Why dost thou not retire like a guest sated with the banquet of life, and with calm mind embrace, thou fool, a rest that knows no care?
The mountain was tall and luminous, higher than the clouds, beyond all the stars that we could ever see. Atop the mountain there lay the city of Jerusalem, lit up as if by neon lights, splendid and blinding. The city contained twelve gates with twelve angels, each pearly gate inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. The measurements of the city were taken by an angel with a long measuring rod. He used human measurements. The city was a square, as long as it was wide, it was 1,400 miles in length and width, and its walls were 200 feet thick.
The entire city was made of virginal gold, as clear and bright as glass. Inside the city walls there is no temple for the Lord God and the Lamb in their person are its one and only temple. Above the city shines neither sun nor moon nor stars, for God is its only light and the Lamb its lamp. Within, all the nations of the earth provide the city with glory and splendor, no impurity shall ever enter the pearly gates and the night-less city, for only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life are allowed entry.
This is the heaven that every person on the island was living his life for. And, if you allow yourself to gaze upon the landscape of the island, you will see why the skyscape of heaven is so alluring to them.
The island is arid and bare, only on its garrigues will you see large stretches of flowering plants, none of them colourful, and only on its red-golden beaches will you be able to dip your feet into freshness and clarity. For the air is damp all year round. It is cold in winter and desert-hot in summer, when the air is so still breathing is a challenge. Sweating is a pernicious, excessive act in the summer months. The cities are bound together like Siamese tumours. The limestone architecture reflects the sun’s UV into the eyes of innocent passersby. And its hills are castrated mountains without peaks or form.
It is for this that everyone on the island strives to live the perfect life because, they had been promised long ago, that every man and woman, after death, shall receive the afterlife he or she believes in and has earned. You could see, as you drove along the narrow roads of the island, billboards quoting the Revelations of John, in which heaven was described with such mathematical, undeniable truth. There was only one heaven to strive for – the Christian heaven. And there were also many a poster, hung on church notice boards and even private homes, talking of what it would mean to miss out on heaven:
“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” Revelation 21: 7 -8
Science on the island has been brought to a halt, because it has been interpreted that it falls into the category of ‘magic arts’ – what else can you call something that can propel men into the skies, or allow them to breathe underwater, or to allow a woman to impregnate herself without intercourse (exempting of course the Virgin birth!)? So science was forced underground – it is allowed, of course, but it is made clear to its practitioners that they will never be allowed into the Third Heaven and their second-death shall be a one-way trip to hell.
But there were people on the island – a small minority though they be – that did not accept the Christian notion of heaven as their chosen afterlife. For, yes, there were still vestiges of democracy crawling through the streets and alleys. Freedom of choice existed still as a quartered ghost. Some men chose reincarnation for their afterlife. Others hoped and lived for Nirvana. Others threw in their lot with Hades in the hope of encountering figures like Socrates and Orpheus when their hour came. All of these non-Christian afterlifeists were termed ‘pagans’ by the mainstream.
Within this minority there existed another smaller minority still, and it was a minority of one: his name was Julian. And Julian was the son of one of the few peasant families still left on the island. He had been raised in his father’s farmhouse and was never educated. Although, it is worth noting, no one on the island was educated, except those few who could afford a proper, safe, heaven-bound church school education. Julian was a malingerer, an idler, apathetic, who loved wine more than he loved God, and inhaled more cigar smoke than he did incense. Julian was, by most standards, a very happy man. He found the lives of those who strived for a Christian heaven alien and dumbfounding. Being a devout Christian was a stressful life. He saw them, whenever he went into the city to meet with friends, praying in the street, giving alms to the myriad of beggars, re-painting the church façade, priests teaching the children with a godly tone, he saw people who have abandoned everything to join monastic orders, just as the apostles had abandoned all thought for the morrow to follow the Lamb. Julian could not understand how men could live their lives like hamsters on an unceasing wheel.
Julian was born, yes, like most of the other islanders had been born, with the most calcifying and petrifying sense of apathy. Though of peasant stock he was incapable of carrying out a day’s work. The passions that ruled his life were minimal but harmless: he loved drink, friends, cigars and the view of the sea. He was a good friend to have. Though rich, he was excessively generous and loyal, and oftentimes he moved out of his father’s farmhouse to live with some dear friends. When in their company he felt… he felt he was in heaven.
It was hard for him t make friends with those who strived for a Christian heaven. They were too busy to be loyal, too loving to be entertaining, and too ascetic to appreciate him. Thus he often mingled, in underground bars or on secluded benches overlooking the sea, with other ‘pagans’. His character was larger than anyone’s, he talked, though he never thought a superfluous thought, of the metaphysics of things. He told them how he wished to be like a heart that beat and beat and beat without ever thinking. He said he felt his soul to be larger than the universe, larger than god – why? purely because that was what he felt. He whispered that, whether or not we believe in them, we are slaves to all the gods that had ever been conceived. When he slept, he said, he felt as though all of creation was a mistake. This made his friends laugh and made them ask him time and time again: so what afterlife are you placing your lot in?
“Just sleep, sleep eternal my friends!”
They laughed at his jovial heresy. And he would go on.
“I am nothing now, I shall be nothing when I die, and I shall never dream of being anything other than nothing.”
But the others, (they were ‘pagans’ yes but they had been raised Christian) found it difficult to understand the concept of nothing. So they asked him what he meant by ‘nothing’. And he would reply: “I don’t know what it means to others, but to me, this is all I can say: it means the nothingness between falling asleep and waking up.” No wonder Julian was always the centre of attention at such gatherings of quasi like-minded people.
Whenever Julian went into the city he liked to go swim in the natural pools that pockmark the rocky coast beneath the ancient fortifications. The sea in the pool was crystal clear and all manner of algae and crabs and colourful fish glided in that aquatic microcosmos. The pool was seldom busy but was frequented either by locals after lunchtime or office workers who went in for a dip after a day’s work under the artificial air-condition. Julian made friends with a lot of people there and was a well-known face around the pool. He kept his opinion and his belief in a non-afterlife to himself – as much as he could without being disingenuous.
The island did not have an official law (as yet) that all citizens must strive for the Christian heaven. But it was moving towards that because that was the will of the people. And though it was not yet illegal to be a ‘pagan’ it was certainly a dangerous taboo. A lynch-mob is far more dangerous than a police force. It also came with the label of ingratitude. You’re being given the chance of spending eternity in a city full of gold and jewels and eternal light and you shun it? Ungrateful son-of-a-bitch. God is good to you yet you rebel against his goodness. So Julian didn’t often engage in long conversation with any of the fellow swimmers at the pool. Only polite, formal small-talk. Mostly about the weather. And the way it affects the sea.
But there was one woman who he started speaking to, with whom he could feel just that little bit more at ease. She was a newcomer. But her face struck him as familiar. She was tall, dark-skinned, had gaunt features but a curvaceous body. Whenever she walked past the Christianites it made Julian laugh seeing the men trying to keep from looking at her D-cup bikini and flat, hard stomach. Julian indulged in the freedom and allowed himself the temptation of speaking to her. She was glad of his company as no one else would dare the flames of eternity they risked if they spoke to her. And she was a woman who enjoyed company.
Julian did not have to follow any rules or any scripture to acquire his chosen afterlife. To earn nothing you have to do nothing. When you’re alive just live when you’re dead you’re just dead.
The woman – her name was Agatha (after the saint who was martyred by having her beasts cut off – what a double sin it would be if this Agatha had her breasts…) – was young, like Julian, and she was married. All women had to be married on the island. Being single is being liable to fall into temptation. Besides, life had to be full of love – it had to be. When they talked they often spoke playfully. Of course they discussed the state of the island’s poor, the work still needed on the churches, and they talked about Revelations and when New Jerusalem would be built on earth by the Lamb and God. All the while he couldn’t help staring into her jet-black eyes and notice how fast she blinked, her long eye-lashes fluttering like butterflies in the clouds. She had a habit of running her fingers – very quickly and succinctly – between her cleavage when Julian said something funny.
They agreed on so many things. They both loved swimming in deep, clear water. They loved wine (for her, a Christianite, it was the blood of the Lamb), they enjoyed a summer siesta, they both came to the discreet agreement that church members need to be less complacent in their bid to reach heaven… wait, is this dissidence, from the lips of a Christianite? And what lips they are too. So voluptuous, as curvy as her hips, and bright pink like a dying star.
Julian found himself thinking about her more and more. Julian didn’t like thinking. He believed a state of perfection is to be like a flower, swaying in the winds of life, being beautiful and kind, but not thinking about the winds or beauty and kindness. If a flower began to think it would stop being a flower. And he wondered if a flower could ever love. Why should he desire her if he never desires anything? Why ought he impose his love on her and make her into something formed in his image? Loving others is an oppression. Was it sex he wanted – another of life’s simple, harmless pleasures, and one which respects others as islands rather than continents? No, no – he corrected himself – he just wanted, desperately, for her to be the closest friend he had ever had. Yes, that is rational and proper.
But why, then, whenever he tries to forget her does he have to dream of her? Almost every night.
He sees her in every corner of the universe of dreams. For Julian dreams, which come whilst he is nothing, are an entire universe larger than any physical universe that could ever existed. Nothingness is an expanse greater than any reality (isn’t there more Dark Matter in the universe than matter itself?) But in whatever capacity he sees her in his dreams, she is always surrounded by an aura of familiarity. A familiarity that is like a perfume, he takes a whiff of it and he is drawn towards her, like a bee to honey or a moth to a flame. (Those analogies are superfluous: how can a man be a bee and how can a woman be honey?)
The mundane inanities of his life were thrown onto Pandoran confusion by her. And why, then, did it appear to him that she was flirting? Was it just an illusion his mind was imposing on his starved body? Was it just a myth to justify a desired reality? She is married, after all, and if she were to make any kind of gesture, or even think any impure thoughts, it would be hell that awaited her upon her death. No woman would take that risk. Not for a man not for anything.
“You really don’t remember me, do you?” She told him once, in an August by the pool. The summer was coming to an end and neither of them were sure they would see each other until the next summer.
“I can’t for the life of me.” He said running his salty fingers through his wet hair as they sat next to each other. Other bathers were looking at them from the corner of their inquisitive eyes.
“What does the name Aggie mean to you?”
Julian’s eyes grew large and his mouth parted. The name Aggie meant a lot to him. It was the name of a beautiful ten-year-old girl that was with him when he was in Primary school. It was the last year of mixed school and after Year 6 they went their separate ways to go to segregated schools and he never saw her again. She was the one, yes, she was the one we all remember, Aggie, we all have one – our first crush. The first person that arouses feelings of a new kind of love within us. A kind of love we find confusing and new; for it is not the love we feel towards our parents, or our dog, or brother, it’s not even the love we feel for God. It’s something completely novel. And we won’t know it’s nature until we are much older – although some of us will always be confused by the whirlwind it stirs within our weak temple-of-a-body.
“Aggie! My God, it can’t be!” He looked her over, looked deep into her eyes (for eyes never age) and saw that it was true. Without meaning to and without being able to stop himself, he hugged her, laughing, in view of everyone and the rest.
“I can’t believe you didn’t recognize me,” she said smiling, playfully slapping his shoulder. “I can’t believe I had to tell you.”
“I did recognize you… I just couldn’t recall you.” He smiled apologetically.
So Agatha is Aggie… no wonder she was so familiar to him. No wonder, as well, he could not stop desiring her. She was his first love. A love forgotten and then revived has the omnipotence of salvation. To rekindle a childhood emotion in such a potent, direct manner, is like carrying the banner of freedom in the lands of enslavement. He felt happy, he felt unbelievably happy. But then, that night, when he was alone at home, he felt sodden and miserable.
Here I am again, wanting her, loving her, and here I am again, as helpless as a ten-year-old. She is married, she is a Christianite, she will never love me. She will only ever submit to being my friend. But to spend my life as nothing but her friend – that must be the old purgatory they spoke of. But what if I convert? What if I adopt the Christian heaven, too? Will that give me a second chance with her when we are in heaven? No, Julian, don’t be foolish, if I try adultery in heaven I will be cast down into the pits of hell. I will take an eternity of nothingness over an eternity of suffering. To suffer is to be unhappy, to be unhappy is to suffer. And the opposite is also true. The opposite is the only truth I know.
“What is it you really want?” She asked him the next day as they were swimming in a quiet corner of the pool. She was a graceful swimmer with great stamina and resilience, more than the apathetic Julian could master.
“I want what everyone wants.” He said with a resigned smile.
“I don’t mean that.” She said with a wide-eyed smile, her voice lowered down into a whisper. “I mean what do you want for this life?”
“Aren’t the two questions the same? Isn’t what we want after death also what we want in life?” He said in a rehearsed manner.
“I know what I want.” She said floating on her back, her body floating in the water so full of life. Then she sighed. “You know that there are three heavens, don’t you?”
“The first one is the sky where the birds and the clouds fly. The second contains all the stars in the universe and the third, well, I don’t need to mention that.” She was floating again, her feet paddling like a mature child’s. “I’ve spent my whole life learning what the afterlife is like. I know – we all do, don’t we? – what the third heaven is like, the glorious Jerusalem. But you know, I just wonder.” She said craning her neck back getting her hair wait, submerging her ears in the water as if she did not want to hear the words she was going to speak. “I wonder what the sky is like in other places. Not just on this island, on this rock. But in the rest of the world. This world.”
“The sky is the same everywhere you go.” Julian said in a low voice, his lips salty. She looked at him, deeply. “I’ve often wondered the same thing. I often think about places like Greece, Italy, Africa – even Jerusalem! What must they be like. But,” he shrugged morosely. “I’m just a peasant. This island is my cradle and my grave. So why torture myself. The sky is just the sky. In my soul I contain an entire universe. If I dream I am in Greece then I am in Greece.”
“But don’t you ever have dreams so vivid, you wake up and just feel like breaking loose, leaving everything behind and travelling the world.” She swam ever closer to him. He imagined her words to be his, her desires his own. But it could not be: she was her he was he.
“Do your dreams bring you pleasure or pain?” She looked confused by his question.
“I hate my dreams. They keep confronting me with what I can’t have.”
“You hate them? So they give you pain. How can you turn their pain into pleasure?”
“That’s easy. By fulfilling them.”
“So why don’t you fulfill them?’
“Because I don’t think I can.”
“Will trying to fulfill them bring you less pain than dreaming them in vain?”
“I think so.”
“Then trying is better than not trying, isn’t it?”
“But how can I? I can’t leave my husband behind, I can’t abandon him.”
“Take him with you.”
“He would never go. He loves it here. And if I leave him I will never know heaven.” Her voice had gone soft, almost inaudible.
The tender distress that overtook him made him want to put the world into the palm of his hands and offer it to her. He wanted – the thought buzzed around his head like an annoying bee (bees again?) – there is another way. Change your heaven, alter your afterlife, believe in what I believe in, to hell with heaven! Believe that there will be nothing after death then your life will be free. It will be free! What does it matter if you miss out on heaven – isn’t this world heaven enough?
But he couldn’t tell her any of that. And yet, he could move closer to her. “What are you doing?” He could put his hands on her hips. “Julian?” And he could kiss her with an explosive tenderness that made her lips sink into his. They floated in the pool, in each other’s embrace, kissing for a fleeting eternity. When they pulled away they looked into each other’s eyes and Julian spoke words he could not not speak: “I love you, Aggie. It feels so good to say that to you after so long.”
“I always knew.” She laughed into his shoulders. “I always knew!” She kissed his neck and moved up to his ears. She kissed his cheeks and then his lips again.
“Let’s do it! Let’s leave this island! Together.”
“Don’t say that. Now, you can.” His voice was shaking but determined. “You’re already going to hell now, my Aggie. Your Fate is sealed. So now – you are free.”
“If I’m going to hell, then you’re coming with me.” She smiled though her eyes were held back by a new dawning fear.
“No, no I’m not.” He said restraining joyous laughter that welled up in his throat.
“What do you mean?”
“Meet me here tonight, at midnight, I will explain, and we can make our escape.” He thought of ‘borrowing’ a boat from one of his friends. He thought of sailing away, like migrants without rights but full of dreams. They would sail the Mediterranean together for who knew how long. They would cruise to the finest ports, to Athens, Amalfi, Alexandria, Marseille! But they would never overnight on land. The sea would forever be their bed. The first and third heaven the blank canvas upon which they would impose their conjoined dreams.
“Will you do it?” He asked her, his hands trembling.
“I, I,” she hesitated. “I will! To hell with it, I will. If I don’t I will regret it for the rest of my life.”
“If you do it you risk the flames of hell.” He said sincerely, looking her in the eye.
“Why should I burn for being in love and being free?” She said putting her hands on his cheeks.
“Don’t ask me ask the priests.”
“I’ll send them a letter!” She laughed and kissed him with a determined passion she could not restrain. They both laughed and embraced and then they began playing in the water. He picked her up and threw her in, she put his head underwater, she opened her legs and he swam underneath them, tickling them as he came up. When they were tired they went up, back to their towels. As they climbed up the rocky stairs they saw, in the pool, a man looking at them with the most hateful look they had ever seen. Agatha knew who he was. He lived in the city too. He knew her husband. He had dark skin, a thick black beard and a hairy chest. His stare disconcerted the happy lovers. But it was only a small dent in their armour of happiness.
Julian spent the rest of the day making arrangements for the boat, buying supplies, and making calculations. The pain his departure will cause his aging parents pales in comparison to his and Aggie’s happiness. Also the pleasure he will be missing out on with his friends on the island is surpassed by the pleasure he will share with Aggie in new lands. It all made sense. It wasn’t the perfect move but it was better. Only heaven is perfect, he joked with himself. When he had the boat ready he sailed it to the pools. It was ten at night. The rocky coast was dark and it was empty. He was alone and he waited on the boat, smoking a beautiful cigar, trying to figure out how to tell Agatha that he was a ‘pagan’ and that, moreover, she ought to be one too. It was her only way of escaping the fires of hell. Change your belief and you change your life. He was unsure how she would take it. She might think that being a ‘pagan’ would be a step too far. She might be unhappy about his being a ‘pagan’ too – he didn’t know her well enough to be able to predict. But surely, they were in too deep to pull out now.
At eleven at night he opened himself a can of beer. And as the can went fizz he heard footsteps on the wooden deck of the boat. Curious, he walked to the back of the boat to investigate. In the light of the moon he worked his way to the back of the boat – the boat that would be their Lamb that bequeaths them into the paradise of earthly hues. And whilst he walked on the gently swaying boat he saw, on land, the silhouette of Agatha. She was standing on the rocks, her face peaceful and excited. He waved to her and prepared to go to her.
But if Agatha wasn’t on the boat, whose footsteps did he hear?
And he saw then, jumping up before him, a strange man. Except, he was no stranger. He was the man they had seen in the pool. The man who had stared at them with immeasurable hate. Except now his eyes were smiling, wide, radiant. In his right arm, Julius could see and hear a ticking bomb. He made to run but the man spoke, barring his path: “you are too late.” He looked over at Agatha; she was shouting out his name and then she began to shout for help. “Stay there Aggie!”
And those were the last words Julian spoke before the bomb exploded and the boat was blown to a thousand blazing pieces. Just before, a few seconds before the bomb went off, he looked into Agatha’s moonlit face, and saw, in her expression of fear and alarm, a face full of love for him. She was going to come with him after all. She would have become a ‘pagan’, he knew it, he knew it for sure. Their happiness was so close to hand. Their liberty was on the tip of their tongues. But it was all shot to hell. And why?
Because another man saw the two adulterers as his way path into heaven. Into the eternal gardens where he would sit on a throne of dignity, in the gardens as vast as all the heavens, full of flowing streams, and where angels would sing his name in praise, in which gardens his parents were awaiting him at a vast, eternal banquet where they would drink without becoming intoxicated and eat without ever feeling full, and where, greatest of all rewards, the One God would shower him with mercy and love until time immemorial.
For Julian, the heaviness of sleep descended upon him and his pleasure had all been denied, but he was saved from suffering too. There was only one thing he wished, one thing his sleep kept him from: he wanted to hear Agatha’s tears as she wept over his loss and over her frustrated dreams. He wanted to know if she would save herself by believing in the same non-afterlife that now greeted him. He wanted to see her live her life in his absence.
But once you’ve died you cannot convert. Julian didn’t want to and the only thing his sleep deprived him of that he truly missed, was love.
A love he was ready to give himself to in life. A love he was deprived of, and a happiness torn from him, by the hands of he who could only win his heaven with the assassination of the sinful. The sinful, at least, in his own eyes.