Now, For The Actual Show!
February 1, 2012 § Leave a comment
Unfortunately, I don’t have much time today, so you might see a few more mistakes in this post than normal. C’est la vie. I’ll fix this soon, I hope!
The Second Interlude
Vasily sat underneath his tree, chewing on pieces of Isabella. The bear had put up a good struggle but in the end, human ingenuity won over raw animal strength as it always does: with a completely unfair application of luck. If Vasily had not jumped precisely when he did, Isabella would have swiped off the greater portion of his left leg before attending to the rest. Of course, had Isabella not put her paw down precisely where she had, she would have avoided the ice that was covered by the thin layer of snow. As it was, he did and leapt to safety, and she did, and fell down a small ravine.
This did not kill her, a sad thing for both involved, because now Vasily had to end the suffering of the poor animal, while Isabella had to have her suffering ended.
Regardless of the vagaries of Chance, Vasily now sat beneath a tree in front of a sputtering fire. It dried out Isabella’s fur and also cooked pieces of her for his vastly delayed breakfast. In actuality, Vasily had no idea what time it was, only that the sun was due to set in a bit and it was going to get much colder. He had still not seen any sign of a rescue attempt or a clean-up crew, and was beginning to lose hope that he would be rescued before the night. All things considered, however, he was facing a night with a stomach full of bear meat and a fur to hang over his shoulders. Things could be much, much worse.
A hooded figure dressed in a black robe sat across the fire from Vasily. Vasily chewed away, happy as, well, a Russian in a bearskin. A little vodka, and Vasily would split into two under the weight of the stereotypes.
“You should not be alive.” The figure whispered. Vasily kept chewing. He took a nervous look around to make sure the miles of emptiness were still empty, and then began pissing into the fire.
“Oh come now, that’s just disgusting. Have a little respect, mortal. You are speaking with the Angel of Death, after all.”
“He can’t hear you, Death. Like you said, he should be dead, but is not. He is still within the protection of my domain.”
A disgruntled-looking two-headed eagle swooped down to perch on a branch by the fire. Vasily, if he noticed this new apparition (he did not), would have gasped in shock. It was not every day that the heraldic animal of your country just popped by to say hello. Also, the two-head thing would have thrown him for a loop.
“You have no power here,” Death snarled, “you are just a minor totem.”
“Oh-ho, sure of that, are we Comrade? Care to test just how minor I am?” From within the giant eagle’s feathers it pulled out a hammer and a sickle and calmly sharpened on against the other. No-one questioned how it was still perched on the branch. Vasily burped, and wondered if the berries on another branch were edible.
“Fine. You have called my bluff, but the error remains. This man should not be alive. I should have reaped him with the others, but I am prevented by his unfortunate ability to still draw breath.”
“I must disagree, Comrade, with your assertion of “error”. If this man was meant to die, then perhaps the forces responsible for his death should have done something. His,” the bird flapped its wings in a decent approximation of air-quotes, “unfortunate ability” to draw breath is neither your concern nor mine.” The bird fixed four predatory eyes on Death. “Your continued presence here is making it mine. Carry out your business and go, or, Comrade, my patience will be at an end. Understand?”
Death fixed the eagle with a glare and slowly drew it over to Vasily’s uncomprehending face. “You have made your point well clear. Rest assured, I will find out what happened, and then I shall make it my business.”
With a sound like ripping silk, Death disappeared. Vasily started, but the fire had made him night-blind. He gazed out into the night, seeing nothing more significant than row after row of trees.
And the legions of stars above, but he thought nothing of them. The stars, much like seconds, are often unfairly ignored by the vast majority of humans. Although, in fairness, those few who walked with their noses facing the sky and who kept track of every second were often thought of as “loonies” by the rest of humanity.
A small spider crawled out of the eagle’s plumage. The left head snapped out and caught the spider between its beak.
“You are playing a very dangerous game, Anansi.” The other head said.
“All my games are dangerous, friend!” The spider giggled from where it was trapped. “But your part in this game is done.”
“The debt is paid.” It was not a question.
“Fine fine fine. The debt is paid.”
The eagle’s beak snapped shut, crushing the spider into goo.
“Good luck, Vasily. Make your Mother proud.”
The eagle screeched as it soared off into the night. Vasily looked up from his fire and caught the barest hint of a shadow flying against the stars at night. His heart, inexplicably, was filled with the desire to wear a ridiculously large fur hat, put on a greatcoat, and march in formation. It quickly passed, and he was only left with the quite explicable desire for just a touch of vodka.
Well, maybe full-contact vodka.
“Aren’t you going to ask me?”
Zizka arched his eyebrow. “Ask what of you, Patrick?”
“Aren’t you going to ask me how my grandparents are?”
Phorcys, now completely reassembled into a handsome Turkish-looking man, looked confused. “Now, why would he do a thing like that? Bloke would have to be a bit bonkers to ask how someone’s doing up in Heaven. The general verdict is that this is paradise.”
Patrick remembered and was crestfallen. “What? Oh…yeah. Forgot about that. Still takes some getting used to, though, everyone being happy all the time. Wasn’t too long ago that I had to worry about people judging me based on what I wore or said, or something stupid like that. Still not used to thinking in terms of this place.”
Phorcys shook his head as he took off his helmet, and his long black curls bounced like springs. They were in a locker room, or a barracks, or a bath house, or something. It was a place where men got changed in the close proximity of other men and pretended to be comfortable with it. Phorcys’ body looked like a Greek god’s without even a stitch to mar the perfection, and excepting that he was in Heaven and that, as he endlessly reminded Patrick, he had fought against the Greeks. He pointed imperiously down at Patrick, forgetting that his manhood was dangling about three inches away from Patrick’s nose.
“Now look here, it’ll come in time, what what? Your mind has just got to fix itself. Took me a right age to get used to flying all over the place with a thought, and even longer to realize that this place doesn’t have a lot in the way of rules. I was right terrified when Cheron said Hades didn’t rule here, but some Aramaic deity name of something I never heard of. I didn’t want to get on His bad side, no sir.”
He spread his arms wide and shrugged. Patrick tried to focus his attention on Phorcys’ face and stop his brain from looking at the thing jiggling just out of eye shot. “I spent a few centuries aping whatever the winged ones did, long before I realized that when it came to it, a lot of bets were off. I got very drunk that night, and let me tell you that being able to drink that much without waking up with a Herculean hangover was worth every good deed I ever did.”
Phorcys leaped into a bath, and Patrick breathed a sigh of relief. Zizka stood up and clapped Patrick on the shoulder, dislodging both of their towels and putting him face-to-face with another manhood of antiquity. Patrick glumly thought he should start a photo collection, although he’d had to give Zizka the spread.
“In time, Patrick. All in the time that God has given us. Now come, let us bathe away the exertions of the day. You did…passably well, especially for a new-arrival. The rest of the team is well pleased.”
Patrick brightened up at this a bit. In the next rotation after the disastrous opener, he’d been given another shot and managed to hold his own. They still lost, but Patrick was one of the few men left standing when Confucius called time. From what he had gathered, that was quite the accomplishment. He was still a little befuddled, though. It had all been screaming, yelling, and a lot of poking with his spear.
But it was good enough. He sunk into the warm bath and felt it soothe away pain he didn’t feel in muscles he didn’t have. He groaned and closed his eyes, relishing the feelings as they came over him. He had never felt a bath this relaxing. The feeling of relaxation, though, felt so good that he wished it to be real.
“Well, why wouldn’t it be real? What makes it unreal? Do you need a physical body to experience feelings?”
Patrick’s eyes shot open. Someone, with a distinctly feminine voice, was sitting across from him in the bath. “She”, had hazel-green eyes, brown hair with just a hint of auburn, that fell in ringlets across her flawless face, thick, red, pouty lips arched up in an interrogating smirk, and from what he could tell above the water, a body that women would have killed for back on earth. Two suggestive mounds pushed up, just barely breaking the surface of the water and promising greater delights below.
As an afterthought, Patrick noticed that wings, feathered in the same red-brown of her hair, came out of her back. The brain registered them and ignored them, finding the swell of her breasts far more attractive. It then remembered where it was, what she was, and suggested to itself that it should not ogle the angels. Taking its own advice in the most expedient way possible, it short-circuited and passed out.
A gentle hand slapped Patrick back into wakefulness.
“Don’t be rude to a lady, now. I asked you a question, Mr. O’Flanagan. Why wouldn’t what you’re feeling be real?”
Patrick looked up into smiling eyes. They were so deeply green that for the barest second he felt he was lying on his back in the forest looking up at the canopy. He reached up his hand to grasp one of the leaves, and instead found himself stroking her perfect skin.
“Like oaks.” He murmured.
“You wouldn’t be feeling real things because of oak? Oak trees? What does that mean?”
“No,” he said, “your eyes.”
The angel blushed, and Patrick’s heart opened up. A feeling of warmth, completely unrelated to the warmth of the water, rushed over him.
“He said that was why He picked the colour. Because it reminded Him of the forest. I’ve…never seen the forests on Earth. Just the ones Here. I would like to, if I could.”
“We could go, sometime. If you wanted to, that is. I mean that, I could show you. What it’s like. On Earth.” Patrick cursed himself. Apparently, being awkward with girls wasn’t just in the mind, but in the soul.
She stroked his chin and giggled. It inexplicably made him feel lighter. Like he was falling again.
“Silly, we can’t do that. But if we could…why, I might just say yes.” She screwed up her eyes and tapped him on the forehead. “You, sir, keep avoiding my question. Why can’t this be real?”
He sat up, putting himself back in the water. He belatedly noticed that parts of his anatomy had been temporarily exposed. The angel, if this had bothered her, said nothing. Instead, she just fixed an irresistible smile on him, her expression at once delightfully befuddled and yet unfathomably wise, as though she knew exactly what he was thinking but had no conception of what it meant. He looked around at the other bathers, but they were completely occupied with washing themselves or enjoying the soak. No-one noticed the naked woman, or that Patrick was speaking rather loudly. Luck, or design? Patrick decided to just go with it.
“This…can’t be real, because I’m just imagining it. There isn’t actually any water, no more than you or I are actually here. This is all a projection of my soul, I guess. It’s just telling me whatthings are supposed to feel like. There’s no skin to feel the heat, no muscles to actually relax in the steam, and no brain to interpret those feelings. How can it be real if there’s nothing real about me being here? Not to mention to actual problem with having physical things in a place that has a distinct disdain for all things physical.”
She blew a strand of hair out of her face. “Typical human. You think that just because what you’ve experienced your whole existence is how things have worked, that that’s the way they must work. I’ve never had skin before, but I can tell you that this water feels warm.” She lifted her arm and splashed it back down. Patrick could not resist shifting his eyes to follow the jiggle.
“Your human brains would do this anyways. They interpreted physical stimuli into insubstantial chemical and electrical signals, which only worked, by the way, because you had a working system that let you feel them. If your nerves didn’t work, then you wouldn’t have experienced the water as “hot”. Would that make it any less hot?”
“Maybe. What’s your name?”
“Hush, I’m not done yet.”
“Before we continue, could you perhaps…clothe yourself?”
She looked confused. “Does this appearance bother you? I thought nudity was usually required for bathing. You appear nude. Was I wrong?”
“No, not exactly, but you are, uh, very feminine. I am not used to bathing with naked women.”
“Ah!” She nodded enthusiastically. “I see the problem. Is this better?” She snapped her fingers and suddenly, a naked baby with wings floated in front of him. “Shall I continue?”
“God, no! No! Not better at all!” Being in a bath with a naked woman was one thing, but they had words on Earth for men who took naked baths with children, angel or no. They were bad words.
She changed back, and this time sported a shift that did absolutely nothing to resolve Patrick’s particular problem. It clung and stretched too much to actually cover anything, and if possible, made her even more attractive than before. Patrick just decided to put his head back and focus on the ceiling which, amusingly, was covered in a fresco of naked women in the Roman style. He, he decided, could not win.
“Shall I continue? Good. As I was saying, in Heaven, souls and belief have the power that physics and causality denied them back on Earth. The soul, that little thing that existed between your brain and your body and rode your consciousness, has now come to a place where it is not bound by your nervous system. It can experience anything at all. Is it real? Yes, inasmuch as you understand real. Your mind is still bound by time and causality, Patrick. There is no need for someone to have brought water here, real, physical water, in order for you to feel it. Will it, and it is so here.”
“Then I will a mojito into my hand, right now.”
His eyes bugged out as a frosty glass popped into his hand. The scent of crushed mint and rum filled his nose and the searing cold of the ice burned his hand. The angel arched her eyebrow at him.
“Ah. Well, I am suitably humbled.”
“You are no such thing, Patrick O’Flanagan, but it will do for now. Now come, I must attend to my duties and they involve you. Up you get!”
She made to stand up but Patrick flung out his hand. “Wait! I mean…who are you? What’s your name?”
The angel splashed down into the water, a smile on her face. “Ah yes. I suppose you’ve earned it, listening to me ramble on. I’m Hai, your guardian angel, and I’m due to show you around the place.” She scratched the back of her head awkwardly. “I…uh, was supposed to meet you right when you arrived, but things got…complicated. In any case, I’m here now! Any questions?”
Patrick finally worked up the courage to look in her eyes again. He almost fell right in, they were so open and trusting and beautiful, and they completely obliterated his question as to how she could be late. “Yes, thousands.”
“Good.” She cut in. “Hold on to them for as long as you can. You’ll need them.”
Then, without warning, she stood up and Patrick was blinded by the glory.
They had been flying for around an hour before Patrick thought of something. The fields of Heaven were zipping by below at a breakneck pace, but Hai urged him on faster and faster.
“There isn’t much to see in them that you won’t see later,” she said when he asked, “so let’s just show you the lay of the land.”
And what a land it was. Every conceivable city or environment or habitat filled the heavenly plains. Polar bears tromped through arctic wastelands just a step away from enormous redwoods that soared up and up and up into the sky.
“And people just…wander around there? Just have a fun time hanging about in the arctic or the rainforest?”
“Oh yes, people do it all the time. Perfectly safe, too. Real “laying down the with lions” sort of thing. Look! There’s Francis of Assisi! Give him a wave!”
Patrick waved to Francis, who was covered head-to-toe in animals. He looked like a mannequin made out of flamingos but his wave was happy enough despite the sloths that hung from his sleeve. Patrick adjusted himself in Hai’s arms and swallowed his fear of flying (which, by this point, was perfectly understandable). She looked like a woman on the smallish size of normal (though clothed this time), but her arms felt like steel clamps. He’d found it easier to hitch a ride with her rather than try his own hand at it.
But seeing Francis stirred a question in him. “Hai, can you just meet people here? Is there a telephone service or something?”
She nodded. “Yes and no. Just think really hard about the person you want to see, and if they’re not distracted, they’ll usually come visit. There’s a few hermits out in the desert that refuse to see anyone who won’t make the “pilgrimage”, but since you can just fly…” She shrugged, showing what she thought of those who lived like they were still on Earth. “Just imagine the person and they’ll be there.”
So Patrick thought of his wife. He was a little guilty that he hadn’t thought of her before now, but reasoned that he’d been through some significant changes lately. He was certain she’d understand.
At no point did he wonder why she had not summoned him.
Patrick thought and thought and imagined, but nothing. As a test he summoned Phorcys, who had just enough time to swear at Patrick before he fell out of the sky. So he tried again as an ocean, as bright and clear as a glass of water in the sun, drifted by below.
“Hai, I’m having trouble finding someone.”
Hai looked concerned. “Did you try…thinking of them?”
“Yes, Hai. I did.”
Terror painted itself on her face. “Gosh, Patrick, I don’t know what to do then. Maybe…try more?”
“Is there anyone I can ask? I’d really like to see my wife again.”
Hai’s face quivered for a second. It wasn’t much at all, not even a quiver really. Her lip and her eyebrow just arched a little. Maybe a millimetre, maybe less. And it only took a second. A second! No time at all, really.
But remember that time doesn’t work the same in Heaven. It doesn’t work so much like a path, with a start and a finish, as it does a circle, like a record. And, like records, moments can be paused or reviewed as many times as they need to be.
Patrick didn’t know he could do it, but time slowed down to nothing when he caught Hai flinching. Everything stopped around him, Hai included, long enough for him to record everything that he saw. Hai’s perfect features barely gave anything away, in due fairness to the angel. If this had been a normal conversation, Patrick would have written it off as a cough and carried on.
But angels do not cough, and man remembers. The water slept on below them as they hung in the air. She knows something.
Time started up again and the wind continued to rifle through Patrick’s hair. Hai decided on the face that she wanted to have and looked down at him in concern.
“I’ll check on that for you, when we’re done here. You sure you’re thinking about her?”
“Alright, I’ll see what I can do.” She smiled with the force of a thousand suns, but it wasn’t quite enough to dispel Patrick’s sudden sense of foreboding. “Metatron never said no to me yet! Course, he’s never said anything to me before, but no news is good news when you’re talking about the Voice of God, right? Hah! Get it? Talking? I’m so clever!”
She chattered on like a typewriter being pummelled by a chimpanzee. Patrick just nodded, his mind afire.
A tall building loomed in the distance. A thatched roof peered over the horizon and wooden dragons glared down from the corners, scowling at those who would dare walk under them. Patrick thought they were cute, but distinctly out of place in a featureless plain.
“What’s that building there? It doesn’t look like any of the others. No marble, or clouds.”
Hai went quiet, so more like a tamarind with a laptop.
“Ah. That’s. Ah. Well, I don’t often go in there. Not allowed, really. We’re not supposed to disturb the, er, guests. Yes.”
“Guests? Are there people in there?”
Hai managed to hem and haw without saying anything. To Patrick, it looked wonderful, like she was trying to worry a grapefruit down her throat without chewing.
“Peeeeeople? I suuuuupooooose so.”
“Hai, I am going to guess some things here. You can stop talking.”
“First, Heaven looks like an ordered sort of place. I mean, you lot have a referee for war, so I’m going to guess that you like rules and orders here.”
“Yes. That would be a good guess. Some would say that would be correct.”
“Thank you. Second, I’m going to guess that you follow these rules without necessarily understanding them. Case in point when you appeared to me in the bath. You were ordered to appear to me, which meant there was a rule you needed to follow. You even followed the rules for bathing etiquette by appearing naked, but without understanding that showing up naked in a bath, where there is already a naked man present, would be, shall we say, improper?”
“Did you think it was improper?” She sounded shocked, and a little hurt. “I didn’t mean any offence or impropriety.”
The sadness in her voice was anathema to Patrick. He could not stand it when women were in pain, especially when he was the cause of it. His irrational urge to make Hai feel better overruled his gut.
“No! I mean, not really? I wasn’t offended. Nothing of the sort, actually.”
“So…does that mean you liked it?”
Oh God, he thought, I’m back in high school, and nothing I can say is going to be the right answer.Apparently, women in Heaven studied from the same book as Earth-bound ones. Patrick had a horrible image of rows of women in a classroom studying a diagram of a man, while someone calmly said, “And here’s where you twist that knife.”
“Let’s just…keep going, shall we? So I am going to assume that you must follow orders you are given, even when you don’t understand them.”
“But did you like it?” She sounded perplexed, and not in the least bit suggestive. It drove Patrick mad. Does she know? Does she suspect? Could she be saying this just to trip me up? Fool! Of course she is! But why? To get me to say yes and then she’ll hold it over my head, or get me to say no and then get angry and then hold that over my head?
Either way, Patrick, thought glumly, he was sleeping on the couch tonight.
“Oh fine. I’ll ask some other time. Yes, that’s mostly right.”
“Alright, thank you. So I’m going to assume this then: that you know exactly what that building is, and that you know the answer to my question. Further, I’m going to assume that you have to serve me in some way, considering how gracious you’ve been to me so far.”
No sign of acknowledgement. Damn! It didn’t work! Compliments were tricky things to deploy at the best of times, but it rarely hurt to try.
“And because you need to answer my questions, but are not answering this one, I’m going to assume some higher power told you not to, but you aren’t sure why.”
“Please don’t tell Uriel! I said I wouldn’t, but you figured it out and I’m in trouble now and I hate getting Uriel mad! Please don’t tell! Promise me you won’t tell!”
Patrick smiled. Ah. Hit a nerve. “Don’t worry, I’ve no intention of getting you in trouble. But I am damn interested in what that building’s all about. Why don’t you just drop me off there, and you can fly away and forget all about this? It won’t be your fault because I asked you to, and you won’t need to worry about having to follow me.”
Hai hemmed and hawed as they swooped down in front of the building. An enormous wooden door loomed over them carved in the shape of a fierce-looking man striking down a dragon. There was an enormous bronze knocker thrust through the dragon’s nose. Patrick took it in his hand and was surprised at the weight. The ring was as thick through as his wrist.
“No, I’ll have to go in with you. I’m your guardian angel, I don’t get to fly away. We are so getting into trouble for this.”
“Hey, no-one’s said no to me about going here. Technically, ignorance means that this can’t be a mortal sin.”
“You’re not mortal anymore.”
“Details.” Patrick lifted the knocker, puffing with the effort. It fell with a crash, shaking the building to the foundations and knocking a bit of straw from the roof. The sound echoed through the air like a thunderclap, rocking and rolling over the fields around them. It was the loudest thing Patrick had ever heard and shook him right down to the heart.
Perhaps, he thought, this was a bad idea.
They both started at the door opened a crack. Warm light and raucous laughter drifted out, but nothing else. Patrick tried to peer in but couldn’t make out anything more than dark shapes that were gathered around a long table.
He looked back to Hai. “What should we do? Go in?”
“I am 110% for going back and somewhere else.”
“Well, that settles it.” Patrick didn’t know where this reckless courage was coming from, but figured it had something to do with coming from a battle where he didn’t die. He was so far out of his league that he might as well keep going until he saw something familiar.
He stepped through the door and into a long hall. Fires roared and cast flickering light in long tables heaped with food. The room smelt of garlic, meat, sweat, dirt, and honey, and Patrick’s stomach growled at the scent of the feast before him.
Patrick took another step forward and was halted by a man shouting at him. Suddenly, he realized that the room was absolutely filled to the brim with rough, warrior-looking men. He stared about the room, and the Vikings stared back, each man holding a drinking horn up to the sky.
A stern-looking man in a bear skin approached and offered Patrick a horn of mead.
“Welcome, chosen warrior, einherjar! Welcome, brother, to Valhalla! And greetings, noble Valkyrie! Our tables are ever open to such honoured warriors! Drink with us, feast with us, and fight with us until Ragnarök comes!”
The warriors beat on the table and cheered Patrick as the bear-man led him to an empty chair. Patrick forced a smile on his face and nodded gently to everyone who returned his gaze.
“Hai?” He asked through clenched teeth.
“Yes Patrick?” She responded through teeth that sounded just as clenched.
“Why is Valhalla, the pagan Norse paradise for dead warriors, here in heaven?”
“You know, it’s kind of a funny story, really.”
Two warriors got up and started beating each other with sticks. The spectators cheered as blood flecked the room. The sense of violence was palpable, like a beating heart.
“Funny? Oh good. I like funny.”