So I’ll get a few things out of the way here. I died, but first I had a life. It was alright. Nothing special really. Few kids, I think. I don’t really remember, but I seem like the kind of guy that would have a couple. To be honest, my most vivid memories are of childhood. The ones you forget by the time you’re 20 if you’ve been doing it right – they come back I guess. I remember long evenings staring across dewy hills and misty meadows, sitting pretty in my ignorance; a cozy bed and dreams which never made me quake. I had it all. I remember too bent-over, spastic nights of soulless agony when I grew a little older, a teenager maybe, howling at how miserable it all was, how hate-filled and cowardly the world had been towards me and my delicate feelings. I had it all then too, though I would’ve slapped you for saying it. At some point after that I sorted it all out in my head though, suitably marrying the milk and flour of wonder and self-torment, and I found out, as it happens, that the cake of my existence was a rather tasty one after all.
I’m a pretty great guy – no need to dwell on it really. It just happened, like everything else. I’m over it. Some people are pretty great, and I’m one of them. I remember getting most of the things I wanted. I remember working hard and being rewarded for it. I might remember a few failures, defeats, and comeuppances too, but they always seemed to end with me being stronger and happier than I was before, so I guess they were pretty great too. All in all, nothing to complain about there.
And then I died. This too was pretty great, as I was lucky enough to get a good story out of it. Most people don’t, of course. There I was, sitting comfortably in my camping chair on the craggy harbour walls of Portpatrick, Scotland, angling for days, maybe weeks, on end, enjoying the hell out of life, when an almighty tug took a hold of my extended rod and yanked me from my dozing posture. Not like that. Being an experienced fisherman, of course, I immediately braced myself for a fight and gripped hard against this monster-catch, making sure not to lose my footing. However, lose it I did, and went tumbling down the sheer rocks and into the slimy, cryogenic ocean below. ‘That bastard fish’, I thought, shaking, my gear long gone, succumbing to the purest rage, ‘since I’m down here now I’ll wring its neck myself’. Face in the murky green water, I swivelled around manically to find the stupid beast, when suddenly I realised that my movement had become constricted. Something was pulling on my legs, holding them tightly together, preventing my swimming away. I searched for an assassin but found none. Some kraken or ancient mermaid must have seized me for its breakfast and begun preparations to drag me into its dingy pantry at the bottom of the locker. I wasn’t having it.
I had just reached down to fight against its leathery tentacles when I was shocked to discover not a sea-beast at all but my own line wrapped around my thighs and my fishing pole dangling by my feet. ‘Strange’, I internally noted, ‘I thought it would have sunk’. And with that dull murmur still fresh in my mind, I drowned. A sea bass the size of an Irish wolf hound, which I might add I very nearly claimed as my prize, which had I claimed it would have been most impressive I think you’d agree, dragged me down and drenched my lungs in the scummiest, saltiest water I ever tasted, leaving me to rot at the nadir of that freezing Scottish port – and that was the end of that.
I’ve no idea if she did it on purpose. Revenge, maybe, for the hooking I gave her, or coldblooded murder. I dunno. Don’t really care. Like all things, I’m over it. Forgave her a long time ago. Boy she would have looked good on my wall though. Anyway, that’s the story. I may have glossed over a few details, but we are in a hurry here after all.
So anyway, after I died, it all got quite novel. At first there was darkness, as you might expect – a bottomless, sucking darkness that wrenched out your breath like the vacuum of space. This lasted for a very long time, during which I felt myself diluting, unravelling, and becoming what I can only describe as a ghost – a slimy, translucent, seaweedy sort of ghost. But I was still in there, still me. It’s hard to explain. You know how, when you’re alive, there are all these things around you all the time, filling you in as it were, – people and objects and sensations – colouring in your thoughts and feelings, reflecting you back in to yourself, controlling you in some way, like the wind which carries the leaves? Imagine not having that. You’d feel pretty empty wouldn’t you? Well that’s what it was like.
This ghostification was actually a fairly pleasant experience. I found to my comatose half-satisfaction that I really didn’t have much to let go of. You might call me self-centred for that, while others would say enlightened, but the truth is as I watched the faces of my teachers, friends, and family soften and disappear into cosmic dust I felt nothing but a sweet and subtle relief, as though a much awaited speech I was supposed to give had just been cancelled and it wasn’t my fault. The pressure was off, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t feel kind of great. I think I understood a little of the heroin addict’s mindset after that. And that’s not to say that I was glad to see the back of life. To the contrary I could’ve carried on living happily for ages. I loved fishing, but it’s like getting used to a new house, or tattoo, or sibling, just very quickly. You soon forget what it was like before.
Anyway, after I had dissolved, a sort of draining feeling took over my formless awareness. It seemed then that the memories and emotions I had shed were not truly gone but still floating around me like muck in a bathtub. I could almost splash around and play in them for a moment if I focused myself, leering impartially like a stranger at the most intimate moments of my life. Then, as the medium between the specks was quickly flushing away they grouped and scummed together, mixing and conjoining into terrible shapes and images. Horror movies pretty much got this part right – half-formed monstrosities and flashing lights, faces and gore.
Mercifully it didn’t last long, and when it was over I found myself in a much lighter place. My mind seemed once again whole, and I was able to think in tremulous, uneasy sentences about my predicament. I noted immediately that I was surrounded by lights of every conceivable colour, quite separate but absolutely everywhere like technichrome stars in a depthless night sky. Their source I could not see, but I assumed it to be God at the switchboard (who else?), controlling the show. Next I noticed that one light in particular, a verdant green gem with reassuring aura, shone the brightest of them all by a strong margin, and at its antipode behind me a blackened red flame blared with a shamefully inviting warmth that I would rather not contemplate. It was almost too simple. God, it seemed, was showing me the way using my own emotions as a guide. There was no decision to be made. I followed what I knew to be the correct light with my ethereal eyes and in response it drew me in. All others were eclipsed as the emerald glow engulfed me fully, and suddenly I felt as if I had made the absolute worst possible choice imaginable.
A nuclear wave of desolation hit me. Whatever was left before was heat-blasted into oblivion down to the last minute particle, and then there was no me. The green light had betrayed me, and I was nothing.
I’d keep you suspended, but we both know it doesn’t end there.
You know how, once, long ago, before you were born there was no you? Yeah, it’s like that, except imagine you remembered everything about being born, the sights, the sounds, the sensations. Then imagine that, instead of your beautiful mother, it was an ice-cold, muddy shit-pile that birthed you. And on top of that, imagine that while you writhe and cry and splurge all kinds of viscera on the slippery yet jagged floor of rock and sediment, agony very real and crisp, eyes wired shut and respiratory organs all glued up with rotten ectovaginal juices, you are gripped and hoisted up, still blind, by what you can only assume to be the razor sharp claws of the dark lord himself. The demon’s rock-hard flesh brings searing hot punishment to your already pallid and aching body merely by its touch. It squeezes you until you feel as if your organs are going to slip out of your mouth like a soap bar from a wet hand, confirming at the same time that you are in fact corporeal once again. Hooray. You cry out for respite through your clogged wind pipe, but all you can muster are sad gargles. It then wrings you like a towel. With this you actually do project what seems to be the entire contents of your body from your collective orifices, eyes included, and feel emptier than it should be possible to feel. Imagine.
Sorry. I’m getting distracted. After the wringing, the monster plunged two gnarly iron spikes through my pectoral muscles, and hung me from a line like yesterday’s sheets. With this final development, I at last felt comfortable enough to open my eyes. To my great shock, I found myself looking out over Portpatrick’s still sandy yet now somehow even less inviting beach. Beyond its concrete border I saw the quaint shops, restaurants, pubs and driveways of the small Scottish township, and felt indescribably disappointed with everything. At my sides I spotted several other people, men and women, hanging like myself. They looked unnaturally thin and pale. I called out, but got no response. All I could hear was the soft crashing of the waves at my back, and the sporadic mumbling of the giant before me.
The giant! How could I have lost focus like that? There stood before me a gargantuan figure, clad in black overalls, mucky as hell, though apparantly not the devil from what I could see. It paid me no attention as it seemed to be searching the shore, presumably for more washed up carcasses like myself to torture. The washing line stretched from one side of the harbour to another, and it seemed as though the creature had been at its work all day.
Its hair was long and matted, its face obscured. As I stared longer, however, I began to sense a shimmering amongst the threads of its tangled mop, when the light was hitting it just right – a subtle glow that remained once I had noticed it, like something woven in, alien to its natural colour. I soon followed the gleam down its neck and onto its clothes, where it only tightened and became more intricately patterned, like the apron itself was strung together of pure white light. I stared and stared, and the startling opalescent fabric of it drew me in. I was overtaken by its shine. Soon there seemed to be tiny angelic tentacles reaching out toward my eyes, like the beams of a radiant lamp post in a cold city at night, only wavier, curvier, more animated. They soon reached me and began to massage my vision from outside and in. Like a potent psycho-active chemical they rippled and squashed my worldly senses to and fro. I was lost in their world of shapes for God knows how long.
Bliss, however, cannot last. While attentively watching the monster’s clothing I had completely lost awareness of the beast itself. By now I was becoming quite experienced with rude awakenings, but rude it was nonetheless. A noisy mechanical whirring began some ways up the beach to my left. It grew swiftly in intensity until it mimicked the multiplicitous clatterings of giant lathes and presses that haunt industrial hell-holes the world over. I refocused my attention to see the creature facing the farthest dangling corpse, operating some machine that looked a little like a great steam-punk vacuum cleaner. So incongruous, and so loud it seemed for something so far away. The distance even made the giant look small. So why did it feel as though it were already inside my head? I shook myself as if to wash the sound from my ears, and in doing so noticed to my horror another such machine, rumbling with the grinding of gears and revolving of belts, much closer at hand on my right side, manned just the same by a second hunch-backed troll draped in sparkling black.
‘Oh fuck!’ – The only words I could muster as I witnessed in the ogre’s left hand a spear like an Exocet missile, shaft attached by a hefty cord to the ironwood face of the contraption behind it, head revolving like a drill-bit at dizzying speed, matching the cogs of the machine. The intention was obvious. It wasted no time in rearing up a solid thrust, and I could not force myself to look away as the tip of the spear screwed smoothly and mercilessly into the sternum of the woman 3 places down the line from myself. Her scream was life-changing. Still I couldn’t avert my eyes. I needed to know, all of a sudden, why this was happening. If I was to be next, I had to understand before it was too late. Wasn’t I already dead? What the hell was going on?!
Have you ever watched a far-eastern chef make noodles by hand? Well, they twist and whip a huge mass of dough together that’s like a rope made of many tiny strings. They cast it back and forth and wrap it around itself again and again before finally slicing it into the million infinitesimally small cylinders which you might recognise as dinner. It’s a fascinating process, but not so much when you’re seeing it happen to the strung out insides of a stranger who you know to be just three spots ahead of you in the queue.
Gruesome, you might think, but actually no. To my utter dismay and confusion, after the beast had laid the back end of its mechanical pike in the sand so as to wedge it stuck between human and ground, it threw back its shoulders, splaying out its mane like a Baywatch actress, and began to extract with great expertise from the drill’s now filled grooves not blood and guts and gore as you might expect but the very silken fibres of light that I had been marvelling at mere moments before. It span and twirled and twisted its entire body around and around, ducking and rising, pirouetting almost gracefully (I shiver to use the word but it’s true) on the lonely shore, all the while wrapping up these glossy threads into something new, collecting them between its hands, like the noodle-maker, preparing them to become something.
Although the creature danced, the only music was the infinitely pained yell of desperation still emanating from the source of this miraculous material, though her voice seemed to be lessening the more of those silvery wisps that were drawn from her. In fact, something about her began to seem less and less human. It’s hard to describe. It wasn’t the way she looked. It was the way I looked at her. It was like forgetting your wife’s name. No, it was like realising that your best friend is a murderer. No, what was it like? Ah, I know. It was like the opposite of a funeral – that moment when you see a face that’s just a face. It no longer belongs to the one you love, and you can say your goodbyes to it, but what’s the point? That face isn’t the thing you want to speak to anymore. It was like that, except she wasn’t the lifeless face – she was the one you love, the other thing, the thing absent from the casket and the catafalque. You see?
By the time the dance was over, the music had also ceased, and I knew that the person hanging there was no person at all. Something essential had been removed. Zombies, ghosts, and animals came to mind, so it was mortally shocking indeed when she suddenly sprang back to life upon removal of the spear from her breast and began opening and closing her mouth as if to speak. No words came out, but she was clearly very angry. She kicked and heaved and fought against the monster’s grip as, while spinning its treasure in the air with one hand like silk ribbons in some circus performance, it expertly lifted her torso off the meat-hooks which kept her suspended and tossed her rag-dolling body halfway up the beach without a care. Ignoring all else, it turned its attention back to the twirling luminescent thing it held and continued the process of stretching and moulding it. As I watched, bewildered, the woman stand up, mouth a few more silent utterances, and run away towards the town, naked as I was but conspicuously without the gaping flesh-hole I expected to see in her abdomen, the creature called a halt to the proceedings. With a final bounding leap high into the air, it span its last and threw up both hands before wrenching them floorward and bringing down upon its head the entire mass of glistening, ropy sinews that it had collected.
Like cloths on a may-pole, the threads wrapped its body head to toe, slowly spiralling down from the top and settling into every ledge and crevice along the way. It looked like the most hideous bride you could envision revelling in the most ecstatic moment of her life. As the threads landed they vanished, assimilated into the pre-existing matrix of light which covered the beast. Before long, the joyful moment was over, and it was onto the next, and the next, and the next. I don’t think I’ll illustrate for you any more than I already have the very personal experience of this act being performed on myself. You can imagine. To be honest, it’s all getting a bit gritty, isn’t it? This is an adventure story after all. Suffice it to say that I soon sprinted off up the sands with my tail between my legs and throat completely barren of sound. God, it wasn’t nice though. Thinking about it still makes me shudder. Actually, I might just be getting cold. Here, give me your coat.
End of chapter one.
Read the next chapter here: https://anxiousplanet.blog/2020/04/14/c-g-gundersons-travels-in-the-afterlife-chapter-2-prose/
Written- Late 2018 – Late 2019
Published – November 2019
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash