got a far-off look. Then just as suddenly, Charon snapped back to attention.
“Now if you’ll excuse me. You’ll need to go. You can appreciate how busy I am”
“Wait-!” But Charon was no longer there. In fact, neither was the room. I was instead seated on a grassy knoll with a picturesque view of a small lake.
The Old Ones
It was a relief to realize that you do not go to heaven or hell when you died. I was not sure if I; a closeted atheist, womanizer, and serial drunkard, would have made the former’s list. All for the better as far as I was concerned. Singing and praising for all eternity? No thank you. On the other hand, hell was … well, hell. In comparison, this place wasn’t so bad.
“Hi” came a voice from my left, startling me.
I jumped and turned around. The owner of the voice was a man, tall with bronze-colored skin. He wore a toga and an old-fashioned, militaristic-looking haircut.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I trust you met Charon?”
“Yeah… you could say that”
“Don’t worry,” he continued, “you’ll get used to it”
“That’s what he said.” I responded.
The man chuckled, then stretched out his hand.
“My name is Marcus Antonius. But everybody calls me Mark.”
“Wait,” I started, “that Marcus Antonius? Anthony and Cleopatra?”
Mark chuckled again, clearly used to the reaction. “Yes. You’ll be surprised who we got here. What’s your name?”
“Oh, you can call me John” I responded.
“Alright John. Come down and meet some people.”
Turns out that Mark was not exaggerating on the people that this place hosted. I met Cleopatra and she was the most stunning woman, but I also met Alexander III of Macedon, commonly called Alexander the Great. However, the biggest shock, arguably, was meeting Jesus Christ. As it turned out, Jesus Christ was a carpenter from Nazarene, who had been crucified by the occupying Romans after starting a rebellion. I met Julius Caesar… and Brutus, who had interestingly reconciled and were now amicable. All these figures stayed together, and as Mark would later tell me, they kept fairly to themselves. The other citizens of the realm referred to them as “The Old Ones”; figures who could not die the second death because they were the subjects of history itself. Mark had asked me what I had done in my first life and I grimaced. I was… unremarkable.
I had been born into wealth. The only son to wealthy English lord and lady in 1321. My mother had died shortly after my birth to pneumonia, and my father, a consort to Edward III had been killed on the battlefield shortly after my fifteenth birthday. Mark told me that they must have passed from this realm when I died. He had seen that happen often. With more wealth than I would need in a single lifetime, and no parents to boss me around, I had proceeded to live my life as I saw fit, engaging in all manner of debauchery. Unfortunately, I understood now that my second death was coming soon. When the last of my romantic trysts moved on their lives and spoke my name for the last time, I would be gone. Forever.
With this depressing thought in the back of my mind, I trudged on. There was not much to do in Purgatory, and the place was bathed in perpetual sunlight with no nights. As a result, it often felt like one long day interspersed with new arrivals from Charon’s place and, more depressingly, the cries of various friend groups losing one of their own. The new arrivals were how we measured time in Purgatory. By asking them when they’d lived and comparing that time to when we had died, we could tell how many years we had spent in here.
“The Old Ones” slowly grew in number. They were the only consistently-expanding group for obvious reasons, and their ranks grew throughout the centuries. Genghis Khan had joined them just prior to my own demise, but now they had included Leonardo Da Vinci; a supposed painter and engineer from Italy, a woman they called ‘Joan of Arc’, and a chatty man called Christopher Columbus who claimed to have discovered a new world in the sea. Understandably, these new arrivals were also the primary source of information on the happenings of the living world; and the tales got grander and weirder as time passed.
The most interesting tale was that of Jesus Christ. The carpenter always received the same reaction as new arrivals slowly realized who he was. It helped that he was one of the friendliest among the Old Ones, and he often held small gatherings where he told stories of his life to other Purgatory residents; who for the most part cross-referenced these events with those attributed to him in the Bible. He still could not believe that the majority of the world had now resulted to measuring time based on the year of his death. New arrivals also came in with grander and weirder stories about him, regarding how he appeared to select individuals, and sometimes, how the wounds of his crucifixion suddenly appeared on people of extreme faith in him. Not to mention the Popes, Cardinals and Priests who hang on his every word and formed a group of their own.
However, as time went by, the tales from the living world become decidedly weirder. One arrival called Wilbur Wright immediately became friends with Da Vinci, and the two often spoke about how the former had finally implemented designs left by Da Vinci and had flown… like a bird. Needless to say, only Da Vinci had initially believed him, and Wilbur had been shunned by the Old Ones as a liar. However, more arrivals slowly corroborated his story, and finally, his brother Orville arrived and told of how the world was slowly building on their invention. Tales of people flying like birds in winged metal tubes started streaming in, and Orville and Wilbur joined the rank of the Old Ones.
Amidst all the stories and entertainment from the new arrivals, I was slowly realizing the passage of years; decades had morphed into centuries, and I had still not experienced my second death. When I ran into Mark on the same grassy knoll where he had first welcomed me, he was surprised to see me.
Added to the Ranks
“You?” he asked, simply. But the implication was loud enough.
“Hello.” I responded, trying to go for a smile that I thought would have been disarming. “I know. I’m still here.”
“But…” He trailed off.
“I don’t know how. I’m as surprised as you are.” I offered.
Mark instructed me to tell me the story of my life, and since we had nothing but time in Purgatory, I indulged him. I went into painfully sordid details about how I had been orphaned young, but rich enough to spend the rest of my days in a drugged and drunken stupor. I also told him about how I believed I would have experienced my second death when one of my mistresses moved on from me, or died, both events of which must have happened by now – I knew because I had run into a few embarrassed ‘acquaintances’ here in Purgatory over the years.
“Perhaps,” started Mark, “they started a… what did that new arrival call it?”
“A foundation?” I offered.
“Yes! Perhaps people started a foundation in your name and with your wealth?”
While I admit that the idea would have been assuring, I was certain that this was not the case. This is because I had run into Madam Cleo, the governess to my parent’s estate and perhaps the closest figure to a mother that I had never known. She told me that, following my unfortunate demise, the estate had been claimed by King Edward III as royal property and re-gifted to one of his numerous mistresses who had promptly proceeded to erase any trace of existence of its former owners. My name should have been lost to oblivion by now and my existence was in itself a paradox.
Tentatively, the Old Ones welcomed me into their ranks. I slowly understood the sad reality that underpinned their friendship: that everyone you ever knew would join Purgatory, and then die their second death – which we all understood was fading into non-existence. Therefore, in each other, the Old Ones found re-assurance and a sense of stability. Mark and Cleopatra were a source of envy among the rest of the Old Ones; a couple that had the chance to continue their love into perpetuity. But together, we existed, whiling away the time in purgatory as new arrivals regaled us with stories of the living.
Routinely, I visited the grassy knoll to stare out at the lake and take in the view. It also happened that arrivals were often deposited here; perhaps Charon loved the view as well. I felt a sudden presence next to me and turned to face a charmingly beautiful young woman, her bewildered expression a definite indication of her fresh arrival.
“Hello there.” I started.
She turned around to face me.
“My name…” I continued, “is John. John Doe.”
© 2021 Ralph Kiragu