C.G. Gunderson’s: Travels in the Afterlife – Chapter 2 (Prose)

Chapter 2:

The Beginning of Sorrows

[Now I’m shivering.]

[That loopy twerp stole my jacket. I don’t know how much more of this execrable torture I can endure. He’s still blathering away behind me. He thinks I’m writing it down. I may be risking my life even further by inserting my own commentary here, but I feel I must. He cannot be allowed to win.]

[Whoever you are reading these pages, you must understand. I’m doing this out of sheer spite. I’ve changed my mind about uncovering the mystery and all that nonsense. Think what you will. He has ruined my morning, my understanding of reality, and later quite possibly my cardiovascular integrity, so I will spoil his “book” in return.]

[What? Yes, every word.]

Good. Anyway, after a prolonged tussle resembling a slap fight between two angry fiddler crabs (Fan’s hands really were ginormous for her dainty frame) and an awful lot of writing in the sand, the four of us figured out that we were indeed deceased and without direction. Our names were Fergus, Fan, Silica and Yours Truly.

It seemed a good idea to remain grouped despite our knowing not a thing about each other since one glance at the lumbering swamp monsters of the beach told us exactly whose team we were on. We all seemed, at least, to be human. There were several other such squadrons of the naked damned scattered across the shoreline, huddled where they fell, experiencing similar non-conversations to our own. We gawked across the low-formed dunes at one another like meerkats suddenly swept up in the nascent politic of the infant tribe.

However, before any sort of treaty could be signed in the mucky substrate, a strange sensation began to overtake the atmosphere. It was a sort of slow sinking of the gut accompanied by an immediate cooling of the skin, like one with an already guilty conscience feels when called in to speak to the boss.  Just then, an urgent slap on my right shoulder guided me to look in the direction of the forgotten ocean. There I saw a storm coming our way.

Actually, the word ‘Storm’ is totally inadequate. This was a tempest, a ferocious hurricane of mother nature’s raw menstrual fury. It put to shame America’s famous earthquakes and cyclones. It spat on Asian tsunamis and drank the seething eruptions of Yellowstone Park like a cool glass of O.J on a Summer’s afternoon. It was remarkably bad news, and we were in for it. Time slowed to a crawl. My legs were already running before my head received the memo.

As I turned to see where I was going, I caught a final fleeting glimpse of the sea receding. Seeming to shrink beneath the sand at an impossible pace, it left behind only seaweed and scum. Even our tormentor gorgons had vanished as though drained away themselves beneath the shingle. Death-black clouds lashed the land on approach. Strangely quiet for its titanic scale, it was like one of those photographic time-lapse trick shots of a changing sky, except the frames that it skipped were in my own mind. The epileptic flashes of its rave-like motion were more than an optical illusion. They were really happening. Lightning lingered on my retina long after I had turned my back. I can even see it now – pure malignant terror. In that moment, I was wrought by the storm. Its evil thunder boomed within me.

[An inauthentic pause followed this line. Very amateur-dramatic.]

I was up the stairs and onto the promenade, my companions still in view. The streets were ours alone. Houses lay soulless and silent like fake towns in nuclear testing sites. A slow mist seemed to be creeping from back alleys and man-holes all around. Everything was cold and still, even more so than an ordinary Scottish day. Thunder cracked in digitised, inorganic bursts, punctuating the syncopated rhythms of my chest. All the other nameless ghosts charged alongside me, some overtaking, some lagging behind. Gaining ground, the rooftop horizon began to vanish in our wake, and I saw ahead of us with the same preternatural, zooming aspect of the storm a sprawling, swelling landscape of impossibility.

Where sparse, rolling hill-fields of sheep and grass had previously paved the land, there now sprouted a dense rainbow of jungle life stretching forever outward in every direction. Clammy undergrowth lived in brown shadow beneath a vast canopy of red and green, tearing apart the rosy twilight of the setting sun. The edges of the trees were animated, withering back and blooming again in a moment to moment mockery of the earthly seasons, breathing in harmonious unison. Flying forth from hidden nests all about them were birds of such prismatic beauty and effortless grace that it brings a tear to my eye just remembering those deepest shades of purple and blue. [I saw no such tear.] They fluttered up and away towards infinity, stealing my attention as they flew and depositing it in the distance where mountains met the sky.

Mountains. There were no mountains in this part of the world, but here before me they ranged so broadly and so high as to fence in everything I could see. One in particular seemed to be drawing me in. It lay directly ahead, its furthest peak perfectly balancing the sun. Even in my mid-sprint state of desperation I could tell without a speck of doubt that this was the direction of my destiny. The symbolism was too obvious. [I’ll say.]

We must have been no more than one hundred feet from the treeline when the shadow of the squall overtook our escape. I perceived all around me a vast inhalation of breath and suddenly felt myself a soldier on an ancient battlefield, staring deep into the conflagration of the dying and the dead. Like a child, without thinking, I stopped and turned. The great wave crashed down, around, and through me. Its mammoth sound drowned the last lilting echoes of birdsong, and we were swept up like vermin.

Have you ever drowned?

[Me? No.]

Well, good for you. I’ve drowned six times, and it’s enough to make a man positively aquaphobic for the rest of his afterlife, let me tell you.

[I’m sure it must have been terrible.]

You’re sure, are you?

[Yes?]

You’re lying. How can you be sure of something you’ve never experienced?

[You just told me.]

And you believed me, just like that? What are you, an idiot?

[I thought we were supposed to be in a hurry here.]

‘True, but what sort of adventure would it be without a little antagonism?’, I suggestively sneer at my accuser with a flash of my trusty blade.

[But we’re not in your adventure. You said we meet at the end.]

I thought we did, but perhaps an end is just a beginning in disguise.

[‘OK’, I shrug, ‘So, what happens next?’]

I don’t remember. The next thing I recall, I was worming my way up from beneath the roots of a mighty, redwood-like monstrositree deep in the heart of the wild. It had grown fat and tall on my remaining nutrients while I slept. I only managed to escape by total fluke when the thing careened almost horizontal in another storm. The ground was wrenched aloft and daylight penetrated my earthbound prison, awakening me after what felt like decades. Slothing myself away from its grasping veins and sinews and into the ultra-fresh overground air, I didn’t waste a second wondering how such a thing was possible. At that point I was more tree than man, and trees have no time for pointless enquiries.

After washing off the dirt in a nearby stream, I spent a long time living among the birds. I struggled for acceptance at first, but once enough weeks and months had passed following them precariously from tree to tree they finally agreed to show me their ways. As you can imagine, it was awkward to begin with. I could not keep up. I felt an outcast, a tag-along, one of the flock only in name, but over time my speed increased. I grew lighter, smaller, more aerodynamic, eventually undergoing a complete transformation after many painful practice falls. God knows what I must have looked like in those early days, twigs and leaves protruding from my half-formed beak, part bird, part tree, part human, part nothing, but I didn’t care. I felt no jot of self-awareness or embarrassment, no fear of death – no death to fear – no prying eyes to see me fail. I was happy.

Have you ever been happy?

[Let’s not.]

I don’t know how long it lasted, but I wish it could have been forever. Sadly though, as you know, all things are temporary, misery and joy are simply two magnetic poles endlessly seeking one another, and attempts to safeguard sameness will always be doomed to bring about change. My glorious life of flight could only last so long. I was running, hiding, wishing my life away, and karma had picked up my trail. One day, soaring high above the wilderness, I smelt a sweet aroma emanating from a crack laid deep in a mountainside nearby. Incidentally, I never once set sight on the coast again from my stratospheric vantage point. Wherever I was then bore no relation to the place I had been before.

Anyway, in my animal trance I couldn’t help but follow that scintillating fragrance through windscapes and air currents all the way to a sheer rock opening on the side of a sizeable peak. It yawned wide enough for an elephant to walk through but cleverly concealed itself behind leaning gates of granite on a shelf perhaps twenty feet across. Hopping cautiously, I flitted over to the cave mouth and peaked inside, ready to flee. The light of noon behind me illuminated the beginnings of a pathway snaking the depths within. With my scotopic eyes I could make out a low ceiling, attenuating as I looked further into the near-darkness beyond. Was that light in the distance? A reflection of the sun? It didn’t matter. I could resist the sumptuous flavour of the cavern no more. Beating my wings, I dove into the void.

What a liberating sensation it is to fly, especially in the pitch blackness of a confined space. There was a great shaman, dead now, who said a similar thing, but he was flying so high that few onlookers were brave enough to see his point. As for me, gliding down that silent passage, intuitively sensing the outcrops and obstacles in my way, deftly spinning through fatal drops and bends, I was flowing, surging, electrified like never before. Guided by the honey-sweet nasal tones of my desire, I followed the twisting tunnel for what may have been miles until eventually the faintest blushing red light imbued the air ahead.

Bursting from my rocky portal into the hollow mountain’s core, I was overcome with a soft, velvety fulfilment, a juicy and voluptuous sense of my own greatness and the inviting warmth of a world just begging to be deflowered. I circled a victory lap of the enormous hall into which I had emerged, basking in the rainbows reflecting off agate walls and back out through the high slot that brought them in. Below me was the source of the guiding scent, illuminated in perfect style on a raised crystal stage opposite the entrance of the light; a single colossal flower spanning two glorious, wet metres of dripping emerald leaves and fleshy pink innards, so copious in tantalising dew that the pistils and stamens jutting from its centre appeared as the very glowing, transcendent nipples and cocks of Bacchus and Hera and all the pantheon themselves. I won’t lie. I plunged right in without a thought for protection.

Am I ashamed? No. I was just a goddamn bird. What did I know? Are you ashamed of shitting yourself when you were a baby? I leapt into that sticky paradise like a penguin from a glacier, and its jaws closed around me like a shark, but it was not my fate to be consumed that day. I stewed for many hours in a metabolic trance, bathed in sensation, digested in memory, but very much alive, and to my great surprise, not alone. A botanical mind inhabited this demon’s stomach. It spoke to me, in broken screeches first and then in gentler tones, modulating themselves into the form of words that I could comprehend once my ears were sufficiently softened to accept them.

I felt my feathers melting away, my meat and bone transforming, consciousness returned at last. The leafen maw that had swallowed a mere animal spat back onto that cold, mineral floor a waking man, a man with purpose, a mission, a need to seek and understand. There I lay convulsing, groping and floundering in a harsh womb of grey, when elsewhere I had my own mountains to climb. Fumbling to a stand, I turned my eyes summit-ward. The opening through which I had entered and the one that brought the light were both situated high enough that scaling my way up to them would prove almost impossible, but I was determined. Taking the first slippery steps towards freedom, with a rising gale brimming in my heart, a soft voice from behind tickled my confidence.

‘You won’t make it’, she caressed, ‘stay’.

You know, they say it’s a poet’s job to describe the indescribable, to speak the utterances that defy definition, circumvent the limits of language and make murals of our futile attempts to trawl reality through a net of words. Well I would be no poet if by a poet’s means I hid from you the following truth in all its bare simplicity. The flower girl was not a looker. I don’t enjoy saying it! But my human vision returning to me made all the difference. Birds are stupid creatures. Now you may be shrieking, ‘Seejie, that’s not fair. Weren’t you describing just paragraphs ago your own adventures in various forms of being, including such vegetables? You bitch, J’accuse!’ And you would be correct. I am a hypocrite, but I’m afraid there is no attractive way to express the disgust I felt.

I instantly recognised the seductive voice I had heard in the belly of the lotus, but trust me when I say that any remaining sexual tension had drained from the room entirely. Imagine, if you will, a stick figure like a primitive voodoo doll except twice my size. Picture its vine-wrapped limbs of festering rot-wood supported by joints pussing with a cartilage of septic fungus. Imbibe her clumpy, moss-carpet skin ragged with maggot holes and leaking clouded sap like treacle from a spoon onto the bedrock below, coating everything. Envision every imaginable shade of yellow, white, and brown. Look down now and see that the floor of the cave, and your own body, are covered in her gruesome detritus. With eyes of black honeycomb, a swarm of wasps for hair, and a gaping, lipless wound of a mouth discharging rivers of filth like a waterfall running down her mushy chest, listen close as she bends over me and whispers, ‘I love you’.

End of chapter 2

Written – April 2020

Published – April 2020

Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

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