In the land of the dead, the world is a lifeless grey, and the sky is the colour of tears, pricked out by the black points of the stars.
In the land of the dead, the grey mountains rise up to the colourless sky from the endless plains, and the rivers wind sluggish and black as night, from the beginning of eternity to its end. Wind does not blow, nor does anything grow, in the land of the dead.
In the land of the dead, the ghosts stand, on every crag and rock, unmoving. There is nothing to do, nowhere to go, except wait till the end of time. And who knows what happens then? Not even the ghosts know.
I stood on my own crag, turning slowly under that lightless sky, my anguish in me like a slow-burning fire, and yet I could do nothing to quench it. If I’d still had a voice I would have screamed aloud, and if I’d still had eyes I might have wept, but I was nothing but a wisp, one among untold billions, without even a name.
I did not know how long it was since I’d been dead, or whether I’d been here from the moment of my physical extinction – but I was here now, and too full of sorrow not to despair.
I still remembered, faintly, the moment of my death, of the heavy motorcycle between my legs leaning as I swept round the bend, and the car coming, fast, too fast, on the wrong side of the road, too fast for me to do anything, and the world swinging completely round my head once as I was flung from the saddle. After that there was nothing – until now.
I could still see her face, though, could still feel the pulling inside me, to be with her. We’d had troubles, bad troubles, the kind that killed relationships and destroyed lives, but we’d healed them, we’d come through, we’d had a fresh future together. And I’d been on my way to her, to see her again, the joy of anticipation singing in my blood, when it had happened. I could imagine her, waiting, impatience giving way to annoyance, worry and then stark fear. She would still be waiting for me when the message came. She would wait forever.
But we would never meet again, for there is no marker of identity, no recognition, in the land of the dead.
Far in the distance, in whichever direction I looked, the mountains rose in serried ranks, their slopes crowded with the ghosts, who stood in such profusion on them that their outlines were blurred and misted. And below my crag, the plain was cracked and fissured with aeons of drought, and through it a broad black river flowed slowly. This, then, was what I would know for the rest of eternity, in the land of the dead.
The anguish rose in me again, tearing me apart, and I could tolerate it no longer. The pain folded me up and tumbled me off my crag. I drifted like thistledown towards the distant plain, uncaring of what happened to me. I wished I could feel physical pain, for that would have been a blessing, a release. But there was nothing of that.
I came to rest on a ridge of rock by the river, where another ghost stood, a wisp of a grey stain in the grey air. It twisted slowly as I came down, and though it had no face, I felt its distant, disinterested scrutiny. And, so faintly that I could hardly hear it, came a breath of a voice.
“Despair and anguish – those are our constant companions,” it said. “It would be better that you accepted it, for your own sake.”
“Then is there no escape?” I asked. “Does the pain not grow dimmer with the passage of time?”
For so long was the ghost silent that I thought it would no longer speak. “There is no time here,” it said at last. “No years, and no seasons. Nothing passes by, and there is no dissolution. Nothing grows dimmer, for there is no time to wash the pain away. Only the river flows, endlessly.”
I looked down to the river, and its lifeless black depths, which seemed to suck the grey out of the air and the darkness from the stars. “Whence does the river flow,” I asked, “and where does it go?”
“That is not something we know, or can tell,” the ghost whispered, its voice like the rubbing of desert sands. “The river comes out of eternity and returns to it.”
“But one might flow along with it, and let it carry one along,” I replied. And even as I spoke, I saw boats drifting on the black water, which came to the shore, each laden with the ghosts of the dead. They left the boats and drifted away to find a rock or a ridge to wait out the rest of eternity. And the boats drifted on downstream, empty.
“One could take one of those boats and let it carry one along,” I said.
“The river takes the boats down to the Great Cave, whose mouth is a monster’s jaws,” the ghost replied. “If you should take a boat, the current will catch hold of you and bear you along, for the boats have no oars nor rudder, nor any other way to steer. Then the river will carry you into the monster’s jaws, the teeth will destroy the boat and throw you into the water; and you will be lost evermore.”
“I am lost already,” I said. “There is nothing worse that can happen to me, than I am going through now. I will take a boat, and let it bear me where it will.”
“Then you will be as those who have gone before,” the ghost sighed.
“So others have gone before?” I asked.
“Yes, and they have never returned. The river took them into the monster’s jaws, and they were heard from nevermore.”
“If I am lost, there’s nothing to be done about it. But if I am not, there may be wonders yet to see, and things I can only dream about.”
“Then, come back,” sighed the ghost like the wail of winds over the frozen wastes. “Come back, and tell me what you find, and what wonders you see. Come back, and let me know.”
But I paid it no further heed, and drifted down from the ridge to the bank of the river. Fortuitously a boat arrived just then, small, bearing just three ghosts. And as soon as they had disembarked, the boat began to drift out again into the current.
But I had already climbed aboard it, and let it carry me along. I could not do otherwise, for it had no oars or rudder, or indeed any other way to steer. The current caught the boat, and bore it along past the ghost-crowded banks and the gloomy mountains, until at last it brought me to the entrance of the cave, which was a monster’s mouth set with immense teeth. And then I would have perhaps wished to try to escape the way I had come, but for the anguish that still burned inside me, so that I preferred destruction in the monster’s jaws to an eternal wait among the lightless wastes,
And the current bore the boat into the monster’s teeth, and they crushed and splintered the boat, and threw me into the water, so that I thought I should surely be destroyed. But the water bore me up, carried over the monster’s jaws, and the dark flow bore me down the cave.
And then all around me was darkness – darkness so profound that it went through my very being, darkness that seemed to consume me, and a silence that transcended death, for all that I was a ghost. Through that darkness and silence the black river bore me along, until I truly began to believe that I had merely traded one eternal wait for another and infinitely worse one.
But then the darkness began to lift with a sullen red glow, which began to pervade the cave; and in the glow I saw that I was passing between banks which were crowded with ruins – the ruins of mud huts and great cities, of forts and churches, of slender high-arched bridges of marble and squat watchtowers of granite. And I saw the villages sprout from the mud, grow and change, cottages crushed under the weight of palaces and mansions; and they, in turn, crumbled away, until there were only ruins once more.
And overhead, along the roof of the cave, I saw great and angry suns, flaring blue-white with fury, which were born, flared a moment, and then became sullen red with age; until they burned to a cinder, and left only the ruins of planets, swinging endlessly through the stellar night.
Around me now, in the river, things swam; things with the faces of crocodiles and the bodies of worms or eels, things with razor fins and other, nameless limbs, which writhed and squirmed in the black water. And they saw me, but their teeth could do me no harm, for I was but a ghost.
Then the red glow faded, and the ruins dropped from view; but it was not darkness, for the water had become translucent, with a pearly glow; and through it, below me, I saw the cities I had seen as ruins, but close, alive and vibrant, so much so that I imagined I could reach out and touch them. And in them I saw people; I saw them born and grow up, fall in love and give birth; and I saw them grow old and wither, even as the towns and cities grew old around them. I saw the great lords and ladies at their feasts, and watched them throw scraps to the beggars who waited hopefully outside the window. And I knew that they, too, would die, as the beggars would; just as their cities would fall to the battering rams of warrior hosts, and villages would rise where they now were.
And I saw their faces – the fresh faces of children grow hard and old, and merge into a crowd, a mass, a million million strong, each face with its own pain, its own happiness, its own history; and I saw, among them, those that I thought I almost knew – and, among them, I saw one who hurried to meet his love on a motorcycle, and never reached her; and if I could have turned away then, I would have. And I saw her, too; I saw her as a child, and flowering to womanhood, and I did turn away, for I did not wish to see her sorrows, for they would have scraped wounds across my soul; I did not wish to see her joys, for I knew how transient they were.
Then at last the river brought me out on to a great open plain, under a crystal sky, a plain where houses and mansions stood side by side with skyscrapers and yurts; all that had ever been was there, and all that would ever be. And I drifted between them, the river flowing more and more slowly, until it bore me to the shore.
There I saw a house I thought I knew, with a familiar paint-chipped door. Inside, I knew, there would be a face familiar and dear, even if I could not put a name to it. I entered like a breath of wind, like a touch of breeze, and I saw her; there was grey in her hair, and lines around her eyes, that I could not recall. And she smiled at a thought, and a tear trickled from the corner of eye, and I wished I could have reached out and wiped it away.
I wish I could have stayed a moment longer, but I already knew I could not. I felt the river pulling at me again, and drawing me away; and I reached out to touch her, my ghost-fingers trailing across her cheek, and I blew her a kiss with my ghost-lips; I wished she could have felt it. And then she faded, and the river was around me, bearing me to I knew not where.
For the land of the dead is unforgiving and strange, and once one passes through, there is no coming back; death does not love life, and death gives no second chances.
I tried to call to her, but my voice was as the rustle of autumn leaves in the wind; I wish I could have told her I had come back. I wish I could have said goodbye.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012