June 6, 11:24 am
The boy was writing again, but Richard was just content to lie beside him and look up at the clouds passing overhead.
I never expected death to bring clarity, he thought. But I had expected it to bring finality.
Throughout his long life, Richard had dismissed religion as offering too easy of an answer to the meaning of death. He wasn’t so cynical as to think that religion held no insights for the living. Especially as a Sanskrit scholar, he was well versed in the deep dives religious thinkers had made into the great philosophical questions. But for all the insight he found in the Vedas and the Upanishads, he found most religious mythology around life after death to be unsatisfying, and raising more questions than they answered. Heaven, Nirvana, and Reincarnation all seemed like far too easy of an answer for the great black mystery of death.
Perhaps more than most, Richard had been tormented by a fear of death and a terror of what, if anything, was on the other side of death’s door. But whatever was there, Richard had always expected death itself to answer that question. And even if that clarity came in the form of being snuffed out of existence, even if the answer was that nothing came after death, at least that would finally end the uncertainty.
Even if it wasn’t a satisfying answer, at least it would be an answer.
So why are things more confusing and less meaningful on this side of death’s door, than they ever were when I was alive?
Perhaps the answer was just something much darker than he imagined. Perhaps it was that suffering itself was the ultimate meaning of life and death. His mind wanted to reject that as being too cynical, even for him, but what if that truly was the core of the mystery?
If so, how pathetic it all was, after all.
No, that can’t be it, he thought, still lying on the blanket next to the boy who was scribbling furiously. What is happening here can’t just be normal and natural. Something strange has landed me here. Something abnormal. Something… out of balance.
He stared unblinking into the blue sky, with tiny white clouds moving lonely across it like sailboats. He had to believe this was some kind of error, or a glitch. But that meant that the mystery of life and death was far more complex, and far stranger, than he had ever imagined.
For years before he died, Richard had been nagged by a recurring feeling. It wasn’t constant, but it was persistent enough to be noticeable and troubling. Sometimes he felt as if he were a sleepwalker, going through the motions of his life, but not really really living it. The feeling was strange and disconcerting, and he likened it to being an actor in a play, reciting the lines he had learned and going through the emotions required—not because they were his own, but because there was a great cosmic audience out there that expected it of him.
These feelings had become more and more frequent as he moved into his fifties. He had tried not to let it trouble him, convincing himself that this was just the natural state of men of a certain age. I’m just having my typical mid-life crisis, he had thought. Maybe a detached and disconnected and confused feeling is just part of the modern condition.
When he looked back at his life, he knew that there was great joy and beauty and love there. Yes, there were regrets, but who had lived a half century without a few of those?
Why then, he had wondered, had he so often felt like life had lost much of the magic it once had?
Even his love for Keith, as intense and joyful as it was, often felt like something he was watching unfold from a distance—as if the gentleness and the touching and the laughter, and even the love itself, were just film clips to be filed away.
He knew that his lover often felt his distance, and Keith had tried to talk to him about it. But lacking the words to even articulate it to his own satisfaction, he had always told Keith it was his imagination, and he was just fine. Of course, Keith knew Richard better than anyone, and he never believed it. But he also knew when to let Richard stew in his own juices over whatever existential crisis he might be going through at the time.
Now, staring up at the clouds, Richard ran his hand across the brilliant green grass, and felt again the odd steel wool texture on his fingers. It was a texture unique to this strange, liminal word in which he now existed.
His body was suddenly heavy, and he wanted to sink into the earth. But the blanket and the grass under him would not accept his body as an offering. It would not let him pass on to redemption or grace.
He almost laughed at the thought. If death was not oblivion, blackness, and non-existence, then it was certainly also not redemption and grace. For a moment he wished he could plunge back into that black river of the Void, just to finally know where his interrupted journey was trying to take him. But even the memory of that terrifying place was enough to make him squeeze his eyes closed and feel his breath hitch in his lungs.
Sitting up on the blanket, he heard children playing on the swings and tricky bars at the base of the hill. But instead of comfort, the sound only exacerbated his confusion. Watching the children play, he wanted to scream out his frustration. Instead, he turned his head to the boy beside him on the blanket.
“I have lost everything that matters,” he said, softly. “All that I have left is the confusion, the uncertainty, and the despair. I have nothing of value left. And God—if there is a God—hasn’t even left me with the strength I would need to endure everything I’ve lost.”
The boy was silent, his lips pursed in concentration.
“Perhaps this is hell. Eternal loss. Eternal suffering. Eternal confusion. And all the while, being forced to witness all the things you’ve lost. With no hope of redemption. No hope of release.”
He pounded his fist against the unyielding grass until he was sure it was cut and bleeding. The pain shot through him just as it would have in life. But he looked at his hand, and it was untouched. His flesh looked pink and clean and healthy.
“Pain then. Pain is what I have left, I guess.” And he laughed. “It’s funny to think of pain as a gift, but when it’s all you have, you’ve got to make do.”
He turned his face back to the sky. The clouds were very high, and they were moving so slowly. And unaccountably, Richard suddenly felt an unexpected wave of peace wash over him. It was not joy. But it was peace, acceptance, and a deep melancholy sadness that he clung to, because it felt like it honored all that he had lost.
The blue sky was a gift. The clouds were a gift. This beautiful young boy beside him was a gift. Even the sound of the children playing was a gift. It was all proof of life. Not his life, but life, nonetheless. And as rare as life must be in the universe, it was sacred.
Kissing the shoulder of the boy beside him one more time, Richard suddenly arose, and walked toward the children’s laughter.
As he got closer, he could see there were about two dozen children there, and about half that number of adults, watching over them while they played on the swings and climbed the various structures in the playground. The city had turned on the water jets, and some of the children ran squealing through the spray. Some of the younger children played in the sand with shovels and toy trucks.
One little girl caught his attention. She sat alone on the swings, not moving. She wore an old-fashioned dress that reminded Richard of the pioneer garb that many of the polygamists still wore. Richard’s TV repairman, when he was a kid, had two wives and four little girls, and he remembered them dressing that way when he and his mother would run into them in the fabrics department of the ZCMI.
The vitality of the children playing was such a contrast with the deadness that Richard felt inside. It is youth versus age, he thought. No, it is life versus death.
Sitting under a tree at the edge of the playground, he watched the children darting to and fro in front of him. He tried to cling to that sense of peace he had felt earlier, but it was elusive, and he couldn’t help where his mind was going.
Every child in this playground will age. Every one will die. The universe itself will age and die. Perhaps an asteroid will come and sterilize the planet, like it did with the dinosaurs, and man will become a distant memory. Eventually, even the sun will age, then flare into a supernova that will destroy the planet entirely. What then will man’s short reign on this obscure planet mean? What will remain to prove to the universe that we ever existed at all?
He wanted to see these children as life and hope and meaning, but instead, he saw every child as a tragedy, waiting to unfold; a loss waiting to happen. The course of life was the spoliation of a miracle. The progress of life was one of continual decline into the terror of the Void.
He lost himself in these morbid thoughts, as the children laughed and played in front of him. All except the little girl in the pioneer dress. She seemed aloof and alone.
Almost, Richard thought, as if she alone understood the true nature of existence.
The Last Handful of Clover is a supernatural thriller by Wess Mongo Jolley. Thanks for reading! If you are enjoying this story, please consider supporting the author on Patreon.
For more information (including maps of the story’s world and a contact form) visit the author’s website.
To read previous chapters of this book, go to the Table of Contents page.
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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.