He was wearing a larger man’s suit, or he had shrunk. He did not introduce himself but sat on the only chair and stared at Joan, who was looking towards the grey ceiling, hands behind her head on the pillow. He said nothing.
She knew who he was and why he had come.
“Where does discontent start?” she said. “You yearn for something, but don’t know what, and the ache for it becomes unbearable.”
The man’s face was pale and gaunt. His eyes were gentle.
“I have times of clarity,” Joan continued. “The moments before sleep are when I feel most insightful, jumping from one memory to another, like a child after a day at the zoo. I realise now what my husband did was natural enough. And what I did to him in revenge was unforgivable.”
She screwed up her face.
“Time and tears washed over me and wore me away. I was like a figure of sand abandoned to the incoming tide. And now I am here. In this place.”
Joan sat up, ran her hands through thin hair and opened her mouth wide, but sank back onto the bed.
“I came to the conclusion that life was not a mission but a farce, a relentless loss of illusion, an unquenchable longing for the unattainable,” she said, after a while.
The man stood and began to pace the room, head bowed, glancing up occasionally through half closed eyes.
“My scientist husband,” Joan went on, “knew everything, but he had no space left in which to yearn. He understood relativistic velocities and gravity fields and the theoretical probability of a black hole swallowing the planet. But he knew nothing of frequency norms or causative factors in female emotionality. Is it normal for a woman to sob nearly every day of the week?” She scowled. “His only yearning was for the recent past when his lust was an itch and my body was the object he scratched against, like a cow on a fence post.”
The man stopped pacing and sat, perched on the edge of the chair. He turned his face to Joan.
Her voice began to tremble. “I loathed my parishioners and their self-righteous hypocrisy. I hated my unfaithful husband. I came to the conclusion that my existence had neither meaning nor value…and life on Earth was nothing but a cruel joke, created by a sadist.”
The man coughed, took a handkerchief from his pocket and spat out phlegm.
“Forgive me,” he whispered. “I am nearing the end.”
“Even You?” answered Joan.
“What hope does faith have?” he asked. “Did even one fragment survive your lifetime of experience?”
“No, no faith, just one fantasy…to lie like a child between the breasts of a mother, then to re-enter and find peace in the oblivion of fusion.”
The man sighed and Joan reached out to touch his hand.
“In reality,” she said, “I look forward only to death, which is also what I am most afraid of. I long to die, to sleep, only not in the cold of the grave or the heat of the fire, but in the embrace of the universe where a living force may breathe forever in my chest.”
The man left his chair and sat on the bed beside Joan.
Leaning over her till their faces were almost touching, he caressed her forehead with his fingertips.
The sun streaming through the bars in the high window made her silver hair glow like gold.
Then the Earth flashed black.
She was inside a nothing with neither feature nor color. The man was holding her but he was not there. Nor was she.
“I’ve been here before,” she murmured.
“Yes,” he answered.
“Before you existed.”
“But there’s nothing here.”
“On Earth, discontent was your reality. Here there is no discontent, so you feel no reality.”
A sun arose. Colors dawned and spread. Land, sea, and sky appeared, separate, yet blended. Features emerged, like figures coming towards her with linked arms. Clouds floated across the face of the sky, singing. And words flew like birds, some soaring, others flitting about like fantails.
“Feel the calm,” the man said, “not as you felt it on Earth. It is not the quiet of a sleeping kitten. Nor the deep peace of a pool between rapids. It is a calm with neither beginning nor ending. It is the peace of absence – the absence of tears.”
The man touched her lips. The contents of her unconscious mind spilled from her mouth – drives, impulses, anxieties, desires – and guilt-ridden memories, including an image of her husband with a bullet hole in the centre of his forehead, perfectly round, edged in crimson.
“You can’t take those in there. They are prohibited items,” said the man. “Please leave them in the bin provided by the turnstile.” He smiled. “The question now is not whether we can forgive you, but whether you can forgive yourself.”
Joan gathered up her baggage and dropped it in the bin as she glided through the turnstile past the man, her eyes sparkling like newborn stars.
Bruce Costello is a New Zealander. After studying foreign languages and literature in the late 60s, he spent a few years selling used cars. Then he worked as a radio creative writer for fourteen years, before training in psychotherapy and spending 24 years in private practice. In 2010, he semi-retired and took up writing for fun and to avoid housework. Since then, he’s had 75 stories accepted by mainstream magazines and literary journals in seven countries. He still does housework.