Dying was painful. Death itself, not so much. When I opened my eyes, I was no longer greeted by the stark walls. I didn’t see the flurry of strangers by the bed or hear the sobs of the estranged mother I hadn’t seen or talked to in years. There was only silence, a welcome reprieve. Free of the ear-grating hiss of air being pumped through the tubes in my mouth and the beeping echoing the beat of my heart.
Had I ascended to paradise? Before me, a forest of tall and straight trees framed a sky marbled in hues of dark blues and bright pinks. Stars riddled the horizon, and a comet raced through the expanse, bathing the field of grass in gold. I spread my fingers, testing the feeling of my hands. I felt everything clearly and with none of the pain.
I welcomed the air in my lungs, picking up a scent sweetened with wildflowers, and exhaled.
“How long do you plan on lying there?”
Startled, I turned to the owner of the voice. Glowing amber eyes came into view, vibrant like fresh, unsullied rosin awaiting the kiss of a bow.
Hearing no reply, he leaned forward. “Did you hear me?”
I smiled, sheepish. Despite his rudeness, his good looks helped offset the bad greeting. “Sorry. I don’t know…Where am I?”
His strong face rippled with displeasure upon seeing my confusion. “You know the answer to that.”
I pursed my lips and wondered why I even had to ask. Perhaps I needed to hear the confirmation. Death was not easy to accept, especially when it was mine.
“Okay then. What are you supposed to be?” I asked instead.
“Your guide. Now, stand up. I can’t do my job if you stay there staring up at the damn sky like a buffoon.” Impatience strained his voice. He wasted no time, turning his broad back and walking away.
My brow twitched, and I sat up. Frustration over his harshness bore down on the corner of my lips. “Is that really how you’re supposed to be greeting people?” I flicked off a leaf from my hair and rose to my feet. “Less is more, they say. And your attitude is definitely on the excess.”
He looked over his shoulder. More than half of his face had been covered by a dark and black hood, allowing only the tall profile of his nose and his prominent lips to be visible. “Your wit will get nowhere here,” he said, pausing on his tracks, “but your feet will.”
Speechless, I went after him, crossing the field of grass on bare feet. While I tried to think of a counter to his words just now, I failed. I wasn’t fond of defeat, but thought first of who this man possibly was. If he held the key to heaven, or anything close, then I would only be in a bad position if I earned his ire. Nonetheless, he clearly didn’t like me at all.
Or he could just be like that. Grumpy.
Whatever his problem was, I decided I would leave it be. For now.
I put up with the awkward silence as we went through the forest. A part of me wished he would at least tell me something to make the journey, much less…jarring. However, considering his inhospitality, I probably should not expect too much.
Minutes brushed by. After a brief walk through the woods, we came to a stop before a river with water so clear the bottom seemed to be framed by living glass. Were it not for the wind causing small ripples, I would think it was a mirror.
It reflected the sky above it perfectly. A stone bridge hunched over it in a perfect arch, connecting its two sides. The bridge’s silhouette on the water and itself formed two parts of a perfect circle, leaving me in awe.
Fascinated, I leaned over the bank to look at my reflection on the surface as well, dismissing the pointed stare of my guide. I saw my face. It was smooth, unwounded, a perfect reflection of how I looked like when I was still alive—and healthy.
But something was different.
My skin had changed into a shade of gold. Stars moved under my skin as though the sky existed within my very flesh…if it could even be considered that.
I died young. Nineteen years old, to be exact. I was a fledgling who had barely stretched my wings. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that I had never had the chance to fly at all.
“Don’t fall in,” he said. “The river might look shallow, but once you fall in, you can never dream of escaping. It’s connected to the Cosmos before you.” He pointed to the sky of stars. “The bearer of worlds.”
“The bearer of worlds?”
“Thousands of realities. The world you come from? That’s only one of so many.”
I moved away from the water after hearing his warning and focused some place else. Beyond the bridge was a rigid cliff, framed by a midnight sky and misted over by glowing clouds. The stars that had been so distant before now floated within my hand’s reach, humming a soft lullaby as they shone in a dapple of colors.
Music. How odd.
I didn’t know stars could sing.
“So, you might’ve heard of it,” he began, turning to, finally, look me in the eye. “But I’m going through every detail because it’s in my job description.” Lean, olive arms crossed over his chest.
I broke from the trance and focused on him, raising a skeptical brow.
“You drink from the river—” I stared at him as he explained. He obviously didn’t like his so-called job. Hated it, even. The fact was so blatant and disconcerting it was impossible to ignore. His eyes slanted in disinterest and his brows lightly raised to neutralize that sharp arch. He would pause now and then to make motions with his head, but refused to move his arms or change the tone of his voice. Did he want to look invested in what he’s doing?
No. Clearly not.
As he rambled on, the melody from the stars drifted back to my ears. Distracted and a little enthralled, I tuned in. The song was unexplainably beautiful and hypnotizing; soft like wind chimes, soulful like a flute. It was much preferable compared to the droning buffoon in front of me.
“…other side and you reincarnate into your next life. Hassle-free. Now, if you please…”
“What?” I snapped to attention upon hearing “next life.” Unfortunately, I hadn’t caught on the rest. That last bit, however, was enough to give me an idea of what was to come. “I’m sorry,” I said, shaking my head. “I don’t think I’m in the mood for reincarnating at the moment. I just died, for god’s sake. You won’t even allow me to rest in peace!” Frowning, I wrapped my arms around myself. I thought death meant heaven or hell. Clearly, that wasn’t the case.
He scoffed. “Were you listening?”
I didn’t have the bravery to tell him no. I turned away, embarrassed.
“That’s the purpose of drinking from the river!” he exclaimed, seeing my unconscious response. “You forget what you’ve accomplished so you don’t regret it. You forget everything you have suffered so you move on without the pains of your past life.”
Despite his explanation, I remained unconvinced. I lifted my head to meet his eyes.
He talked of moving on as though it was easy. Then again, it was to be expected from someone who couldn’t care less about the people he was dealing with. It was cruel, though. Why would the universe subject a soul to go through the same torment over and over again? For what reason? Was I prepared to brave a new life after everything in my past one? How many times had I gone through this process, anyway?
“People who stay here eventually fade to nothing,” he said, hearing my silence and seeing my obvious unwillingness. “Because a soul’s purpose is existence. Do you want that?”
The mild threat in his words did not faze me. “Either way, I deserve to make my own choice. If I fade to this nothing…it’s my call.”
A sardonic smile stretched across his lips. “Now, that’s not possible.” His gaze flitted everywhere save for my face as he debated how to go about the situation, hands uncrossing and resting on both sides of his waist instead. “You’ve got to know that that life you lived is only one of the thousands you’ve actually endured. You might think you’re just some insignificant being, but you must play your role—no matter how small. The universe works like a clock. One little detail out of place and a whole other lot is affected.”
I turned away from him.
“If it’s any consolation, look at the sky behind me. You’ll see what becomes of souls that have lived a million lives. Their souls have been polished so much they will no longer fade when they stay.”
“Those stars…are actually souls?” I asked, facing him once more, curious.
“I thought that’s the bearer of worlds something something?”
He sighed and brushed his palm down his face. “Look, can you just drink from the river? I need to move on to my next assignment.”
“Sorry,” I said, turning away in refusal.
His cheeks pinked from agitation. “Look here—”
“Stop, please. I don’t want to.”
“I said no! What don’t you understand with the word no? It’s no. And I mean no! I have gone through so many things in that place, and now you’re telling me to return? Why should—” He yanked me by the shoulder mid-sentence, grabbing me by the head and forcing me to kneel by the bank. The suddenness of his actions stunned me into silence. But before I could protest further, he dunked me headfirst into the water.
I held my breath and, after a few seconds, was finally pulled back out.
“What…are you…” I gasped between breaths, grasping his arms and pulling on his skin. “I have rights! Human rights!”
“No, you don’t! Last time I checked, you’re just a soul!”
Unsettlingly enough, he made a point, but that didn’t mean what he was doing was justified either. “Tha—” I speechlessly stared at him, then remembered his mention of job description from earlier. “You—I’ll talk to customer service and complain about you!”
“You’re already talking to them.”
That was when I realized—I was doomed.
“Well, crap.” I fought against the sheer force of his hands and grip, but unfortunately found myself too weak. “Let me go! Even if I don’t have rights, this still isn’t right!”
“Do you think I care?” He maintained a tight hold on my arm, not allowing me much leeway to move. “I’ve had a rough time already and I’ve been patient. I’m not waiting another ten years to herd along one goddamn soul and wait for it to be ready! I still have a million more on my list and you are not helping my case here. So dammit, just drink!” He forced my head forward once more, dunking me into the water for a second time. I persevered to hold my breath despite the pain. If I yielded here, everything would no doubt be over.
I wanted to explain to him why I didn’t want to return, at least. Make him understand the reason why I was hesitant in returning. However, judging by how he was handling me, I doubted if he would even bother to open his ears to me at all.
If this was his job, he sucked at it.
When I felt I was finally being pulled out, I used an extra force to launch myself back. An arch of water trailed after my hair, hitting the dude in the face like a whip as the back of my head landed on his nose. I felt dizzy, but it was worth it. He staggered back, and I used the opportunity to get to my feet. Dripping wet, I took advantage of the opening and kicked him into the river.
He plunged into the clear surface, shattering the reflection of the sky. Though feeling somewhat guilty, I felt a rush of satisfaction for being able to exact a form of revenge. “Get a taste of your own medicine, you sunuvabeetch!”
Not knowing where to go, I didn’t think much when I moved. I simply ran to the first direction that I gravitated towards. My guide, meanwhile, was near drowning at that point. He dog-splashed his way towards the riverbank, barely keeping his head above the water. “D-dammit!”
Served him right.