August 9th, 2021
Short Story by Maya Heins
Artwork by Maddy Meredith
Once upon a time, there was a little girl who was fearless. She loved to climb trees, cannonball into rivers, and run shrieking through fields buck naked, her long blonde hair streaming out behind her. She was so fearless in fact, that she had never paused to consider her own mortality.
One day, the little girl decided to go visit her grandmother who lived in the woods across the valley. She hadn’t been gone long when a mountain lion silently leapt out of the trees above her, landing directly on top of her, instantly breaking her neck. After a brief moment of blinding confusion, the little girl found a translucent spirit version of herself standing over her lifeless body. Shocked, repulsed and quite frightened, she stood there and watched as the mountain lion started snacking on the body she had inhabited just a few moments before. Shivering slightly, she looked around to see if anyone else had witnessed what had happened and found herself staring into the hooded golden-green eyes of Death.
“What happens after you die?” Death asked the little girl, his obscured head tilted to the side in obvious curiosity.
“Well I wouldn’t know, would I?” retorted the little girl, “I’m too young to die.”
“Well you’re dead now,” Death blinked once, his gaze level with the endless patience that comes from dealing with dead people for millennia, “I need to know what you think happens so I can take you there.”
“What happens if I don’t know what happens after you die? Can I go back to being alive instead?” said the little girl, starting to get upset. She wasn’t supposed to be dead, she had just gone for a quick stroll. She was supposed to start an apprenticeship with the town's midwife in a few weeks. Her family was going to be so upset, they had worked so hard to get her that opportunity.
“No one can escape their own mortality,” responded Death, his glowing eyes seemingly penetrating right into the depths of the little girl’s soul. “Come with me,” Death extended his boney black hand towards her. With one last glance at her body turned lunch, the girl shrugged and grabbed the extended hand.
Hand in hand, they started walking away from the site of the little girl’s untimely murder. As they walked Death explained: “Humans are very creative when it comes to what they believe happens after they die. My job on this planet is to transport humans to whichever afterlife they choose to believe in. It is uncommon but not entirely unheard of for a person to have not considered their own mortality. I will show you three possibilities before you need to choose one. I have many other souls to guide today, you see.” Death’s voice was soft and warm, and the little girl felt herself relaxing. Death was so self-assured in his task that the girl found she wasn’t frightened anymore at the prospect of heading into the unknown. “Are there any afterlife realms that you have heard of that you would like to see?”
The little girl considered for a moment before saying: “Well my grandmother always spoke of heaven and hell.”
And so Death reached his free hand out in front of him, and grasped an ornate golden door knob that had materialized together with a massive white oak door. The little girl followed Death as he stepped through the door, leaving this world for the next.
The massive bright white room they entered through the magical door appeared to be situated in the clouds far above the world and looked a bit like the greek temples from the little girl’s history textbook. The little girl and Death looked down at a long line of translucent human souls who were apparently waiting for their turn to speak with the giant white man sitting on a throne of clouds on top of a dais at the far end of the chamber. Next to him was a massive golden book resting on an equally colossal pedestal apparently made from the surrounding clouds.
“When a person believes in the Christian heaven and hell,” began Death in his soft-spoken tone, “they are sent here to Judgement Day. When they reach the front of the line, the Christian God looks in his golden book to see what kind of life they have lived. If they are found to have been good Christians in their lifetimes they are sent to heaven. It is supposed to be a magical place filled with all the wonder and glory many do not have the opportunity to experience on earth. Should they have sinned in their lifetimes though, God will send them to his twin brother the Devil, who will punish them for their bad deeds.”
“Have you ever seen this heaven or hell?” asked the little girl.
“No, only those who pass by the book are allowed to see what heaven and hell are truly like.” replied Death. “As I am not really dead, I do not get to experience that.”
“And what do people do in heaven or in hell?” asked the little girl.
“I am not sure,” replied Death, “but it is supposed to be a most magical or a most horrific existence- to ensure that humans on earth behave in the way the Chrstians deem correct.”
“And if I get sent to hell, do I ever get to see heaven?” asked the little girl.
“That is not for me to decide,” replied Death. “The golden book will tell God where to send you and for how long.”
“Well that sounds like a pretty big gamble to be honest, I mean what if I wasn’t a good Christian? I don’t even know what that means really, “ said the little girl, already writing this option off as no good. “Next, could we maybe go to where animals go when they die?” She was thinking of her beloved golden retriever Buddy who had passed away a few years ago, wondering if perhaps they could be reunited.
Without another word, Death reached out his hand and this time a modern silver chrome door knob attached to a deep sapphire blue door appeared in front of them. Stepping through they found themselves out above the open ocean with nothing around them but blue water for as far as the eye could see. A giant sterling silver spoked wheel lay flat churning at a rather rapid pace in a circle in the water, creating a vortex that descended hundreds of feet down into the dark ocean water.
“This is the wheel of reincarnation,” explained Death as they both watched translucent souls, both human and animal, float in from all directions across the open ocean down into the vortex created by the wheel. “All animals and many humans believe in a giant circle of life and death, where souls are reborn into new bodies after they die. Should you choose to believe you will be reincarnated after your death, your soul will pass down into the wheel and judge the life you have lived on earth before spitting you down through the bottom of the vortex and into your next life.”
“What will I become in my next life?” asked the little girl, her interest peaked.
“That’s not for me to say,” replied Death, “but you could be anything from a humble caterpillar to a wealthy king.”
“Could I choose what I would become in my next life?” asked the little girl, fearing to become something as gross as a little boy in her next life.
“No,” replied Death, “the wheel will choose for you.”
“Will I remember this life in my next one?” asked the little girl.
“Probably not,” replied Death.
The little girl sighed; the reunion she had hoped to have with Buddy was obviously not going to happen. “Well I don’t really want to forget who I am. Could we please see the next after life now?” said the little girl, sounding a bit defeated. She had hoped to like these possible afterlives a bit more, but so far they had just seemed kind of depressing. “Maybe you can show me your favorite one?” She was hoping Death would be able to show her something she could feel excited about.
So Death reached out his hand a third time and a black matt door knob attached to an equally black matt door appeared in front of them. Stepping through Death and the little girl entered a world filled with nothing but blackness.
“This is the afterlife, where there is nothing after life.” Explained Death, his voice picking up a bit in excitement. “This one is my favorite, it is the most simple one, and in my opinion the most peaceful.”
“So you mean, if I choose to believe nothing happens after death, I will come to this place of nothingness?” asked the little girl.
“Exactly, your life would just end.” Answered Death.
“But isn’t that kind of final?” asked the little girl.
“Death is always final,” replied Death, seemingly a bit disappointed that this last door hadn’t particularly impressed the little girl.
“But that’s kind of depressing isn’t it?” asked the little girl.
“Depressing or peaceful, I guess that is in the eye of the beholder.” responded Death with that endlessly patient tone of his. “So now has come the time for you to decide, what is the afterlife you choose?”
The little girl thought about the three afterlifes they had visited. Heaven and hell might be nice for her grandma, but she didn’t really feel comfortable giving some other-worldly being so much control over her fate. The vortex of reincarnation was kind of neat, especially since she now knew Buddy had been given another chance at life. She hoped he was happy, wherever the vortex had sent him. However, choosing that door would mean giving up everything that made her her and that was ultimately impossibly difficult for her to accept. Death’s final door of nothingness was certainly the simplest and most peaceful option out of the three, but it was also the most final. How could she accept an end with nothing to look forward to, when she wasn’t even supposed to be dead in the first place? She hadn’t been particularly impressed by her options, but she knew Death was expecting her to make a decision. If only she could visit more doors, really get a feel for all of the possibilities out there!
“Firstly, I would like to thank you for showing me around,” began the little girl after a few moments of consideration, “I never really thought about what would happen to me after I die, but now I see that humans are endlessly creative when it comes to life after death. The truth is however, I really am not ready to be dead. Since I cannot go back to being alive and simultaneously do not like any of the possible afterlives you have shown me so far, I would like to make you a counter offer.” The little girl put her hands on her hips and stuck out her chin in a stubborn look of defiance, almost as if daring Death to scoff at her daring. “Take me on as your apprentice, train me, let me help you guide souls to life after death, and thereby give me the time and space to figure out my own beliefs.”
Death blinked his glowing golden-green eyes slowly three times, looking intensely at the little girl as if he had never seen anything like her before. “I accept your offer,” he began, before quickly adding: “but I will include one condition. I will give you ten years time in which to travel the universe’s afterlife realms with, guiding lost souls where they belong. You will visit more worlds than you ever dreamed possible, and learn much about not only yourself but humanity and the vast universe as well. Ten years is not nearly enough time to learn everything, but it will give you a good sense for how things work. At the end of ten years time, you must choose your fate: join an afterlife realm like everyone else or follow in my footsteps to become the new Death, releasing me to go seek my own end. Do you accept?”
“I do.” Said the little girl almost immediately, it was a generous offer that Death had made her. Exactly what she had wanted, more time and more information! So Death smiled at the little girl and they shook hands, before setting off to find the first lost soul for the little girl to help find their way to life after death.