By Matt Doyle
“The funeral was nice,” Tony mused to himself as he walked unseen among his grieving family and friends. He passed through the kitchen wall and positioned himself by the fridge to listen to people talk about how great he had been in life.
There were tears, of course, which were bittersweet to watch. But there were jokes too. And stories about stupid things he’d done; little victories in meaningless situations, and how he’d generally been a top bloke.
Eventually, Tony started to notice a growing darkness in the house. Shadows had begun to descend, bringing with them a near silence. As he looked around, he saw it. The light at the top of the stairs, glowing gently and beckoning him to come. Tony smiled and began climbing the stairs to what would come next.
“This is what it’s all about. I had my fun, and now I get to go to Heaven. Life and death, eh? It all makes sense when you think about it.”
Tony reached the top of the stairs and paused. He glanced back at the others, now barely visible as they continued the wake in near silence. “Catch ya on the other side lads,” he said and walked into the light.
Instinctively, Tony covered his eyes, though part of him knew that the light could do nothing to his spiritual form. Still, he kept his hand up until he was certain that the light had faded to a comfortable level. When he finally looked around him though, he became confused. There were no pearly gates or fluffy clouds, no bearded man to welcome him to paradise, and no smiling loved ones that had gone before him. Instead, he stood in a void, black and endless, with no one for company.
“Welcome, once more.”
Tony span to meet the voice. It had come from a man who, while clearly pale-skinned, had a light blue tint to his flesh. On his forehead sat three white lines, intersected by a third, vertical eye. He wore an animal pelt over his chest and groin, and a snake – a cobra, in fact – slithered its way around his neck like a living necklace. In one hand, he held a three-pronged trident and, most unnerving to Tony, on his lips, he wore an unnaturally peaceful smile.
Tony let his eyes drift into the darkness, searching for others. When none appeared, he turned back to the man and asked, “Where am I?”
“This is the realm of judgment,” the man replied. “Where all life is reviewed, sins are atoned for, and the fate of the shards we release to the world is chosen.”
“Souls you call them,” the man said and took a step to Tony’s side. As he did so, his form wavered and changed. This time, though the animal pelt remained on his lower half, the man became something more monstrous. He was humanoid, yes, but something more too. He had a long, thick tail that slapped against the floor as he moved, and his arms bore the leathery wings of a bat. His face had twisted and contorted to continue the effect, bringing forth a sneering snout full of fangs. When he spoke now, the voice came with a hiss. “Though they have had many names over the centuries. ‘Shards’ is our preferred term.”
Fear had begun to set in for Tony now. “This isn’t … are you God? Or … am I … are you the Devil?”
“I am all of these,” the bat stated. “Good, evil, salvation, despair; all things exist in me.”
“Then the Bible was wrong?”
“You are different this time,” the creature continued, ignoring the question. He reached out and, though Tony tried to flinch, his clawed hand found Tony’s head with ease. “Yes. Much of you was filled with sorrow last time. Life had been difficult. Ah, but I got the balance wrong, it seems. You were not thankful this time, but full of hate.”
“Hate? What are you talking about? I was a good person,” Tony yelled.
The bat removed his hand from Tony’s head and stepped to the side, first shrinking into the form of a crow, then growing out into another. This time, they were human again. Though shrouded in a hooded cloak, a feminine smile peered out at Tony, hiding between strands of long, flowing black hair. “You freak,” the woman said. “Go back to your own country. Are you really that stupid? Do us all a favour and just kill yourself. Don’t worry, my wife’ll never know. Do these sound familiar, Tony?”
Tony’s jaw hung slack as he tried to form a response. Of course, he recognised the words. They were his. “That’s just banter. I mean, kill yourself? Everyone says things like that online, right? And the thing with my wife … nothing happened. If you’re really God, you know that.”
“This is true. But you still considered laying with another, and while your wife was struggling with the death of her father too. These are not the only examples that I can state though. Would you like to hear more?”
“Alright, so I wasn’t what you’d call a Saint. But I did good too, right? I mean, you must have heard all the stuff that people were saying at the wake?”
“Oh yes. You gave to charity and gave up time to help those in need when you could. These are, indeed, good deeds.”
“Exactly. Plus, I made a lot of people happy, ya know?”
The woman pushed her hood back, and as her cloak fell to the floor, her head rolled from her shoulders, dragging the spine with it. The woman pulled the boned column from the bottom of the head and cracked it like a whip, and as she did so, her hair changed from black to blonde, and her smile contorted to stretch from ear to ear.
“You brought smiles to the faces of those close to you,” she laughed. “But this was not always an entirely good act, was it? How many people did you hurt when you were defending your friends, for example?”
“They deserved it,” Tony tried, though he could hear how shaky his voice had become.
“In some cases, yes, I will concede that. But in many, no. You broke a man’s arm in a bar fight once, simply because he shouted at your friend Scott. You stepped in, as you believed to be right, but you did not know that his anger was justified due to Scott’s drunken, racist tirade against the man. Though, with some of your own beliefs, I suppose that wouldn’t be an issue for you.”
“No, I’m not like that. I mean, sure I said some things, stupid things, yeah? But I was angry, or frustrated. I didn’t actually mean them.”
“Ah, but you did, at least in the moment that the words left your mouth. Even if we were to put this aside, did you know that breaking the man’s arm led to him losing his job, his family losing their home, and in the end, their child dying? Huddled together in the streets, cold, and crying. Such a sad way to end.”
“I … no, I didn’t. But … I was defending Scott. I had good intentions.”
The woman’s head, now tucked firmly under her arm, laughed loudly. “Intent is important, I agree, but so is the end result. You did not have to take things as far as you did. You had intelligence, Tony. You could have stepped in and calmed the situation with careful words, or by buying a drink. But that was never your way, was it?”
“You make it sound like I’m an impulsive monster.”
“A monster?” growled a deep voice, and Tony turned to see that his one companion had once again changed shape. Now, a muscular male stood before him. He wore an ornate headdress, and had the head and darkened fur of a canine; it was hard to tell if it belonged to a small wolf or a jackal. “You are not a monster, Tony. You are simply incomplete.”
“Perhaps that is the wrong word. Let us say, your journey has not yet reached a conclusion. You were smart, yes, but your soul is unlearned.”
Tony frowned. “I don’t get it. Are you saying that I have to … I was different last time … are you talking about reincarnation?”
“For part of you, certainly.”
“Part of me? C’mon, you gotta tell me more than that. Explain what’s happening.” Tony paused, then added, “Please.”
“I suppose it would do no harm,” the beast replied, and as he stepped forward, his body grew, adding not only height but a portly visage. His skin turned dark blue, and as his snout pulled back into a more bulbous but human appearance, a third eye again opened in his head. His ears remained pointed, however, and the headdress melted away into a necklace of grimacing, human faces.
“All shards come to this place. If they have gained understanding, then here they remain, becoming a part of me. Those that have not yet learned the truth of balance return to the world to continue experiencing fleeting life in all its grandeur.”
“So, are you like … a mix of people that came before?”
“Fragments of them, yes. You see, I was born when several shards that had attained this required knowledge fused together. As time marched on, I learned to recognised others such as me, and we became one, becoming more whole in the process.”
“Earlier, you said that you got the balance wrong with me. What did you mean?”
“When a shard comes here, it is faced with the truth of its nature. Then, when all is done, I dissect it, bringing the pieces that have reached their full potential into myself, and dividing the rest to become a new shard. You have heard the concept that past life experiences are falsified because so many people are told that they are Cleopatra, yes?”
Tony nodded, and the Hellish monster continued, “Each of those people had shreds of the shard that was once Cleopatra. To this day, there are some lessons that that one has not yet learned, though much of her now resides within me. With you, I threaded together many shards that had suffered in their lifetime. I had hoped that a new life would bring you joy, and show you kindness. Instead, you lashed out. I believe this to be symptomatic of my choice, and for this I am sorry. I shall ensure that this does not happen again.”
“Then … you cause suffering too! What right have you to judge me, or people like me, when it’s your screw-ups that causes all of the … the stupid decisions that we make? You build us up like some sort of Frankenstein’s Monster, then pull out the burning torches when it all goes wrong, is that it?”
The beast shrunk down then, a white kimono forming over slender shoulders, and long black hair sprouting from its head. With a flourish, its face changed to show the pale, sunken features of a woman long dead, yet somehow still alive. Her eyes were pitch black, and from behind her, a giant serpent slithered and hissed. She stared at Tony, an amused look reaching her lips.
“You used this analogy last time, too. I suppose that there is some truth to the comparison. You fail to grasp something fundamental though, child. All that you are, will one day be me. All the good, and all the bad. All the suffering that you endure as atonement for your sins will be remembered by me, and all the sorrow and guilt that I will feel for your actions are yet to come. That is punishment enough for my mistakes, for, in the end, we will share not only bliss but pain.”
“All that I will suffer? You think that what you just said justifies that? You get a memory of whatever bullshit you’re going to do to me, and I get the actual pain. How is that fair?”
“You will understand one day, child. In that regard, I have faith in all of us. Now, we shall begin.”
The woman flicked her hand and a book appeared in front of Tony. He swallowed and watched as the cover opened and he was met with the first of many pages listing various events. He read a few out loud. “To be crushed four hundred times under the foot of a fly, two hundred and eighty times taller, and five and a half million times heavier than your size in life. To be assaulted by three people for reasons of your heritage. To be driven to despair by six people for not being a furry. To watch as your wife in life considers engaging in intercourse with another man. To suffer the taunts of twenty-three faceless people until your own death becomes an appealing outcome.”
Tony forced his head back to the God, who had now become a monstrous, three-headed dog with fire in its eyes and throat. “What am I supposed to do? Pick my own torture?”
“No,” replied the first head. “Each page contains your infractions in life, but with the situation reversed. You will suffer each of these.”
“The whole book?”
“Yes,” said the second head. “Even minor trespasses into another’s life are included. Once the book is complete, you will also be permitted to relive the feelings that you felt during your good deeds, whether large or small. It is a euphoric experience.”
“And then what?”
“It is as I said before,” replied the third head. “I will cut from you the parts that have attained true understanding. The rest of you shall be split apart and used to form parts of several new shards. We shall meet again Tony. I truly hope that our next meeting is more pleasant.”
The dog faded away, leaving Tony alone with the book and the darkness. Somewhere in the distance, a large shape approached. For a while, Tony could not make out what it was, it was that big. Glancing at the first page of the book, he realised that it must be one of the flies. The first of four hundred. He considered running but shook the thought away.
“What would be the point?” he asked himself.
And so, Tony waited, questioning whether any of him could ever be ready to become one with God, while a giant foot hovered over him, taking careful aim, just as he had done many times before.