Asphodel

Seven corporations control the afterlife now, and many people spend their lives amassing the money to upload into the best. Others, like me, assume they will need a scholarship and pile up experiences.

I piled up one too many. Shortly after my fall, I applied to Asphodel. I knew of course that this particular domain, or afterlife provider, was run by the oldest entity in the business. Asphodel was known to have the most secure and complete terrain. It was the first choice of artists, poets, academics, even famous politicians and movie stars. Teachers always chose Asphodel if they could afford it, and I was a teacher before my accident. I knew some parents who’d had to upload a child under grievous circumstances, and who chose Asphodel for the schools and the reliable surrogacy. For one other specific reason, too, Asphodel was most attractive to me. As a consequence, that first morning I was so nervous about the interview process that I refused pain medication. I wanted to be mentally sharp. As I was wheeled along the corridor, past the swooping black characters glazed into the hospital tiles, I thought I might have made a mistake. The pain was that distracting. But as soon as the questions began, I regained my concentration.

The interviewer was a square red cube sitting in the middle of the room on a stainless-steel table.

Your name?

Bernadette.

Named for the saint?

Yes.

Any other associations?

My mother was a Catholic and a theologian. She was chosen by the Church and completely subsidized, her understanding was that valuable. Since she was uploaded, gratis, we have communicated every day. But I chose Asphodel because I do not share her system of symbols. I was not raised in the formality of her religion, and find comfort in literature.

I smoothly volunteered that my father had chosen a premature upload before they were outlawed, and that his decision had been secured since then. I gave his name and effortlessly moved on. The cube did not react. My practice had paid off.

Where did you grow up?

North Dakota.

Do you mind if we scan?

No.

I closed my eyes, dizzy, and requested additional oxygen. As deliberately as I could, using the training my mother had insisted on since I was young, I called up a series of images. These began when I was about five years old. They were detailed, visual, aural, descriptive, emotional, as concrete as I could possibly manage. I remembered the wooden front steps of our house, the paint worn off the risers to show grey wood. The temperature of the wood in every season. The green of Virginia creeper, the leaves fluttering off the porch in summer wind, stiff with morning dew, half wilted in full sun. The tiny knuckles of the vines clutching the wire of the screens. The lobes of lilacs. The scent. The sour green balls of new grapes and the heavy, peeling, brown loops of grapevines. And from the front steps the horizon and the sky. My mother had coached me to memorize the sky every morning and evening. I used the sky as my masking image – you could not get through it to the bad thing that had happened. The sky was my protection. I could pass through years of sky, a slide show of sky, endless mental snapshots. A thousand skies and a thousand more. I went through them at a leisurely pace, skipping no small detail. The sky had always been my favourite mental exercise, and one that, I now hoped, would increase my value for Asphodel.

Impressive.

The interviewer changed to a thoughtful maroon red and quit the scan.

You were coached?

By my mother.

Memory games as a child?

Yes.

The pain was becoming difficult to ignore. It was taking some attention.

An unusually pure visual memory. The best I have encountered. Your mother did her job well.

She knew that the chances were slim that we would ever have the means to afford Asphodel.

The interviewer agreed, a quiet yellow tinge.

And then, this.

Yes.

Can you describe the accident?

Well, I was climbing. I climb buildings.

Free climbing. It is . . . not exactly illegal.

No. But I was trespassing.

A small matter. We will not take that into consideration.

I was climbing the Guthrie Theater here in Minneapolis, where my father’s play was performed this year.

Yes, we know about your father.

The pain was, suddenly, nearly overwhelming. I began to breathe deeply, explosively, but could not help crying out.

What is it?

My legs, you know, everything.

Yes, said the interviewer, you’re broken. But you have a good chance for some limited capacity, enough to survive. You could have a life. A life here. Are you sure you want to . . . ?

Yes, yes, as soon as possible. Now.

So they came with the fentanyl and scheduled the upload for the next day.

 

Neural cascade

You say goodbye to your body very carefully. The toenails you’ve clipped and polished, the vulnerable instep, the ankles and shins you’ve barked, the sometimes unreliable knees, the calves you’ve shared, thighs your lover has grazed his hand along and inside, goodbye to the dark of you, the brilliant unshattering or ravelling that seemed at one time the way your spirit also travelled, outward, everywhere, beginning from the heated core. Goodbye to gut that pinched with hunger or split with gas, goodbye to asshole and nervous sphincter that permitted a loud fart when you laughed in a movie on your first date. Goodbye to vagina, wait, goodbye again to black, brown, purple, gold, mauve, red, bleeding leaves of skin, vulva, and stubborn fickle clitoris that maddened with indifference or was whiplash-sensitive – goodbye. Goodbye old uterus, old love, old capacious fist, and goodbye outraged liver. Goodbye sweet lungs with your faint bubbling black carcinogenic lace and your amazed resilience, and heart, dearest heart. So long pumps. Goodbye throat licked and suave collarbone in a low-cut black sheath, and arms that held and clung to other arms and other edifices, arms and legs that climbed and back I never really saw. Breasts always in the way. Nipples. Hands, oh my hands, piano-player hands. Hands that grasped and pulled and slapped and touched so tenderly beyond my appetite. Hands of my appetite, goodbye. Ears, neck, earlobes and mouth of a million golden tastes and mouth that knew food of every type and tastes of all description but above all things mouth, goodbye, and goodbye tongue, that loved the kisses and also the body of my husband. I do not have to say goodbye to my eyes. I’ll still see. And in fact I will feel the feelings of all parts of my body. I will feel the eidetic past. But the broken body I am leaving behind will be recycled for parts and then sold for remaining mineral content. Even the physical brain, soon transferred, neural file by file, molecule by molecule, into the liqui-chip. A dumb lump of fat will remain.

The holes will be drilled tomorrow. The liquid memory slowly introduced to the still-living brain. The software drug binds and copies as it eats the living memory. The drug contains a disciplined virus that takes instructions and is formulated to mimic and store consciousness – here is the beauty, the complexity – store the individual consciousness in a form that can be siphoned from the brain when loading is complete and then absorbed by Charon. She, the program, is the reader of my life text who will transfer me into the field.

Last night, before I went to sleep, I had the nurse access my mother and push the screen up close to my face so that we could talk. She had chosen to be old and reassuring, lined and pallid, with a sweetness in her face I can only remember rarely in earthly life. We talked and talked.

Mama, what will it feel like? Will it hurt?

You’ll be all right.

All right like in childbirth? All right after I’m ripped apart?

Her face slackened. She didn’t want to say. But she loves me, and she did.

The virus cannot accomplish its task without your full alertness. You’ll feel it all. Old emotions. Every pain and pleasure. Every fuck-up and every fear. Only fast and furious. You will believe you are going mad. (They do not read you because they do not find readings during the process reliable, so don’t worry, they won’t see anything.) Still, it is a drowning. Some don’t surface, it is true. But you will come back, I promise. Remember, I made you strong. What helps is to find an image. Something to hold on to.

We stared at each other for a long time. Her face kept flickering through the many ages and personae she’d assumed. Her face would not be the image I’d hold on to. I needed something more solid.

Pick him, she said, suddenly, softly.

I thought at first she meant my husband, or my son, though his image is inaccessible. But she didn’t. And now I saw it in her face.

I know why you’re choosing his domain.

Her voice trembled, a whisper.

And she was right. The one uncontaminated truth. My father, my changeless hatred. I’d hold on to him.

Fasten your seat belt, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Are you kidding?

I’m not good with reassurance, said the uploader. But you’re lucky. You’re going to a good place.

The technicians put me in a flexangle, a hard gel that closes around you up to the chin. When I was immobilized, the woman picked up the drill.

You’re going to feel this. Everybody feels it. Try thinking past it.

While you can still think, said the other.

They try to introduce the liquid as slowly and gently as possible, but at a certain point it saturates. By then the virus is moving quickly, humming along, sparking and devouring, capturing, destroying. From the first instant, I know that I cannot endure it for another instant, even to gain eternal life. And then I do endure it. I go on. I have his face in focus for a moment, here and there, but then he changes and I just hold on to the hate.

I whip around it like a pole. I fly off it like a flag. That hatred, planted in calcareous shit, gets me through the first part. But then it wilts and at the base of it is love.

 

Field of asphodel

They let my body stay where it was for the hours it took the system to read me, and then for me to focus my new eyes. The results are better when you get to see the technicians put away your old carcass, apparently, because I saw them do me. Oh, they were respectful enough, took the tubes out without yanking. But I could see well enough so that I could tell my body had stiffened a bit already and I’d shat myself all the way up my back straight out of my diaper.

Well, never again.

I have a new body now and it’s made of thought.

When I arrived in Asphodel, I was placed in the transition program, a cross between purgatory and a hospital, a quiet, calm place where my task was to understand the entity that I would now be, forever. Here, the siphoners come to pick and choose what they want to add to their domain. Using human memory they are building a complex and ordered world that replicates and outdoes the first one, into which we are all born. Asphodel is the deepest and most thoroughly finished, but there are still gaps in its reality, places, even in the transition program, where the tiles quit or go rubbery when they are actually ceramic or where the windows contain the wrong light for the hour of the day. But the personnel are fully integrated and know not to change too drastically while you are looking at them, which is something I cannot do when I first arrive.

Remember, your appearance reflects your every mood, thought, emotion, says a silky woman. Her hand is on my arm. She has given her hand just the right amount of warmth and my own memory of skin blooms in response.

Like right now, master it, master it, she croons. Yes, yes, you may take a deep breath. The infinite microbiocircuitry that is now you will remember what it was to take a deep breath and your brain, or the superfile of your brain, will remember it too. Take a deep breath. Your fear is purple. Your appearance.

I’m a cloud, I say, looking down at my legs. Insubstantial as a cloud. And I’m still in pain. The fuck! I’m still in pain!

Wait, she says, calm yourself and take a deep breath.

I do. The pain is gone.

And remember how your legs feel. Your workout two days before your fall.

Yes.

I look down. My legs are perfect. I am naked.

What were you wearing?

What the hell? Maybe I was wearing a low-necked black cocktail dress.

Now you’re cooking! Her voice is delighted. I smell egg, onions, mushrooms frying in butter, and my mouth waters.

I think I’m hungry.

Yes, you’re hungry. And you’re going to eat. And if you concentrate fully on what you are eating, it will be the best thing you’ve ever tasted.

So how to find him. How to kill him. How to savagely or subtly murder my father in a world where there isn’t any death?

I look into the mirrored wall as I am wondering this and my face is faecal, feral, frantic, fraught, festering. No facade.

I work then for months (the sun comes up here, the sun goes down) on my control. Then one day I ask how we get places. I am now, because this is how everyone begins, right where I left off. I am in Minneapolis and have my apartment. But my skies in North Dakota and any other useful memories have been added, painstakingly, to the deeply convincing fabric of this world.

How do I get places? I ask my guide.

We have a marvellous transportation system. Very real. You can book flights almost anywhere now, take trains, whatever you want. Or you can scroll.

Can you teach me to do that?

Nobody can teach it.

How does it work? What happens?

Lucid dreaming. You teach yourself to dream yourself wherever you want to be. You have to learn how to stay conscious in your dream, but not to wake up. You don’t want to drop yourself.

And people? Can I look someone up from my past?

Of course, once you’ve got the hang of it. But it will be hard to tell whether you’re accessing the actual person or just your memory of the person.

I feel funny asking this, I say, but something occurred to me.

Ask anyway.

Is there any way out of here? Do people exit? Leave? Are they ever expelled?

She turns bright pink. An orange bubble bursts from her lips. She laughs in surprise.

No, she says, of course not, that never happens, except . . .

Her eyes go black. Her face and arms fade into the wall. I can see through her. It is as though she’s made of tissue and her voice is faint.

It is rare. Yet people have been erased by other people here, she says. Then she readjusts. She’s solid and rosy.

But does it take enormous strength of will to do something like that, I say, and time and control?

Of course, she says, her voice a whisper. Shock. There was an assassin sent many years ago, I heard, from a former life. He caught the victim completely unaware. Threw him into shock so he just – she laughs at the ridiculous act there is no other word for – deleted himself.

 

The library

My father has become the library. He will be dangerous to enter. In his time, he was a leading playwright and scholar. But his childhood memories of the library were most interesting to Asphodel, and he has been hard at work constructing this new library ever since he entered Asphodel. His childhood library still exists in the small town where he grew up, a sweet old county library made of red sandstone with brass handles on the doors and a great oak desk, stained dark, where the books are checked out and returned. He remembered every inch of it, and more, he remembered every library he had studied in as a young man, and older, as he became the kind of person who used libraries exclusively and bought real books of the old kind, made of paper and print and glue. He knew the smell of them and the weight of them and the texture of their covers. What books he didn’t know he could imagine in convincing detail. Every book in the world has long been auto-scanned into our universe and so it only takes the proper thought, an operational thought, to fill those tangible but empty ciphers of books with words. This, then, is my father’s work. The library is his mind. He is filling it with an infinite number of books he can play in, hide in, which he can be part of whenever he chooses. To murder him in that library may be impossible, but it must be done. I have to surprise him to death. Make him completely vulnerable and open. His mind must be utterly relaxed so that when I strike he cannot deflect the blow. And the blow, it must be true and final. He cannot be erased by increments, but just like that. One blow. One instant. He must reverse. Blow up. Disintegrate. Delete.

 

Inevitable

Of course it comes back, in the night when all the monitors are off and I am a shifting flame that does not burn. That is the other attraction of Asphodel. The contract stipulates night privacy. No dream siphoning. A freedom resembling the real earth freedom to retain an unknowable existence, an unconsciousness, that cannot be tapped. Asphodel’s cheaper sister, The Meadows, mines the unconscious. There are many who do not care or never notice this intrusion, but I would. I love my sleep now, my nothingness, my unnecessary dream life. I would not technically have to sleep at all in Asphodel, but I choose sleep, as do most people (though not my father, it is reported). I love sleep because now that I am immortal it is my only way to experience relief from consciousness.

I also love sleep because my son comes back to me. He visits often now in dreams. His image has become accessible. He was six years old, the tenderest age, a mop of fine, heavy, brown-gold hair like his father’s (mine is black, short, coarse, when I am in default appearance). I used to put my cheek to his hair when he came in flushed from playing outside and I breathed in the avid October cold of cold boy. He was always moving, quitless, bumbling and exuberant. When sad, he was cast down, inconsolable. He died in the care of my father and my father let him go, did not make the essential call that would have allowed him, my son, to be with me now. My father waited until it was too late to salvage him. He did this because of his religious certainty.

My father’s plays were about the need for death, the unthought consequences of immortality. The moral human was the human with the courage to really die and stay dead. Ten years after the real death of my son, my father chose, as I’ve said, to voluntarily end his physical life and upload into Asphodel. He was in perfect health. He had simply changed his mind. He considered his talents, his genius, his knowledge, too valuable to risk the loss. It was a considered leap which for years he had persuaded many to resist.

My son is gone. But he visits me in dreams.

 

Some travel

To leave the vicinity of my father and perfect my skills, I travel. I can scroll now. I am in Barcelona on Las Ramblas, the great strolling avenue leading to the ocean. Composed of combined memory, people appear and disappear much the way they always did, crowds passing, mimes in exquisite costumes poised until a coin is dropped before them. One, a dark lady in a magnificent grey gown, wearing grey face paint, black hair, black flowers, appears to be sleeping, head slightly cocked. Her crown is a black serpent coiled and poised to strike above her brow. I drop my coin and her eyes open slowly, great black pooling eyes. She reaches incrementally for my hand and kisses my fingers tenderly, caresses my wrist, in languid slow motion lets my fingers go and drifts back into her slumber. The snake is real. Its tongue flickers, scarlet, curious.

I know that some uploaded tourist remembered her in great detail and placed her here, but with a live snake, artful. Others have remembered the Gaudí buildings and Park Güell, the Mercury Fountain and the desperate sellers of roses – Pakistani illegals who haunt the restaurants with ravaged eyes. When I buy a rose from one man, he says, remember me, and I know that in someone else’s life on real Earth this man said the same thing and his bleak eyes were fixed in someone’s consciousness so that although he has surely not acquired the means to enter an afterlife himself and has died the real death with billions of other humans, this rose seller will live in this particular corporation’s version of the city of Barcelona, whispering, forever, remember me.

I scroll across the world twice, I visit places I’d always wanted to see. Only, there is no reliable ‘in-between’ yet. There is no world but the world brought back within many individual consciousnesses and reconstructed out of fragments of experience.

 

Waking

I used to love taking naps on early-spring afternoons before the leaves had budded out, when the air was bright and cool. I would lie on my back with my aching legs on a pillow and pull over me a down comforter, a gift from my mother. As I woke I would allow my consciousness to drift back into my body. There would always be, first, the sword of grief, which I would allow to stake me to the mattress, but then as my waking awareness increased and I felt where my flesh ended and the soft bedclothes and pillows began, a soft shudder of ecstasy would fill me and with each breath increase and subside, subside and increase, until at last I opened my eyes. I do this now, whenever I wake, only now I do this for what may be hours, for time on this side of things is not sidereal and relentless. Time is gentle. We are flowers. Opening and closing as we respond to the temperature and the light of our thoughts. And when I do assume my body and my awareness, and when I do decide where to go, what I would like to do, my actions add to the texture of this world so that everything I do here has a purpose. The layering of consciousness upon consciousness makes, for instance, a beautiful park steadier, more palpable, more enjoyable to others. This is a thing we did unknowingly, perhaps, on the other side, but it is so important here that we all have work; every moment of our existence is creation for others to enjoy, an occupation that was once called art; we are all artists on this side.

When I murder my father, that moment will create a rip in the fabric of time. Like art, it will jar the past, pierce the future.

 

The card

In order to use the library, you must apply for a card. The program set up to process the request is tall and pleasant. She is neither young nor old, and gazes wisely over the oak counter with its dull green blotter. She wears small wire-rim glasses. Her hair is brown, streaked with grey, rolled back in a chignon. She wears a dress of brown-and-white checks. In a low voice, she requests my identification, and then bends over slightly to copy my name onto a blue library card. I have used my mother’s name most of my adult life, and it is a common surname. I am hoping my introduction into the system will be unremarked. I watch the program write my name in lovely, old-fashioned D’Nealian script and I wonder if the pleasant librarian is my father. He can take any form in the library; however, this processing of cards is painstaking and a little silly. Beneath him, I would think. A waste of his time which although infinite is still his. The blue piece of cardboard is handed back to me, a rectangle with rounded edges. I will have to present this card each time I take out a book, a detail meant to be charming. The librarian is changing the date on her rubber stamp and re-inking the felt pad in its metal case as I leave. My father has made each detail – astounding work. I want so badly to examine the books. I am so curious about the editions, the design, the paper, the typefaces, all that he has added to the veracity of his world. But I continue on out the door, down the broad stone steps, because I do not want to come across him accidentally. Even though I have chosen an entirely different form today, I do not want him to surprise me.

 

The brick

I practise my disguise. I will be his mother to whom he was deeply attached. My grandmother, a woman vivid in my memory, a woman lost to real death, as was her belief. She was deer-like and gentle and softly silent. I call her up, I conjure her, I become her. An olive-green dress. Sweet brown eyes, whitely faded hair. And then in an instant I shift and become myself. I have a weapon, of course, to compound the shock and throw my father into the reflex cascade that will end him. It will be the same object that ended my son’s life. A falling brick. Tumbling unknown off a workman’s scaffolding. My father carried Edan to the side of the churchyard and sat on the bench with him, watched as he died, and at last called me up to say, weeping, he is gone. Instead of calling Asphodel or some other company’s rescue team, all one-digit numbers that can be dialled into the human wrist, he allowed my son to go.

I will be his mother. Then, all of a sudden, myself, with a brick in my hand which I will smash down upon my father’s head. My advantage will be the powerfully violent imagery which I will add to the constructed reality – his terror, blood, reeling fall, death, every second of which I rehearse until it feels that it has already happened. It hasn’t happened, no, I reassure myself. Yet it has already begun.

 

All things are made of consciousness

You’d think the weather would be nice, the sun would shine all of the time, dogs would not bite nor flowers wilt nor impatient people shove. You’d think there would be no lines to stand in. No rotten eggs, spoiled milk. The redolent odour of skunk in spring. Shoes that pinch. Warped wooden doors that do not completely shut. You’d think that here it would be perfect.

But it is better than perfect. It is beyond everything I could have imagined or can now convey. The twists and turns and quirks and elegance of mind make it so. The strangeness, the humour, the mistakes. The great elm outside my window is the tree another person had memorized and rethought. Each sawtooth leaf and ragged twig, each whorl of thick grey bark. And then the bird in it, a chickadee, its see-me call, or tiny, rapid scolding. The chickadee made entirely out of human observation, which is also love. This world entrances. The world it was based on was entrancing. But we will never know whether the consciousness that made the first world was or is like our own. Knowing that my thoughts add to the tree I look at every morning or that my footsteps reinforce a path or my tasting confirms the sweetness of the orange for others has produced in me an antlike happiness. But my imperfections also show in what I see, and so will my vengeance. Will the stain be obvious? Will I be marked out? Will I infect others with my act? Will I be caught?

 

Today

I am ready now. I pick up my grandmother’s handbag, perfectly remembered. I slip the library card into its inner pocket and I walk out the door. There are just a few people in the streets and one person before me in line. There is a new librarian at the desk, a gawky woman with a grey shag cut, dressed in grey, with grey eyeglasses and very blue eyes. Her eyes shoot at me from behind those glasses when I ask to see the director.

He is hard at work, she says.

This is important.

She considers. May I say who is calling?

I dimple at her, the way my grandmother did, a smile of tender mischief.

I have just come from the other side. He will be very happy to see me, I am sure. I am an old friend.

That’s wonderful. She is now in on the plan.

Do you mind if I visit his office by myself? We have a great deal to talk over.

She escorts me to the elevator, tells me the floor where I can find him. I thank her. I run through the scenario again on the way down and when the door opens I smooth my dress and walk down the hall. At any moment he might emerge from his office and I must be ready. But the hall is empty. I rap softly on the frosted glass below the word director and his name.

Come in! he says, and I do.

Hello, son, I say in my grandmother’s voice, holding out my arms. My father turns, rises, setting down his glasses. Speechless, he puts out his hands, his mouth an O of disbelief and joy. That is when I change, let him see the brick, and leap forward simultaneously bringing the brick smashing down on his head. Twice. Three times. I am fully myself. Focused, I stare and wait. I smash the brick down with savage finality. There is massing flowing blood. And he goes transparent, black, transparent again, his light feebler. But just as I think he is about to vanish there is a frozen moment in which I can see some faint convulsion of recovery. I am about to bring the brick down again. I raise my arm. But standing there, quietly before me, is my son.

Mom? Oh, Mom!

His forehead bleeding.

I can do nothing. I drop the brick.

I know he is not real, but I hold him, hold him, and hold him.

 

Artwork © Kazuo Yoshida, Air Blue, 2012

Introduction: Fate
Origin Myth