By: David Churack
I remember that it was rubbish collection day when I died. The strongest emotion I felt over the whole day was bitter resentment at the metaphorical implications.
Truth be told, though, I was ready to die.
I was 78 and exhausted. Just when I had gotten over the tedium of raising an extremely difficult son, and was looking forward to languid days alone filled with rest and quiet thoughts, I had to deal with the aftermath of my son’s suicide.
Unfortunately, this included the adoption of my six year old grandson.
So as I lay there, welcoming death as a way to escape both my burdens and the day’s unnatural humidity, my walking responsibility sniffled his way into the room.
‘What do you want, Bede?’
The question had become so naturalised I didn’t even realise the absurdity of asking it on my deathbed.
It took the child a moment to formulate a response amidst a flood of tears.
‘I just want you to be ok again’ he finally chokes out. ‘And for us to be happy like before…’
He gestured at the heaving mass that would soon be my corpse.
The prospect of wasting my final moments tending to the child’s emotional needs irked me, and I decided to instead share with him my honest final thoughts.
‘Do you know what happiness is?’
I am not too proud to admit that, at this point, I feebly choked out those words.
The question stumped him for a second, before he countered with;
‘Feeling nice and being ok’.
I never expected to meet death with the hoarse laughter that erupted at these words.
‘Yes, good, that’s a start. Like you, everybody else wants to be happy, but few are any closer to describing what this ‘happiness’ really is. Would you like me to illuminate further?’
The child nodded attentively as a small crimson frown spread its way across his undeveloped mouth.
As my last contribution to the world, I began to educate my grandson.
‘Happiness is an intransient brain chemical idiots and scholars alike whittle away their lives in pursuit of. It is a trick and a lie, much like the light, in that it exists solely to fuel the dark.
Happiness tears you down, makes you think you want the domestic and the predictable, and leaves you to the pathetic end that now awaits me.
I myself was happy for one short segment of my life, and I found I did not particularly care for the feeling.’
I saw a look of fearful confusion in the earthy mess that passed for Bede’s eyes, and decided to simplify my points.
‘Only children dream of living in a world of happiness’ I coughed out – the air itself was abandoning me.
But my Bede had more defiance than I had thought.
‘What do adults dream of?’
His last grab at something hopeful from me. But the child had come too late – far, far too late.
Before answering, I asked myself the same question; if I could go back and retell myself, what fantasy would I pursue?
‘Ruling a world of misery’ I sighed slowly, before the encroaching darkness finally made its attack.
Upon dying, I was rather unexpectedly confronted with what I can best describe as a void of the purest white. The transition from my deathbed to here was immediate and understandably quite jarring.
For a while (I have no way of knowing the exact amount of time, if time was even a relevant force here) I simply stood and stared at my blindingly white surroundings.
I never believed in the afterlife, but when I considered the concept I always thought of a divinely beautiful, ornate realm. The infinite canvas of white before me completely undermined these ideas.
Still, I expected something to happen – some angel or demon to wrench itself from the void and unfold all the intricacies of life to me.
But my mind whirled over such thoughts countless times, and nothing happened.
Apparently, even in death boredom is a powerful force, and as time wore down my patience I begun to inspect the one item present amidst nothing; myself.
It seems odd, but since dying I had refrained from inspecting myself too closely. Perhaps I was worried at being confronted by my presumably decaying, cadaverous body.
These fears proved completely unfounded.
As I looked down at myself, fearful that not all of me would be there, I noticed an intractable difference between the body I had left behind and the body I had now.
My hands were free of the blemishes and wrinkles that had served as constant reminders of my impending death, and I had regained the height that had been stolen from me in my twilight years.
Paradoxically, upon dying I had been given the youthful body of an adult in their mid-twenties.
I was also clothed in loosely fitting black cloth, which felt so natural I barely felt it hanging over my skin.
Encouraged at the presence of a distraction, I began to test the capacities of my new body.
I ran, leapt, even span around, indulging myself in activities I would not have even considered when I was truly young. I collapsed after attempting to complete more than 6 push-ups, a scathing reminder that fitness was not my priority all those years ago.
I soon grew bored of this physical exertion, however, and was again filled with terrible questions concerning what was happening to me.
Was this some kind of eternal purgatory, from which I would never find an escape?
Was any of this even real, or was it simply a hallucination concocted by my dying brain as I begin to slip away?
I got up and began walking through the void, desperate now for any kind of distraction or encounter. But the void simply followed me with every step.It seemed both stalking and endless.
After what seemed like days of such a pilgrimage, a sound finally pierced through this empty cocoon.
I heard the excited cry of ‘Jasper!’ and immediately my hope was restored.
How long it had seemed since I heard my own name…
I stood up quickly, excited by the prospect that the void contained something other than me, and was confronted with a younger man who looked to be in his early twenties.
He was wearing simple loose cloth similar to mine, but white in colour. It was not, however, the pure white of our smothering emptiness, but rather an almost cheap eggshell white, further jarring against the surrounding colour by being blackened and inexplicably charred in patches.
This lent his appearance a highly unsettling quality, not helped by his expression, which was so enthusiastic it almost looked painful to hold.
I didn’t know how to react to his presence, nor to the fact that he seemed to know who I was, so I let myself hang in the void, cautiously studying him.
He did the same, expecting me to react to his call, and when I failed to do so he finally spoke, obviously disappointed at my inaction.
‘I always thought I would see you again. I mean, you never truly left me, and maybe in death you were more present than in life. But, still, I am grateful for this chance’.
He seemed both intensely fixated on me and on the verge of tears.
I remember thinking that, if this was a divine being, it was thoroughly disappointing.
‘What are you?’ I asked, choosing each word carefully.
His smile was ripped away.
‘Do you remember me at all?!’
For a second, as his eyes widen, I really think he is about to burst into tears.
Then I look closer, and see the brown flakes held in the iris. Flakes I had always seen as mashed up handfuls of soil.
This shocked me more than dying.
‘Bede…is that you?’
He didn’t speak, merely regained his smile and sense of enthusiasm that only moments before had so violently departed.
I had more questions than I ever had before, but could only manage to give voice to one.
‘How are you here?’
‘Same way you got here. I died’ Bede flashed me a long, warm smile.
My grandson looked greatly out of place as an adult. His enthused demeanour, coupled with his lanky stature and the untamed frizzines of his hair, gave me the strong impression that he was simply an elongated version of the child I had once cared for.
The shock of seeing him had worn off, however, and now I was just desperately seeking answers.
‘But why here? And why is everything so…vanilla?’
Bede’s smile dropped again, this time like a guillotine.
He began hesitatingly, but his rising anger was clear.
‘No thought for how I die then? Not even a passing condolence?’ He snorted derisively. ‘The first question in all these years – and it’s about the colour scheme!’
This manic outburst unsettled me. The man before me, whatever he had grown out of, was worlds away from the child who hung on my every word.
‘Ok, well…how did you die then?’
Bede gave a childish, self-satisfied smile.
The simple pride with which he spoke sickened me.
‘So why here!’ I began to grow more and more desperate for some form of reason.
‘Is this all death is? Nothing but whiteness?!’
I invested my words with some authority, trying to regain the control I had exerted in life.
‘Of course it isn’t just whiteness! This is our humble abode!’ He sounded almost offended. ‘Is there anything I can get you to make you more comfortable? Scotch, chewing tobacco?’
For a brief moment, I actually considered his offer. Then the unreality of the situation sunk in.
‘Bede’ I didn’t feel like playing around any longer, so I inflected my voice with the same tone I had used on the infant Bede in similar situations.
Once again, the mood shifted. All pretence and joy faded from within Bede.
‘You aren’t focussing on the right points’ he drolled coldly ‘This place – what it is – none of that matters. The only important thing is what we do while we are here. It’s just an experience, like everything else’.
‘You aren’t saying anything!’ Bede’s mania has started to infect me. But before I could force any response from him, what could only adequately be described as the ‘ground’ began to emit a fiercely shining light.
At first, the light seemed to take the form of an intricate, unsolvable pattern, but as I looked closer I saw that it had begun to form words and, finally, a command.
‘You Will See’
Appropriately rattled, I looked up at Bede, who wore a smile of cruel defeat.
‘What is this?!’
He looks almost like the crying child I had left behind in another world, and can only manage to let a few words escape his bitter tongue.
‘Do not expect me to say I’m sorry’.
The white around us began to warp and recede. A myriad of colours, so brilliant and so clear they caused me pain, began to melt together.
I shut my eyes to block them out, and when I reopened them I saw that I was back in my old town.
I had lived most of my life here, even brought Bede here to be raised, and so was familiar with all of its quaint little features.
Hard stone paved the footpath, small square houses jutted out to attack onlookers with their complacency, and directly across from where we had appeared stood an old sandstone school, every inch of which belonged to a distant past.
I had seen these sights almost every day of my life, and had no interest in seeing them again – least of all when I thought I had finally escaped.
‘This is what death has in store for me?!’
Bede was beside me, keeping his gaze low and turning his back to me.
I remembered the days when I had to change and wash him, and his private knowledge of this place begins to leave a bitter taste.
‘I think you owe me that apology, boy’.
Bede cut me off with his hand, as he began to point towards the school.
I was about to yell at him to turn around and look at me, when I realised that what he was pointing at represented a great departure from my memories.
A spiral of thick black smoke started to spill from the building into the sky.
I began to hear shrill cries from the distance, faint at first, but cumulatively gaining in volume.
I grew afraid.
‘Bede, please tell me; where are we’?
My tone was conciliatory – pleading.
‘A corner of hell’
He spat those words so apathetically I had no choice but to believe him.
As he stopped speaking, we were once more transported, but this time there were no lights – the effect was immediate and even more unsettling.
We were in what I barely recognised as the school interior. The passage of time, as well as the all-consuming flames, had eaten away at the school I knew.
Where there were once trees and benches, doors and stairs, there was now only the hosts of yellow flames and flakes of grainy ash. Where there were once buildings and rooms, there were now only empty ashen skins.
This was not what I had noticed first though.
My eyes were drawn to the screaming, desperate people who were trying to get out.
I saw men with snot and tears covering their faces, seeking desperately for a salvation they would never find.
I saw women with eyes full of loss and bodies full of pain crawling in the dust.
I saw children burning alive.
And I had seen enough.
I never wept in life.
I had cried pitiably after beatings and failures, but weeping is different.
Weeping is a necessary way of forcing grief out of you.
Before this moment, before I had been confronted with scenes of such depravity and raw suffering, I did not think I could weep for any other person’s loss.
The impact of everything I was seeing – all that noise and sound and the smell – hit me so hard I fell at my grandson’s feet, my tears doing little to dampen the scorched earth.
The flames were upon us now, but instead of consuming us as they had done everything else; they shifted through us, leaving us untouched.
It was some time before I found these words.
‘Why are you showing me this?!’
Amidst an inferno of death and pain, Bede spoke ever so calmly.
‘So that you may understand.’
I look up, and see that he is averting his gaze from the dying people in front of us. He is leaning against a blackened wall, and not a flicker of detectable emotion could be seen in his face.
I cannot look away, much less stand. And in that moment, I despised him.
‘I understand fear and misery, you arrogant child. I understand death well enough, and believe me I understand pain. Just take this away!’
No visible change could be seen in Bede’s face, but I could feel his anger. It was palpable, as mixed with the air as the smoke.
‘You have understood nothing’
Without looking, he once again stretched his long arm out, pointing towards the centre of the roaring blaze.
I looked intently, but could only make out the thick flames and smoke.
Soon, however, they parted, and I discerned a figure heavily silhouetted against a sea of fire and smoke.
As he moved closer, I caught glimpses of his lanky figure and untamed hair.
It was the Bede I had met in the void, the only difference being he was dressed in a clumpy business suit. I looked back at the Bede next to me, this time to demand answers, but he had simply vanished into the smoke.
There was only the Bede before me, and as the flames got closer and closer I realised that this was how he died.
In a moment of pure naivety, I wondered if this was all the heavens had in store for me – the death of my last descendant, a sad rebuke against my resentment of him, or perhaps just a reminder than when he died painfully, I wasn’t there.
Only when I saw my grandson’s expression, and what he was clutching to his breast, did I finally come to understand.
Bede was not sad, afraid, or even angry.
Glistening in his eyes and curling in his lips was a kind of pure contentment.
He held a box of lighter fluid, which he poured out solemnly as he walked, the flames licking it up after him.
In his other hand, he clasped a single burnt out match like a crucifix.
When he saw the flames were soon to devour him, he dropped the fluid, and stopped a moment to look upon his works.
Then, unresistingly, he let the flames take him.
It took mere moments, then, mercifully, the scene dissolved into whiteness once more. As the terrified, burning people melted from my vision, I finally knew why I was here.
This wasn’t about me at all.
This was about Bede.
‘Thoughts?’ Bede queried humourlessly.
He would not meet my gaze.
Pure revulsion welled up inside me, but I was too drained of every human emotion to express it. Instead, I settle for a simple question.
‘Was what I just saw real? Did you…did you do that?’
He finally looked back at me, and if any real emotion was indeed in his face, it was only simple annoyance.
‘Of course I did you know I did. You saw everything’
And he was right – I did know. I knew that what I saw was not a trick or a mirage, and had been convinced in seconds that my own blood, my son’s son, was capable of burning human beings alive.
Had I always known? Is that why I believed so quickly?
As I looked deep into the face of the man across from me, I knew instantly that this was mistaken.
He had grown from the child that was, but all the same, he was not him.
The eyes that had always seemed an earthy mess of fertile soil had aged and withered – this man looked out of only ashes.
My words were seeped in contempt I did not try to bury.
‘Oh, don’t ask me that!’ He had the disgusting arrogance to sound disappointed yet again.
‘You will tell me. You will give me some reason; some pathetic rationalisation for why you sat back and watched so many people burn away!’
I stepped to within an inch of Bede. He looked so resentful now, and almost infinitely tired.
‘You won’t get what you want from me, pops. The truth won’t make you feel any better or make their suffering less. I did it because I was bored, because I could, but perhaps most of all, because I honestly couldn’t think of anything else to do. I don’t expect any of that to bring you peace.’
‘No! Stop playing these games and tell me something – you must have more – must have thought more – something must have happened before you became this person!’
I grabbed him around the neck and shook him as hard as I could. I would have done anything in that moment to dislodge some truth from him.
But Bede simply snarled and grabbed me back, shouting spitefully:
‘At 9 O’clock on a Wednesday morning I walked into the High School I had graduated from, spread gasoline throughout the building, and intentionally started a fire that would burn alive or otherwise dispose of twelve children and seven adults, including myself. The deed is done. Nothing you can do can save those people or give meaning to their deaths.’
I wanted to remove him from this place, to make sure I never have to listen to his cold, snarling voice again. But I settled for violently pushing him away – the feel of his skin against my hands was becoming intolerable.
As I do this, the light comes once more, and begins to show a command.
As soon as it is finished, every single emotion, including disgust, is taken from me. I am filled only with a desire to fade away, as I did in that hot, dirty room so very long ago.
But there, on the floor, the lights scorched out a single, unblinking demand:
I was surprised how suddenly all of this seemed meaningless to me.
I just wanted to fade away. It was my right – I earned it. But I was stuck here, with only a murderer and some lights for company. So I asked the only question I had.
Bede laughed affectatiously.
‘Look around you – the answer to that is smothering us! You of all people didn’t expect someone to be here, did you? An angel in the sky who rewarded the good and punished the naughty? No. No one cares what happens to us except us. We make the rules, and we are the only ones who can decide who or what we are, and what we deserve.’
He is trembling by the time he finishes.
I look him over, this murderous, furious boy, and I see that this mania is only a symptom of fear, a fear that is always with him, that probably always was with him.
I ignored him completely, and turn my question to the wide emptiness.
‘I need to know why!’
I used the full force of my lungs to pierce the void.
‘Oh my God, why!’ Bede yelled, in a grotesque parody of my shouts, throwing his arms into the constricting nothingness.
I went to yell again, but before I could even get a syllable out I see the light has come to provide answers.
I blocked everything else out and stared intently. I need this – a justification for all my extra pain and diseased consciousness.
But, as in life, I was only disappointed.
There, etched into nothing, are simply the words:
‘Because There Is Nothing Else’.
Silence filled the void.
For what seemed a long time, moments simply passed by meaninglessly.
Then Bede gathered the energy to speak.
‘Judgement was your speciality when alive, why so silent now? Are you only fierce in front of six year olds? Has death got your tongue?’ He let out a deep, grating laugh.
Before these words, I had thought only of the absurdity of my own situation, asked to send a man to some illusionary punishment for an audience of nothing.
Now the situation had changed, and I stood there mocked and denounced by a man who could watch children burn alive and feel nothing.
I had taken enough.
‘You were a pathetic child, you know that?’ I inflected my grandfatherly tones, and watched Bede flinch at the mere memory. ‘You always whined and pleaded for attention, looking for an outpouring of love. You probably hated me for not giving you quite as much as you felt you deserved. But the truth is…’
I leant in close so he would feel the full impact of my words.
‘…you never deserved any love to begin with. All you did was drop into my life and expect to be important, but of course you weren’t. How could you be?! I was old and spent by the time you plopped into my arms, the product of a man so useless he couldn’t survive living! So what does that make you?’
‘Do not talk about my father!’
His eyes were red and bulgy as I screamed at him, but as soon as I mentioned his father, he stood taller and regained his anger.
I was almost enjoying this.
‘Why not? He was my son, and I knew him more than anyone else alive. For instance, I know that even if he was alive, he would just be one more person who didn’t love you.’
And with that, I had won. Bede was irreparably wounded, and he cannot for some time find the strength to even speak. When he finally does, his voice is soft and light, as though it could just as well melt away into the white.
‘If I am pathetic, it is because of you, not my father. You raised me; I loved you, looked up to you, even wanted to be like you. I was a child, and I knew no better. It was only after I came here, and I watched every single squalid little scene of your life, that I realised what a mistake I had made. Because you never had a single moment of peace in your entire life, did you? And definitely no one to share it with. You thought too much, carved a cave inside your own head where you could stay and contemplate yourself and your own thoughts, so soon enough, everyone left you. You drifted through life without so much as a concerned glance at another human being, and to save face you told yourself that this was what you wanted.’
Bede shook his head derisively, exactly as I had done to him countless times.
His words did nothing to cool my rage.
‘You can say anything you like, Bede. I am not a murderer, and you cannot change that.’
‘Do you even know why my father killed himself?’
I had steadied myself for a thousand filthy names, but not a question like that.
‘You know why, Bede. Your mother’ –
‘Wasted away after I was born, yes, I do know that. But that isn’t why, old man’.
‘How the hell would you know, you never even met him!’
‘I told you. I have seen every depressing little scene of your life. I saw how distraught and crushed my father was after she passed. And I saw that you were completely blind to it. No, that’s not really true, is it? You simply weren’t interested enough in his pain.’
‘Be quiet, you arrogant little turd! I don’t care what you’ve seen- you don’t know what I was feeling for him!’
Somehow, despite everything, Bede had begun to seem more and more in control.
‘Neither did he. And what a comfort your repressed feelings must have been to your son.’
‘I talked to him! You must have seen that – I was the first one he spoke to after it happened, so don’t you dare say I wasn’t there!’
‘Yes, I remember watching your little chat!’ Tears were streaming down Bede’s face, but his soft, relentless delivery of words was unchanged. ‘I believe you said something along the lines of “you shouldn’t need a little girl to be happy”. But what would you know about happiness? You lived your life without it, and even taught me to abandon it! But he couldn’t.’
I couldn’t listen to this – couldn’t lay myself down in judgment before a murderer.
‘Just remember who took care of you, boy. Your Dad may have been nicer, more polite and eager to give out love, but when it came down to it, he wasn’t there for you. He was selfish –he couldn’t face his own responsibilities so he lay them at my door! And I was there to change you, feed you, wash you, everything! So your Dad may have been kind, but I was strong…there always has to be those who carry on, no matter what.’
Bede laughed at me – a desperate, choking laugh that seemed for a moment to fill and become the void.
‘You think he was pathetic because he let himself feel – let someone else into his life, and met them with love? No. That just makes him stronger than both of us’.
‘You can’t know what I felt towards anyone!’
‘I know you never had anything real. The most meaningful relationship you had, with my grandmother, lasted what, a few months, before she had the sense to run.’
Bede sighed and looked up at me, ready to confess.
‘You want to know why I set that fire? How I could watch those people die and feel nothing? ‘
‘Yes’ I spoke begrudgingly. Even that had begun to seem trivial to me.
‘When I was a child, I loved you. I didn’t know any better. So when you told me, with your dying breaths, that ruling a world of misery was all anyone could ever hope for, I dedicated my whole life to that single purpose.’
Fear, real animal fear that I had been too numb to ever feel before, runs through me.
‘Don’t you dare try to blame your atrocities on me! I am not responsible for your actions just because of one careless sentence! I was dying – even when I was alive my words were mostly empty rhetoric…’
‘And a man would have known that. But I was six years old and, like I said, I loved you. To me, your word wasn’t just law, it was my whole world. So I listened to you, and my greatest achievement was being the king of the miserable on a burning Earth.’
He smirks, but there is no emotion behind it.
‘Because of course, we are the same – our sin was to turn our back on any hope of happiness, just to not risk feeling’.
‘No!’ My words were now for me, not for him. ‘I may have been many things in life – a poor father, a bitter old man, a misanthrope. But I could never be a monster like you’
There was no anger left in me either, only fear. Fear of the only thing that has any semblance of meaning when you are dead; the person you were.
I turn to the nothingness.
‘You asked me to judge him. Well here is my sentence; destroy him! Make it so he never existed!’ My voice cracks, and I step away from Bede.
He is staring hard into my eyes.
‘Because-because there is no saving you.’
I watch Bede closely, desperately waiting for his dissolution.
But the moments tick by, and he stands there unchanged.
Then Bede smiled.
‘You are so egotistical, you know that?’ Triumph punctuated every syllable of his speech. ‘Did it ever occur to you that this infinity had nothing to say to you? That every word was for me?’
My eyes widened and I blindly stumbled backwards in the face of Bede’s advance, managing to tumble over nothing and land on my back.
It was all I had left.
Bede’s face was soaked in pleasure as he watched my fall.
‘Because of course you are right – there never was any saving me. Only you had a chance. And you are to be judged by your greatest victim’
He raised his arms high, as if all he surveyed was within his power, and spoke with poisoned ecstasy.
‘Looks like I am destined to always live out your dreams, Jasper. I have another world of misery to rule over!’
I waited for the inevitable damnation, the pain and misery that was to be my penance.
But it never came.
Bede’s arms fell by his sides, and he sighed deeply, eyes cold and weary.
‘You were wrong. There is nothing here – there never was. I lived out my life following your empty doctrine, and I refuse to waste my death on it’.
He almost smiled.
‘You finally taught me something useful’ Then he turns his gaze from me, and begins to shout into all that is around us.
‘Do nothing to him – his words mean nothing’.
There was no emotion in his face, only resignation.
‘It’s time’. He shut his eyes.
I am never sure of what I felt in that moment. I was consumed, but I am no sure by what – so much confusion, hurt and longing was running through me all at once.
Maybe it was love, if I was capable of such a thing.
All I know is that I got up to embrace my grandson, but as my arms closed around him he dissipated into nothing.
Then, and only then, when I was alone with my sins and an eternity of white, did I think of the frightened boy who came to tell me he wanted to be happy.