Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Heaven Sent

by Charmaine Frost

Charmaine Frost self portrait
Charmaine Frost self portrait

Saint Peter leaned against his cane and rose when the pearly gates squeaked open. Climbing all those stairs between earth and heaven didn't guarantee a newcomer admittance; everyone had to be examined first, by the guardian of the gate.

"Sorry about the squeaking," Peter croaked, "The hinges need oil. Can I help you?"

The newcomer glanced down at the spiraling gossamer ladder that disappeared into a blueness where clouds scudded like a fleet of white toy boats. Despite rumors to the contrary, death didn't stop arthritis or make one impervious to cold. The newcomer massaged his knees and wished that his relatives had buried him in a parka instead of a cotton suit; when he inhaled deeply to catch his breath, the cold air caught in his lungs and made him cough. Saint Peter, whose wings were matted and spotted with grime, wore only a tattered toga and flipflops; the newcomer wondered why such a high placed, executive angel dressed so shabbily, but noticed that Peter didn't shiver. Perhaps, once one became a carrying card member of heaven, one enjoyed perpetual warmth. The newcomer squinted past Peter and saw only a vista of sparkling white drifts and dunes.

"Uh well, after I died I started on a staircase and ended up here, instead of hell. So, I suppose that I'm supposed to come to heaven; this gate's inlaid in pearl, isn't it?

"Just a second, not so fast." Peter raised his bony right hand in the universal "Stop" gesture.

"Sir, I'm totally bomb free. All I have to declare is the suit I was buried in. And my shoes. No gun or drugs, unless there was some aspirin left in the suit pocket." The newcomer's trousers clung to tightly to his thighs, his jacket hung too limp; the undertaker had removed his wallet before the funeral. What if Peter, like any conscientious customs agent, required proof of identification? Was there a celestial record of all fingerprints, to be consulted when an arrival lacked driver's license or birth certificate? Surely many came without even a toe tag, but would Peter remember what to do? The saint's raised hand shook; veins bulged under his parchment skin. Thick bifocals hung on a chain from his withered neck; bad eyes weren't made perfect in heaven, perhaps senility afflicted the oldest angels, the advertisements had lied. The newcomer wondered if a bomb, smuggled past this old geezer, would automatically deactivate, then told himself to stop such thoughts; Peter might be telepathic, despite his resemblance to a doddering nursing home patient.

"Uh, wait right here, I have to check something. There've been some glitches in the system." Peter stammered. "This doesn't mean that you don't deserve to be up here, just that our system needs repairs." Peter limped towards a thick book which the newcomer hadn't noticed before.

After two centuries, heaven's brain trust had solved the problem of the illegal aliens, the sneaks fated for purgatory or hell who climbed over the fence when the guardians weren't looking and darted away faster than an angel could fly. But neither prophets nor scientists could solve the overpopulation problem; at last census, 400 trillion souls inhabited heaven. Too many good men and angels had depleted heaven's resources; now the necessities were rationed and the luxuries unobtainable.

Peter shivered as he hunched over the book; only will power and self hypnosis had kept his dentures from chattering in front of the new man. After millennia of neglect, the machinery running the place had begun to fail. Climate control no longer worked. The pearly gates no longer shut securely; with a little jiggling, the rusty padlock snapped open. Engines had stopped pumping anti-aging chemicals into the air. Some angels no longer strummed their harps, due to deafness or rheumatism. Some had started shedding feathers while others couldn't soar and glide, due to hunched backs and osteoporosis of the wing bones. Peter wondered how heaven's residents, still sure of their immortality, would react to the first angel's death. He flipped the book's delicate pages and shuddered as he read the expected words.

"Gates closed. No admissions, pending repairs".

No vacancies. No room at the inn. Probably the man had attended church dutifully, even tithed, in hope of winning entry into the greatest resort ever built; maybe he even believed those pamphlets which described lilac scented breezes, gold plated streets and amethyst castles in the air. Possibly he'd scolded himself for every naughty thought, fearing that God monitored everything and punished even a twinge of lust. Now the newcomer stretched his back and rubbed his neck, sore after the climb; Peter shuffled towards him.

"I've been good," the man implored. "Never missed service. Cared for my mother until the last days of Alzheimers, bathed her, put her on the potty, fed her puree spoonful by spoonful; it's not easy lifting a 150 pound woman out of the tub, but I didn't think it was right to send her to one of those homes where people go to wait for death. I always gave to Greenpeace and Unicef." His stomach contracted and an electric jolt of panic tensed his muscles when he noticed Peter's perplexed, faraway stare. "If you're worried about my ID," he gasped, "They took all my papers before they buried me, but my fingerprints are unique; you've got to have some cosmic database of all the fingerprints ever made."

Peter sighed. "I'm sure you're qualified for entry. It's not you, it's... there've been some bureaucratic problems. I have to discuss some details with my boss. Michael, the archangel -- the next best thing to God around here for knowing what to do." Peter gestured towards a billowing white mound as soft as eiderdown. "Sit down, you need a rest. I just need to talk over some policy issues with my boss. He's not far away, just past that first dune; I shouldn't be gone long. So, put your feet up, catch your breath while I'm away, but don't worry."

"Right," the newcomer thought, as Peter hobbled towards a glistening dune. "Don't worry, be happy, like I'm just facing some computer error and may not be able to get the sleazy hotel room I reserved."

Peter disappeared over the white hill. Visions of flying monsters sculpted from fire swarmed through the newcomer's mind.

"So he stumbles through the gate in his burial best, must have slipped past our watchmen down below and climbed all the way up the ladder," Peter panted.

"Yeah, yeah, I saw the whole thing." Michael pointed to an array of hundreds of lit consoles, part of the closed circuit video monitoring system which had been introduced to heaven centuries ago, in the Golden Age. "Luckily, this part of the system still works. Here he is, right here, crumpled on the ground and clutching his head in his hands. A shame he had to climb all that way, such an old man, with arthritis and a bad heart. Like climbing Everest, and we have no beds."

"Can't we pull out another cot?" Peter pleaded. "After he's trudged all the way up here?"

"No. You got the memo -- no admissions, no exceptions," Michael asserted. "He has to go where the others went."

"You mean the Soul Recycling Center?" Peter gasped. According to rumor, residents called it "The Soul Dump at the End of the Universe." When he idled by the motionless pearly gate with its tarnished silver inlay and bronze latch oxidized to fungal green, Peter imagined cracked porcelain souls and scuffed souls with rips through the middle. He wondered whether souls of corrugated cardboard waited together in a specially labeled dumpster, separate from fragile ones made of glass. Were sturdy but time-rusted ones unloaded into a spiritual scrap-metal heap? Did those radioactive or toxic with rage come pre-packaged in orange bags stamped with "danger!" signs? And when were souls sent to the Cosmic Landfill, for final disposal?

"No, not there," Michael muttered. "Don't you read the news reports? The Recycling Center near Andromeda is full; it's been closed for years. He'll have to go back." The whole universe knew that souls had to be dumped somewhere; sentient beings agreed that heaven had "a serious problem" when Michael petitioned them. However, the Not-In-My-Back-Yard syndrome kept planetary leaders wary. Peter and Gabriel promised kegs of mead and rivers of honey, but leaders couldn't be bribed into allowing a new recycling center anywhere near them in the galaxy.

"Back?" Peter frowned.

"Yes, back. Just like all those others, whom we were able to stop before they'd climbed all the way up the ladder." Michael glared at his companion. "Back to earth. Here are instructions about what to say, and answers to some Frequently Asked Questions of the newly deceased."

Peter bent over the sheets as Michael defined jargon and gave advice about what gestures and vocal tone to use when imparting the news. He squinted at the disclaimers in small print, jabbed his trembling finger at unclear terms and wondered who in heaven had drafted a document in such perfectly unintelligible legalese. Then, under the eternally bright sky, he limped over the glistening dune towards the newcomer.

"What do you mean -- I have to go back?" the newcomer protested. "With these achy knees and this wrinkly skin? And I had a fatal heart attack; how can I live down there if my heart won't pump? They promised eternity without arthritis if I was good. No heart pills, no doctor's offices. I was good, but what's heaven do? Reneges on its promise. How can you expect people to be virtuous when you can't keep your word?"

Peter shuffled his feet and stared down at the papers he held. "You won't go back old," he mumbled. "You'll shed this body. Then your soul can slip into a fetus before it develops a soul of its own." Peter sighed as he scanned the small print. "There is no guarantee, implied or actual, that the returned soul will occupy a human form. During periods of fetal scarcity, the soul may be forced to enter the embryonic form of another species, such as an insect larva, a frog egg or vegetable seed." Peter winced; he could never tell the newcomer that he might return to earthly life as a cockroach or pumpkin vine.

So I come back as a baby? And have to go through adolescence again?" The newcomer paused. "Will I remember the life I just ended? And my trip up here?"

"No." Peter lingered on the "no," fumbling for the explanation which would let him continue. "We kind of, uh, erase your memory. Clean off the chalk scrawl from your last life, let you return with your mind a clean slate. That makes things simpler. It's hard to act like a four year old when you can recall arthritis -- makes you reluctant to roll in the mud and tumble to the ground while chasing a ball. Too much knowledge can be bad for development; it makes a kid act like an adult, makes him a freak."

Peter studied his documents as the stranger nodded. The papers specified "No warranties, no guarantees," and listed what could go wrong. Sometimes, the memory erasing equipment failed completely; a soul returned to earth convinced that he was really an 80 year old ex-fireman, and was medicated for delusional thinking. Sometimes, only fragments of memory remained; such souls frequently experienced deja vu and felt like strangers in the new world. They felt emotionally divided, part of themselves belonging to another time and unsynchronized to the rhythms of the current era; other people placated them with pat consolations but distanced themselves, or advised long-term psychotherapy. Moths with vague recollections of being human were drawn to the TV's glare instead of the flame. Trees with such memories worked to arrange their branches in supplicating gestures.

"Will I ever come back here?"

"Someday," Peter mumbled. "When the glitches in our system are repaired, when the system's operating effectively." Peter imagined that this might never happen: Heaven's angels and flowers would die and decay; its buildings and the iridescent white platform on which they'd been built would collapse, rot infiltrating the grain and rust eating away the nails that held everything together. The debris would drift downward through the stratosphere, eventually becoming part of the smog that enshrouded earth.

"But you have to be good in the new life too," Peter warned. He wondered how virtuous roaches and moths were distinguished from unvirtuous ones.

"Sure," the newcomer sighed wearily.

Peter pointed towards a glittering ridge, noted that this was where the Memory Eradication Center was located, and beckoned the newcomer to follow. The two limped in that direction; frequently, the newcomer stopped to rub his knees and ankles and Peter stopped to massage his lower back.

"Will I have to climb back down that staircase?" The newcomer's frail voice shook.

"No," Peter cooed, glad to reassure his companion. "Our teleportation devices still work; in less than a second, we'll have you beamed into an obstetrics clinic, where you can pick your future mother and slide into her womb. Don't worry, she won't feel a thing."

Eight months later, a son was born to an El Paso couple. During childhood, the boy obsessively drew Brooklyn brownstones and streets of buildings which had been demolished long ago. He filled pages with drawings of road signs and 1960 Chevrolet coupes. His parents wondered at his fascination for places he'd never seen and at the accuracy of his drawings.

"He must have seen pictures in a book. Or on TV," one neighbor declared.

"Maybe he was here before, reincarnated, an old soul," another neighbor speculated. "Maybe he's remembering bits of his past life." This neighbor also believed that crystals could heal through their unique vibrations, and that angels flew down from heaven to aid the floundering.

"That's just what some mystics say," the parents thought. "Guesswork, wishful thinking. No one's come back from the dead with a detailed eye witness report convincing enough to make headline news."

Their son, they concluded, had watched videos of the old New York at school, or had flipped through picture books at the library.

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