The first thing Henry saw was a coffin-shaped light slowly receding into a field of total, absolute darkness. More accurately, it was the first thing that Henry’s soul saw; he had no recollection of the actual first thing he saw, having been born thirty three years earlier. This lack of recollection saved both him and his mother quite a bit of embarrassment, to say nothing of the years of therapy bills such a recollection would entail.
This isn’t right, Henry thought. I’m supposed to be going into the light, not away from it. There was no sensation of motion; the coffin simply got smaller and smaller. A face came into view, partially blocking the light. Grandma? He knew you were supposed to see your dead relatives in heaven, but no one had mentioned seeing the living.
In heaven. But what about…
Now the light appeared as a distant star, twinkling away as the procession of mourners moved over its surface. Involuntarily his body, or the incorporeal astral projection that served as an avatar for his body, began to rotate, turning him away from the light. Henry braced himself, expecting the rotten egg smell of brimstone and lakes of fire. Instead there was just more nothing. An infinite nothing. Like, whatever you’re imagining as “nothing”, is vastly wrong compared to this actual nothingness.
I wonder if this is some kinda purgatory or somethin’. Henry had been a strict Evangelical Christian his whole life, and didn’t believe in Purgatory. That was for Catholics, and his parents had been adamant that Catholics weren’t real Christians, so he’d never allowed himself to consider the idea seriously. He’d also never read Dante or Milton, so he had no expectations, either. Maybe I just have to wait here awhile and think about what I did.
He did wait there a while. A long while.
A tiny dot appeared in the distance. At first he thought it was just his mind playing tricks on him, but gradually it grew, and grew, and grew further still. Moments later, he was gently floating down to land on his feet in the middle of a dirt road, flanked by tall field grass on either side. There was a wooden sign next to the road with Egyptian hieroglyphics on it. Henry stared at it blankly. As he did so, the images glowed with a bright golden light and rearranged themselves into English:
“Uh, which way?” he asked the sign. The sign did not respond. Henry stood there, waiting for much longer than he should have before finally deciding to just start walking the way he had been set down. As he did, the words rearranged again:
Man, wait until Pastor Ted sees all this, Henry thought, a wistful grin on his face. He’s gonna feel like such a dummy, preaching to all those people about white lights and angels and such. If Henry had still had guts left to twist, they would have tightened into a knot at the next thought. Was he wrong about everything? I’m gonna get to meet Jesus, right? Maybe that’s what Purgatory really was, a continual state of uncertainty about the existence of the Almighty. No yes or no, just a great big question mark. He tried not to think about it while he walked.
Imagine how that worked out for him.
Eventually, the grass thinned and disappeared, revealing a great river, so wide that he couldn’t see the far bank. The road ended at a little wooden dock, with a rowboat tied up next to it. A hunched old man waited for him, wrapped in a tattered grey cloak and held up by a gnarled shepherd’s crook. Without a word, he pointed a knobby, spotted hand at the boat. “Where are we goin’?” Henry asked. The look he received in return would have weakened the bladder of the mightiest warrior. Henry climbed in clumsily, and the old man followed with surprising grace. The boat untied itself and began to move over the surface of the water, propelled by forces unseen.
“So, is this Heaven or Hell or what?” asked Henry. The old man simply stared at him blankly, his unblinking eyes seeing right through him. Henry suddenly felt very naked, as though his entire life was laid bare before this man. Every little thing he’d ever done, every private moment hidden from the eyes of all humanity, were known. Henry decided to look at the water instead.
Eventually, they reached a second dock, the twin of the one they’d left. Henry clambered out; by the time he’d situated himself, the old man was already by his side, leaning on his crook. He pointed at the road leading away from the dock. Henry turned to leave when the old man cleared his throat, not in the “I’ve got something in my throat” kind of way, but in the “You’ve inconvenienced me” way. Henry turned back to see the old man had his hand out, palm up.
“Uh, am I supposed to — ”
“TWO GOLD COINS.” Henry didn’t hear the voice so much as feel it, a deep vibration in his bones that happened to form words. “AND YES, BEFORE YOU ASK, I ACCEPT ROMAN DENARII.”
“Oh, dang it, I uh. I don’t have any gold coins. I don’t carry any cash at all, really, I just use my card everywhere…”
The old man huffed. “MILLENNIALS,” he said, dismissively. Without another word, he jumped back into the boat and disappeared over the horizon.
Eventually, Henry came to a great stone wall, with a gate blocking the entrance to the other side. Two humanoid figures stood outside the gate, next to a statue of some sort. One was quite tall and muscular, the other short and scrawny. Those are some weird masks they’re wearin’, he thought. Some kinda dog and a bird. They appeared to be deep in conversation when he arrived.
“I really don’t know what they’re going to do without him this season,” said the one in the dog mask. It really was quite realistic. Almost as though…
Oh my sweet lord Jesus, that ain’t no mask!
The short one seemed to notice him, breaking off the conversation. His body was human, but he had the head of an ibis, with beady bird eyes and a long thin beak. The tall one had the head of a black jackal, complete with snout and fangs. “Finally, you’ve made it,” said the ibis. Unlike the old man, he had a plain voice. Far too plain for a man with a bird’s head. “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Thoth, and I’ll be recording your answers for today’s test. And this is…” He inclined his head expectantly, waiting for Henry to fill in the blank.
“Oh come on!” said dog’s head, in a growling baritone. “Of all the Egyptian gods, there are only two that are still remembered, Ra and myself. And Isis, but for some reason no one likes to talk about her these days.”
“I’m sorry, I never learned about pagan stuff…”
“Anubis!” he barked. “I am Anubis, god of the dead! Oh whatever, let’s just get this over with.” He turned and retrieved a wrought iron set of scales. They stood well over six feet tall, with two pans hanging from either side. Thoth, meanwhile, had materialized a clipboard with a sheet of papyrus, and a quill. “Okay, here’s the drill,” said the bird-man. “You set your heart on one side of the scale, and I’ll set this feather on the other. Then I’ll ask you some questions. If the heart and feather balance at the end, Osiris up there will let you inside.” Thoth gestured to the top of the gate, where a green-skinned man with a long beard and an open mouthed smile was waving enthusiastically down at them.
“And what’s in there?” asked Henry. “Is that heaven?”
“The Field of Rushes,” answered Thoth. “You’ll get a plot of land to till for eternity, in divinely fertile ground that produces the food of the gods.”
“And telepathy,” added Anubis.
“Yes, you also get telepathy.” A look passed between the two of them, and Anubis laughed.
“What happens if they don’t balance?” Henry asked hesitantly.
“Then we feed you to Ammit,” said Anubis, gesturing to the grotesque statue next to him. It had the vicious head of a crocodile, the formidable front paws of a lion, and the ample ass of a hippo. Sort of a half-lion, half-hippo, half-crocodile situation. A Lippodile, if you prefer. “Your consciousness will be slowly ripped apart by her gnashing jaws for however long it takes for your every thought to completely dissipate. Then your soul will be completely scrambled and reformed in her bowels and sent back to the Void, where you’ll be placed in a waiting vessel and reborn on Earth. Probably in India or China somewhere.”
“I’m sorry, but there’s been some kinda mistake,” said Henry. “I’m a Christian. I went to church every Sunday and I prayed all the time. I ain’t supposed to be here. Is there an angel I can talk to?”
Thoth asked, “Henry Tollett, of Memphis, Tennessee? Born June 28th, 1985?”
“Yes, but — ”
“Nope, you’re in the right place.”
“He doesn’t know about the thing,” said Anubis.
“Oh, right! You get judged not on your faith, but that of your most prestigious ancestor. As it turns out, you’re a descendant of Tutankhamun (congratulations). If you had managed to eclipse your ancestor, then your faith is the one that would have counted, but I guess somebody wasn’t trying very hard.” Henry’s mouth was working, trying to formulate a response when Thoth said, “Right, let’s get to the questions. If you could just place your heart on the scale…”
“How would I do that?” asked Henry.
“Did they not give you the jars upon your mummification and entombment?”
“No, it was an open casket, I think.”
Anubis shook his head. “Millennials.” He sunk his hand deep into Henry’s chest and started feeling around. Moments later, Anubis plopped the heart on the scale, beating and bleeding, where it balanced the feather exactly.
“Now then, when you were alive, did you ever steal, coerce, manipulate, blackmail, blackball, browbeat, cajole, or in any other way use force to get something you wanted?”
“Uh, well.” Henry looked at his feet, ashamed. “This one time I took credit for someone else’s idea at work. My supervisor liked it so much he recommended me for a promotion.”
“Is that all?” asked Thoth.
“When she complained, I spread a rumor that she was being petty and vindictive, and she got transferred halfway across the country.”
“I suppose that counts,” said Thoth. The heart lowered an inch. “Next subject. How much territory did you attain, hold, and fortify?”
Henry shrugged. “Uh, my college roommate used to get pretty sore when I left my dirty clothes around the living room. Oh, and I used to drink his booze and eat his leftovers without askin’.” The heart sank again, almost imperceptibly. Anubis turned away in disgust.
Thoth said, “Okay… how about physical violence? Have you ever intentionally caused anyone physical harm?”
“No,” Henry said slowly. “Wait! I got in a fight with Bobby Kelly back in junior high.”
“Finally, something I can sink my teeth into!” said Anubis, turning around excitedly. “Did you vanquish this Bobby Kelly, claim his property as your own and extinguish his line?”
“He had one helluva shiner,” said Henry, shrugging. The heart dropped another inch. Anubis looked dejected. “What’s yer problem?”
“He’s been in a bit of a funk ever since genocide went out of style,” explained Thoth. “In comparison, your sins are just, well, dull and petty. Insignificant. No offense.”
“Well I’m sorry if my being a good person is disappointing to you,” said Henry. “I’m not exactly pleased with this whole situation either, if I’m being honest.”
“Alright, last question,” said Thoth. “Of these people that you wronged, how many of them did you apologize to for your actions?”
“Well, none of them,” Henry answered.
“None of them?” asked Anubis.
“No. I prayed on it, told Jesus I was sorry, and all was forgiven. Right?” The two gods looked at each other for a long moment, then began laughing hysterically. Anubis doubled over, holding his stomach, while Thoth hid his beaky face behind his clipboard, embarrassed. “Well now what’s so gosh-danged funny?”
“This,” said Anubis. The pan holding Henry’s heart plummeted to the ground, so hard that it tumbled off, rolling in the dirt. The gaping jaws of the Lippodile began to flex and move. “All you had to do was say you were sorry to the people you wronged, and you told someone else instead! What sort of coward are you?” Ammit’s paws began to stretch and claw at the pedestal, like a cat making biscuits. A clicking, buzzing noice emanated from the beast’s mouth. “Oh, by the way, Ammit’s stomach is filled with scarab beetles. I’m going to enjoy this.” Thick slaver dripped from his jackal’s lips.
“Better luck on the next go round,” said Thoth, the clipboard and scales disappearing. “One word of advice: pay more attention to how your actions affect the living, and try to do something worthwhile, would you?” Henry wanted to run, but he’d become paralyzed. The great beast lumbered after him, the furious buzzing of the beetles growing louder with each step. Beyond it, he heard Thoth say, “Do you really think their whole season is shot because of this injury?”
“I really do,” said Anubis. Then gaping crocodile jaws closed on Henry, and he saw and heard no more.