He was startled to find himself in an office. His time on the Irish sea shore had become, quite literally, an eternity; and this abrupt change in location made him realize he had truly forgotten that there was any other form of existence.
Yes, he was sitting in a chair in an office. Well, a waiting area in an office of some sort. While the particulars were indistinct, the feeling was quite distinct. The place was bureaucratic. That, too, was unexpected, given all he’d been through. Yet he knew somehow that there was a vast number of people, or souls, waiting in chairs nearby. He couldn’t see them, but knew they were there. Miles of them. Light years of them. That part was dreamlike -- not seeing things, yet knowing they exist. Indeed, very like a dream. If only it were a dream.
But he resisted any negativity. The details didn’t matter. Merely being here made his heart, which he knew he no longer really had, leap with a long-dormant sense of excitement. He had moved on! Gotten somewhere! Anywhere!
Then swiftly, with the excitement, came apprehension. Had he come to The End? Not the trivial end of mere death, whose threshold he’d crossed eons ago, but the true End of Ends? Judgment? Purgatory? Up there? Down there? Oblivion? Something else?
Without looking around, he knew that “Next” referred to him. It was his turn!
He rose and stepped toward a window, rather like a bank teller’s window, that he’d been aware of but not seen until now.
The middle-aged woman behind the counter wore a bureaucratic pant-suit. He could see her face with shocking clarity. So nostalgically human! It was round, kindly, with large, soft brown eyes, and haloed by short curly light brown hair.
But despite the kindly look, she bore a harried demeanor. He could sense that she did not want to be rude, but nevertheless might be unfriendly due to her apparent stress.
“Before you ask,” she said, in an obvious attempt to head off unwanted questions, “the options are very limited right now.”
Options! If she only knew how option-less his post-life existence had been up to now. The idea of having options of any sort was exhilarating. So he said cheerfully, “I’m not even sure what I should be asking! I’m just so happy to be here. To be anywhere else, you know?”
He was disappointed to see her flinch with -- was it aggravation? Disappointment? Then she said, “Yes, well, it’s just that it’s so busy.”
Somehow he knew she was being honest. He could still feel untold numbers of beings around them at untold numbers of windows. There was an eerie sense of -- of thronging, as though he were in the universe’s biggest motor vehicle licensing establishment.
She said, “Anyway, you have to pick a life form. But it’s really busy, like I say, and there aren’t a lot of choices right now.”
“A life form?”
“You’re about to go back. But we try to give you some choice in how you go.”
“Go back?” He had to think. Back to where? It had been so long. What did she mean? Then it hit him. There was only one possibility. “Back to -- earth?”
“Yes, yes. Same old place.”
“Back to earth?” he repeated, trying to grasp the idea. If he’d been positive of anything over the recent apparently-not-eternity, it was that he’d left earth forever.
“Are you sure? I mean, I died, you know. A very long time ago. And I’ve learned Lesson One.”
She took a long impatient breath as though to calm herself. And he found himself annoyed that she would do something like that. After all, weren’t they both dead? Why bother with the artifice of breathing? But then he chastised himself. Since they had both once been human, and alive, it was probably just to keep things in a relatable context. Lesson One had been like that.
She said, “Yes, you’ve learned Lesson One. That’s why you’re here. To begin Lesson Two. Now --”
He gasped, or at least felt as if he had, “There’s a Lesson Two!?”
“But -- but, how many lessons are there?”
“I know of only two. Now please, you have to choose a life form.”
“Wait, wait! It’s been so long since I’ve been able to talk to someone who --”
“Whom you weren’t teaching Lesson One, I know.”
With dismay he realized this was exactly the discussion she had hoped to avoid. But he wasn’t about to be rushed after waiting all this time, so he forged ahead, “Yes, that’s right, I just want to ask, does this mean that at least I’m closer to the final answer?”
“The final answer to what?”
Taken aback, he tried not to seem exasperated, “You know. ‘Why do we exist?’ Or ‘Why did we exist?’ ‘What was life all about?’”
“Oh, that. ‘Final Answer’ with capital letters,” she said flatly.
He felt her utter disinterest with a sinking heart-he-did-not-have. How could she not be thinking about this question. The Big Question. The only question. Wasn’t that all they had left, the two of them? Well, them and the unseen horde around them. But despite his angst, he thought he glimpsed a ghost of wistfulness in her big expressive eyes. Remembrances of thoughts once thought?
Indeed, her harried demeanor softened slightly, and she said, “Well, you’re probably closer, at least one step closer. Given that there are at least two lessons, I suppose it’s sort of implied.”
“You suppose. But you don’t know for sure?”
“And you don’t know who is in charge of it all?”
“You don’t get orders or emails or phone calls from anyone telling you what to do?”
“You just know.”
“And you keep doing your current job because that’s all there is to do.”
These questions came easily to him because the situation was so crushingly similar to the interminable time he’d spent after he’d learned Lesson One, working as a mentor, teaching the lesson to newcomers, to the very confused newly dead.
“But, if you’re here,” he pressed, “if you’ve moved on, don’t you want to know the Final Answer? Don’t you think we deserve to know?”
Her eyes flashed with sudden anger. “I thought I knew it! I worked for it. Argued for it. Fought for it. Taught it to my children. Then I learned Lesson One. Learned that I’d taught them lies that would lead to nothing but their suffering.”
In all his time since dying, he’d not thought of what Lesson One might mean to a devoted mother with devout beliefs.
“That was -- hard, I’m sure,” he offered.
She rejected his empathy, “Look, you have to choose now, or you’ll just be assigned.”
“Please, surely the question is still important to you. Have you just given up?”
“I’m just waiting. Because I have to. Working because I have to. And now I’m so very, very busy. You really need to choose! You do not want let yourself be assigned. It’s much worse.”
“All right, all right! I’ll choose. Uh, what am I choosing again?”
“A life form.”
“On earth, you said?”
“Yes, I did.”
It suddenly struck him, “My God, if you’ll pardon the expression, it’s reincarnation isn’t it?”
But this profound revelation did not impress her. “If you like.”
“What do you mean, ‘If I like’? That’s obviously what it is!”
“I suppose. Basically.”
“Well, that’s a pretty big answer to at least one big question, right? Reincarnation is real! It’s what happens after!”
She seemed to be mentally drumming her fingers. He was shocked, angered by her lack of interest.
“Come on,” he said, “You must have been excited when you found this out.”
“I don’t remember. And I’m afraid it’s a bit more mundane than what you’re imagining.”
“How can you be so negative? Any answer is an answer, if it’s the Final Answer!”
“You won’t think so when I tell you the choices.”
“The choices of what? Of what to be? When I come back?
“It’s not based on how I lived my life?”
“Or -- or maybe just on how well I learned Lesson One?”
“No. It’s based on what we have available when you get here.”
He now understood the nagging aura of bureaucracy that pervaded this place.
“That seems sort of -- bureaucratic.”
“Doesn’t it, though?” she was unnecessarily sarcastic. “And not like much of an answer to your precious Final Question. And, not to be overly negative, you can only to pick an animal.”
“An animal? I don’t go back as a person?”
“No. No one does.”
“I can’t pick, say, a prince, or a Senator or -- or a Buddhist monk or something?”
“Nope. Only animals.”
“Why is that?”
Her eyes narrowed. And he resented that she was allowed eyes to narrow. But he demurred, “Okay, okay, you don’t know. But please indulge me one second longer here. I mean, animals? I mean, I was a person before, on Earth, to learn Lesson One. And animals were there only to teach us Lesson One. That killing anything is wrong. I know all this already.”
She nodded with annoying impatience. “Believe me, I know,” she said.
“But so, okay, what could be possibly be the point of going back as an animal?”
“Believe me, I don’t know,” she said. But again her demeanor softened. She even glanced around as though someone might hear her offering advice. And she whispered plaintively, “Please stop asking questions I can’t answer! And, please, please choose. I can see you want to learn. That you’re willing to try. Don’t let yourself be assigned.”
Deciding to accept that she was honestly trying to help, he said, “But I have no idea what to choose! I’ve never even thought about it. It’s so unexpected. Can you at least tell me what is so bad about being assigned?”
“What’s bad is what I’ve been saying since you got here. There are very few choices.”
His non-head was spinning. “All right, all right. Animal. Let’s see --”
She suddenly blurted, “And just so you know, we don’t have lions.”
“Wow, I was just thinking lion.”
“It’s the first one everybody thinks of. I don’t know why. But forget it. We don’t have lions, tigers, wolves, eagles, hawks, owls, elephants, dolphins, whales, gorillas, monkeys, dogs, or kitty cats. All taken.”
“Taken? As in --?”
“As in gone, spoken for, used up, occupied, filled in, sold out.”
“Do you have any idea how many people are dying every freaking minute these days? It’s really jammed right now. I’m not sure the system was designed for this kind of volume.”
He pounced, “System? What system? Designed by whom?”
“You know I don’t know!”
“Sorry. Okay, so let’s just cut to the chase. What’s left? What are my choices, exactly?”
“We’re pretty much down to a few insects and a smattering of invertebrates.”
“Insects? I can only come back as a bug?”
“Only certain bugs. Or, like I say, some of the invertebrates.”
“Is that like, due to bad karma?”
“Stop thinking that way! There is no ranking here. How you lived as a human was only about Lesson One. This is Lesson Two. And your choice has only to do with how crowded it is down there.”
“But, but that just doesn’t make sense.”
“Hopefully, in the end, it makes as much sense as Lesson One! Choose!”
“All right, all right, but you have to realize I don’t even know what to go on. I assume something like ‘honey bee’ is taken.”
“Right, so really what you’re saying is, if I can think of it, it’s probably taken.”
“Then why didn’t you say so?”
“You distracted me with that crap about the Final Question.”
“Hey! The fact that you’ve gotten jaded and given up does not make the question crap.”
“How can I? I only know standard bugs, okay? Ants, bees, grasshoppers, spiders. Ooh, wait, I don’t want to be a spider.”
“Trust me, all taken. Even wimp-ass daddy-long-legs.”
“Okay, then you have to help me. I’m not a -- a bug-ologist. Give me choices! What’s left?”
She spoke quickly, furtively, “In terms of higher forms, having eyes, being able to move around a bit, there’s a few dung beetles.”
“Dung? As in -- ?”
“As in what you think it is.”
“Oh come on. There has to be something else --”
“Sure. We have leeches, a couple of ticks, tapeworms --”
He was becoming aghast, “There’s really such a thing as a tapeworm? That thing that lives inside people’s intestines?”
“Yes. Do you want to be that?” She was altogether too hopeful.
“Okay, but I’m just saying, not a lot of choices.”
“That’s becoming a lot clearer!” he shot back. Then he had what he thought was possibly a clever end-run around the whole problem: “Could I be a plant? A tree? Like a giant sequoia?” It seemed to him that that would probably be pretty non-stressful life, and he would have a great view.
“No. No plants.”
“Why not? They’re life forms.”
“Plants are just there to support the system.”
“Now you sound like your reading from a prepared statement.”
“Well, it is what I’m supposed to say,” she said.
He sighed a non-breath, and hoped she could see he was sighing it. That she could feel his wholly justified frustration and resentment.
But she only pointed urgently to her wrist, where there was no watch.
In life, so long ago, he’d been pretty good with bureaucracy, approaching it in a calm, well-prepared way, usually getting what he wanted through patience and gentle insistence. But being dead made him rather more fatalistic. Certainly during Lesson One there had been no choice but to go with the game plan.
So, he forced himself to think of other options, and after a moment asked, “Okay, what about a fly? Not the kind of fly that sits on, you know, dung. But some other kind. A gnat or --”
She interrupted, “Everything that flies is taken.”
“Oh, come on. Everything?”
“Flying sounds fun, so people think it’s a good choice. Even all species of mosquito are taken.”
He fought the urge to lash out at this ridiculous, childish challenge. Instead he asked, “All right, what about fish? Are there any fish?”
“Not really. There are a few tiny ones that live like three miles deep in the ocean, where it’s pitch black.”
“I know, right? After them, we drop down to krill, sponges, sea slugs, nematodes -- there’s actually quite a number of nematodes. And they live pretty much everywhere. A lot of people ending up picking them.”
Until this moment, he’d thought of himself as fairly well educated, but had to ask, “Is a nematode some kind of frog? Or toad?”
“No, nematodes are a huge family of worms.”
“Oh.” He was disappointed.
“Way better than tapeworms, though,” she offered.
“If you say so.”
“Hey, you can always be a dung beetle or a sea slug,” she sniffed.
He sighed again. It seemed so ignominious. So pointless. So bizarre, after the intellectual anguish of learning Lesson One.
“Well, how long do nematodes live? I mean, how long will I have to crawl around or whatever?”
She blurted, “Look, it’s not that big a deal, because you go back over and over.”
She caught herself -- a mental biting of the tongue. And seeing this, a chill shot through him, “Over and over? Are you saying I’m going to have to die as an animal.”
She did not answer, but her expression said, Yes, and I’m sorry I hinted at that.
The memory of the myriad deaths he experienced in learning Lesson One flowed over him like icy, suffocating molasses. He had to grip the edge of her counter in terror just to steady himself.
“Please, I can’t do it,” he whimpered. “I can’t take any more deaths. It’s not fair!”
“I know how you feel, but please just choose. It’s better if you choose.”
But he was near panic. It was one thing to think about going back to Earth as an animal for a single time, and quite another to think of going back repeatedly, to die over and over. Yet she was saying the choice of animal made the experience somehow less dire. So he could see it was important, very important, what animal he chose!
He focused with all the mental energy he could muster. “Okay, if I pick an animal, I mean, a bug or whatever, then I keep going back as that same thing?”
“I can’t ever be a different thing?”
“You choose only once. That’s why it’s important to pick something you want. I mean, something that doesn’t seem too awful.”
“But can’t I ever, you know, work my way up to higher animals? Isn’t that how reincarnation is supposed to work?”
“No, and you brought up reincarnation, not me.”
“But what is Lesson Two?”
“I don’t know.”
“But you must have learned it. You’re here.”
“I know. I must have learned it, but now I don’t know what it was. All I know is that I have to encourage newcomers to choose. Maybe learning Lesson Two is somehow about the choice.”
“I say again, help me! What’s best?”
“Please, please, I don’t know. I just know you don’t want to be assigned. It’s worse.”
“Worse than dung beetle and tapeworm?”
“Come on, what could really be worse than --”
“Bacteria!” Again she blurted. And again she looked around furtively.
“I could back as – as a bacteria?” He stammered.
“Yes. And these days most people do. There’s just no room down there, okay? And bacteria live for like, I don’t know, days or hours or something, so you see?”
He instantly understood with chilling profundity, “So you die a gazillion times.”
“Okay, okay, I get it. I have to pick. Let’s see --" Then he had one last thought, “What did you pick?”
She hesitated. “I was a cheetah.”
Despite the intense pressure, he was dumbstruck, “What?! Now wait a minute --!”
She was immediately apologetic, “It was a long, long time ago. There weren’t so many of them -- of you -- of us.”
“But you got to be a cheetah?”
“And you were a cheetah many times?”
“Oh, many, many times. I died so many different ways. And it wasn’t all that much fun, okay? Mostly I was nervous, or scared, or hungry, or fighting somebody over something.”
He was petulant, “But you got to be a cheetah.”
“Look, what do you want me to say? I’m sorry? Sorry I died so long before you?”
“That might help.”
“All right. I’m sorry.”
An unearthly rumble shook their surroundings. It had the core-fear inducing power of an earthquake or a tornado -- or an approaching apocalypse.
“What is that?” he asked, involuntarily ducking low.
“They’re coming to assign you," she answered, low and grim.
It, they, him, her, whoever, whatever! Stop going there!”
The rumbling became soul shaking.
He whispered fearfully, “It sounds like a herd of elephants!”
“No, it doesn’t. I heard lots of elephant herds. Please, you still have a few seconds. Choose! Choose!"
The rumble was now utterly terrifying. God-like, or maybe Hell-like. His mind lurched frantically over the paltry options. Live in dung. Live in utter darkness. Be a wretched parasite coiled in a steaming gut. Or --
She quickly typed something. Oddly, he realized he hadn’t even noticed she had a keyboard.
The rumbling abruptly stopped.
But nothing else happened.
And they waited.
And still nothing happened.
So, tentatively, he asked, “Did I get in?”
She glanced at some unseen monitor and nodded affirmative.
They waited some more. It became an awkward silence. He felt the need to fill it with conversation.
“So, I guess, when you weren’t starving or fighting, it was pretty cool, being a cheetah?”
She seemed grateful for the distraction. Her eyes lit up with memories. “Oh my yes, especially when I was hunting. I could hear everything around me -- the birds, the bugs -- even the grass moving. I could smell everything. And I could move so slow, so quiet.” Her shoulders undulated in cat-walk mime. “And then I’d spot what I’d been smelling. Gazelle, impala, whatever.” She licked her lips. “And I’d freeze! Sink slowly down. They had no idea. And all my muscles would bunch up tight and –”
He awoke. Ahh, delicious muck! How easily he could slide through it! Except there. Something hard there. Oh, a rock. No matter, he’d go around. Muck was everywhere! His was a limitless world of wondrous muck! He wriggled forward, on the hunt. And soon he was chewing through the cell wall of his prized food, the soybean root. His head plunged inside, and a gargantuan nutrient waterfall gushed out over his whole body! A tsunami of pure flavor. He gulped and relished and wallowed.
But then he stopped. His front ganglia tingled with an electrifying chemical whiff. He’d crossed the path of a female! He corkscrewed, doubling back over the alluring trail. Back and forth, back an forth. He could not see her, of course, because he could only vaguely sense light and dark. But he would find her. He would! He thrilled with sexual tension as he squirmed boldly forward!
copyright 2013 S.S. Wilson