Written by Addie Barnett
Art by Tithi Luadthong
I remember asking my mother where we go after death. I remember everything; her chapped lips, her wheezing breath racked by wet coughs, her wet eyes marred by two, dark bags. I can still see her limp hand hanging outside her sickbed, but I can’t recall what she told me. Heaven or Hell? Nirvana or Nether?
Or maybe all of them, and yet none at all?
I stare around me, certain this must be a joke. Everything I have learned about death couldn’t have prepared me for this; and I thought I was prepared to die, unlike the thousands of poor sods taken too early. Or too late.
Puffy clouds of neon colors float everywhere around me–above, below, to my left, and to my right–and every time I try to touch them, they vanish as if they were made with magic. Somehow, I have landed in a strange boat, oddly reminiscent of Charon and his canoe drifting on the Styx, towards Tartarus and Elysium. But this realm seems to have no end. Behind me, a gilded lantern spews light. It is useless in this realm where day never ends.
How much time have I spent here? Where am I supposed to go?
I take the oar inside my little boat, stand up and decide to see where death takes me. I row in silence through thousands–no, millions–of cotton candy clouds. I have never seen so many colors on Earth and I stare at each and every one, trying to imprint them on my memory. Death is not black or white in this place, nor it is sadness or happiness. Death is silence.
I open my mouth and try to speak. Nothing comes out. The voice inside my head–the one I used to think of as a conscience–is now gone as well. I am truly alone, and yet… I don’t feel lonely. All I feel is peace and quiet in this world of vibrant clouds. I wish they would cross the threshold into the living world so that anyone would be able to see them.
“Look”, I point to one, pretending I am a tour guide. There’s a small cloud that looks like a bloated cat, its tail a neon pink and its head pitch-black. Then another whooshes by; I turn around, wondering what prompted its flight. There is no wind in this place. Time is frozen in a moment of perfection. Finally, after an eternity of rowing, I stop to gaze at another cloud, its shape reminding me of my wife.
I can’t remember her name, but I remember everything else. Her smile, her hug, and a tone which sends electricity through me. When she frowned, my heart skipped a beat, and my body crashed into the flight-or-fight mode. When she laughed, my heart skipped another beat, and I felt that I could fly.
My heart had skipped countless beats beside her and it would have skipped more had I not died. I can’t remember how I died–probably for the best. But I do know that I did. How else would I have landed in this place?
I reach for the cloud; this time it yields under my fingers and lets me caress it. It is as soft as a newborn baby, and it laughs when I tickle it. A soft bell-chime, which sends joy coursing through my veins.
The Laughing Cloud, I smile. What a beautiful concept. So, there are sounds in this place. But only a select few.
Its pink tail darkens as I pet it, turning a deep magenta and then an inky black. As I continue to move my hand on its surface, it goes completely dark. The cat, once a contradiction, has now been turned into something completely ordinary. A storm cloud.
My mother died during a storm. It was night; a hellish night with thunder roaring and lightning cutting the sky in two, making the stars bleed and fall in heaps of ash on our front lawn. But my attention was trained on my mother’s lips as she whispered to me. Her last words; now lost under a fog that does not relent.
Is this what death is? Forgetting the centerpieces of what makes us… us? The cloud looks at me and chimes again as if saying, “Uh-uh. Guess again.” Thunder roils in the cat’s belly and sucks me into my memories.
My father, crying silently as my mother gives him a wan smile, comforting him. It is easier to die than to watch a loved one fade. My grandmother, unable to even set foot in the room. It is hard to open your heart when it has been closed for so many years. My grandfather, unshed tears in his red eyes. It is hell to be so proud that you cannot ask for forgiveness or admit that you’ve been wrong.
So many unspoken words. I try to speak to them all, but there isn’t enough time, not anymore.
My mother beckons me closer from the clutches of my heartbroken father. I jump into her bed and put my head on her chest, letting her stroke my brown hair, listening to her sing her last lullaby. I am too old for lullabies, but I don’t care.
The dead need comfort, too.
After she is done, she presses her lips to my ear and mutters something. Her last words to me. I remember them now. The fog is dissipating, allowing me to see my mother’s face.
Ioachim. She smiles when she says my name. My beautiful boy. Death is not what we think it is. It is dark–and yet holds so much color, the human mind would unfurl if it saw it during life. Death is sadness and happiness and anger and frustration. It is forgetting and forgiving. It is everything and nothing at all. Hell and Heaven; Underworld and Overworld.
Death is just death. When you will die, remember this, and die at peace. Pass my words to your family too; you will have a gorgeous one, I can tell you already. Don’t despair my love. Don’t live afraid of death.
Death is just death–and life is too short to think otherwise.