This short story-cum-essay is the result of recent philosophical conversations (not to say disputes), and my reading of Mary Roach’s Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. I also consulted Introduction to Electronic Defense Systems by Filippo Neri for some additional information about ducting.
The night I died was indistinguishable from any other summer evening. The sky was a soft dark blue, and a gentle illumination persisted although the sun was no longer visible. Lightning bugs darted among the dark labyrinths of lawn shrubbery, and birds and insects hummed invisibly in the branches of trees.
Then it all faded, and I was alone in some alien place. I was not afraid. What is fear, after all, but a primitive mechanism elicited by the brain’s lateral nuclei, designed to keep us safe from predation? There were no predators here; in fact, for a while I thought there would be nothing at all. It is difficult to describe my new surroundings. There were no golden pastures or pearly cloudbanks, as certain religious texts might lead you to believe, nor were there fiery pits and rivers of blood. Although, I feel compelled to tell you here that I would have been surprised if I had gone to hell; I don’t seem to recall being much of a sinner, in the grand scheme of things.
No, there was nothing like that; in fact, there was nothing at all. Imagine darkness, except it’s not really dark because there’s no light either. Everything is transparent, except there is nothing behind the transparency, if that makes any sense.
I knew, dimly, that I was dead, but for a while I waited where I was, in case some good samaritan should discover me and alert the paramedics in time. After awhile though, I decided it was time to explore a bit. I walked forward. Walking without weight is a very strange experience. We don’t really feel the heft of our bodies, of course, until we shed them, and I kept losing my balance and pitching forward until I learned to take small, mincing steps that nevertheless seemed to propel me forward with considerable speed.
It was not long—or perhaps it was. There was nothing to indicate the passage of time, and I had ceased to feel hungry or thirsty or tired—before I met my first fellow-spirit. He—I use the masculine pronoun, not because he had any attributes of a man, but because his manner seemed more male then female.
“Hello,” he said.
It was even more strange to speak without vocal chords than to walk weightlessly. I had no mouth of which to speak of, no tongue or teeth with which to form my words. Conversation among the dead is a very odd thing. We no longer use our native languages, since the equipment with which we used to speak in life has been stripped away. Words, though, are just names people have come up with for common ideas so that I can know you’re talking about, say, an “apple,” without you having to go get an apple to show me. Basically what we do is share these ideas, without putting words to them.
“Hello,” I said, unsure of what to do next.
The man smiled. “You must be new here.”
“How did you know?”
“I saw you walking.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling a little self-conscious. I struggled to think of something to say. Strangely, I didn’t have many questions. I wasn’t anxious or worried about anything; I wasn’t in any pain. The vast, unending landscape did not seem to offer much in the way of either particular pleasures or dangers.
“Who are you?” I came up with, finally.
“I am called Jesus,” he said.
I goggled at him for a minute. Could this be the Jesus, as in God’s-only-son-born-of-a-virgin-died-on-the-cross Jesus? Or was he just some dead guy from Latin America, like that Puerto Rican kid Jésus, who had been in some of my classes in high school?
“Um, nice to meet you.”
“I assume you have a lot of questions.”
“Not really. I mean, I’m kind of surprised about all of this.”
“What did you imagine would happen?”
“Nothing. Just, poof, you know? Lights out.”
Jesus nodded. “Well, that is what happens to most of us.”
“Yes. Not everyone makes it here.”
“Wow. Is this…heaven?”
“Not as such.”
I must have sounded nervous, because Jesus laughed. “No, it’s not hell either. It’s just another place, like any other.”
“Good. I mean, I would have been pretty surprised if you had ended up in hell. Sir,” I added as an afterthought.
“So you do know who I am.” Jesus sounded pleased.
“Of course. Doesn’t everyone?”
“Most do,” Jesus allowed. “In fact, they know more about me than I do about myself.” He seemed embarrassed. “You tend to forget things here. People help me remember, with their stories. Did you know I could walk on water?”
“They said you performed many miracles,” I replied evasively.
“I cured the blind, I brought back the dead…” he looked around. “I sort of have trouble believing that last one. I mean, was Lazarus really dead? I had a neurologist once who explained to me that it might have been a mistake. Apparently, given the state of medicine, it was not unheard of for comatose people to be proclaimed deceased before they actually were.”
“I always viewed that story as more of a fable than an actual, factual account,” I said. “You know, a sort of metaphor meant to instill hope that there is an ultimate justice.”
“It’s not exactly as you imagined, is it?”
“Well, no offense to you Mr. Christ, but I wasn’t really a believer, as such. I wasn’t really expecting anything to happen.”
“That’s alright. Siddhartha is here too, by the way, if you’d rather talk to him.”
“Are there many others?” I asked.
“Yes and no. Not everyone makes it here. There are a few million souls, but that is only a small fraction of the billions and billions who have died in the history of the world.”
“Did you get…chosen to come here?”
Jesus sighed. “Apparently not. It all has to do with random chance. Here, come with me, I’ll introduce you to Max. He was a physicist when he was alive, and he knows more about these things than I do. He’s told me his theory multiple times, but I’m not really sure I could do his explanation justice if I tried to repeat it.”
We walked along for a bit in silence.
“So do you remember a lot about your life?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
“It’s hard to know what I remember, and what other people have told me. I remember travel, and hardship. But most of all, I have this sense of rightness, this conviction that I was telling the truth. You have to admit that my message was very beautiful, even if you didn’t adhere to it, as such.”
“It was, I’ll grant you, but religion seems to have done much more harm than good.”
“I know,” said Jesus sadly. “For a while, I thought I might really change things. I thought I could help people discover the goodness within themselves. I thought if they knew they were fiercely loved, that might spur them on love others in turn. How can anything be too horrible or cruel, if you are well and truly loved?”
“There is no wisdom in crowds,” someone interjected.
“Ah, Max. I have a pupil for you.”
“I take it you want to know why you are here.”
“If you can tell me.” I wasn’t sure I liked his manner, which didn’t seem very friendly. Or perhaps that was just in comparison to the extremely personable Jesus.
“Well, I have no idea, in fact. What I do have is some inkling as to how you might have gotten here. Have you ever heard of the ducting effect?”
I thought for a moment, but had to admit that I had not.
“It’s a name for the phenomenon of the anomalous propagation of waves—radio waves, microwaves, etc. Sometimes, depending on certain environmental conditions, energy can be reflected, or guided down a certain path, or duct. One of the main effects of ducting is that it allows signals to traverse much greater differences, and allows contact between sites that would otherwise not be possible. However, it is difficult to predict and impossible to control. Sometimes when ducts appear, they don’t do anything noticeable. Generally, ducting rarely modifies the propagation of waves.”
“So what does this have to do with me dying?” I asked.
“Well, as far as I see it, our consciousness, insomuch as it can exist outside our bodies, is a form of energy. And when conditions are right, it is my theory that these ‘brain waves’ may be guided through a duct and into this dimension of being.”
“This is some sort of alternate universe, then?”
“No, it’s another dimension. You’ve heard of the third dimension, space, and the fourth dimension, more commonly known as time. Here, we exist beyond both of those.”
“It makes sense, if you think about it; given that energy is neither created nor destroyed, we have to go somewhere.” This was the most intelligent thing I could think of to say, but Max didn’t seem very impressed. He bid us a gruff good-bye, and wandered off.
“He’s very smart,” said Jesus fondly.
“What happens next?” I asked Jesus.
“We’re not sure,” said Jesus. “We just keep going, losing bits of ourselves. Max reckons that the energy escapes back to another dimension and is reused. A lot of people start out waiting around to see if their loved ones show up, but eventually one starts to forget all those trappings. If I’m cogent at all, it’s because of the stories the others have told me about myself, about the man I was, over and over. It helps me remember how I lived, and how I died. Death is the thing most of us forget first. Like birth, it’s quite a shock, and over before we can really comprehend it.”
He was right. I had already forgotten how I died.