Today, in the early morning, I awoke and was immediately greeted by the memory of an encounter I had had during my days in the seminary. It has been many years since I left the priesthood, but the memory is still clear in my mind…
The young seminarian greeted his professor upon entering the lunch room. The priest, who was enjoying his meal of hot soup and sourdough, invited his student to sit, offering him a tuna croissant, or perhaps a rich mug of hot chocolate. The youth chose the second offering.
"You told me you had some questions about the afterlife, son," the priest began.
The student nodded. "More specifically where the blessed go, Father—Heaven."
"I assume it would not do to answer you as the others do?" the priest said, smiling. "That Heaven can be found in the places on Earth where the presence of God is most felt?"
"No, Father." The youth laughed.
"To be honest, none of us are truly sure what or where it is—it is virtually unknowable before death. But I can tell you the story they told us priests decades ago about a man who purportedly saw Heaven. It has become somewhat of a legend.
"The man, being a teacher of Biology and a staunch supporter of Darwin's theory, taught his pupils about evolution. These pupils were young—impressionable—and came to conclusions all their own. There was outrage from their Christian parents, who complained about their children all of a sudden seeking out adoption centers that allowed humans to be the adoptive parents of orphaned apes. Of course, there was no such thing, and so the parents were caught having to explain this most difficult predicament to their children.
"Soon the man was exposed as a nonbeliever, which turned out to be rather problematic, the school catering exclusively to Catholics. His termination soon followed, after which he decided to go back to his home town before seeking a new job. But the night before his departure, the man saw a vision which, until now, no one has agreed on whether it was a dream or a true sign from God.
"The record of the vision was read from the atheist's diary, found after his death amongst his prized possessions."
It is three o'clock in the morning now, but I am awake after experiencing a rather perplexing encounter which I believe to have been a dream, though it was so vivid and so long that others who may encounter it may think it actually happened to them. As for me, I will treat it as a dream, my only clue being that, when I awoke, I felt as if I had slept for twenty years.
In the dream, I was trapped in a sort of black hole where it was uncomfortably warm, and felt as if two small fires were licking the soles of my feet. The heat was bearable, however—it was the wait that was excruciating. Time stretched on for what seemed like decades before I woke up in the middle of a large forest whose outer limits, along my long journey through it, I never found. It was filled with green, exceptionally fresh foliage. The grass beneath me was soft and crisp, and an abundance of fruits hung from each surrounding tree.
I spotted the moving figures of people in the distance and walked cautiously toward them. The first thing I noticed was that they were stark naked. Looking down at my own body, I realized that I had not a single piece of clothing on, either. Oddly enough, neither their nakedness nor mine startled me—it was as if I had come to accept it right at the moment of realization.
I wished to ask the people where we were, but I became suddenly aware of my inability to use words. My native tongue I still knew, but the words would not come; it was like my mind had hidden them where my consciousness could not reach. What came out of my mouth instead was a jumbled mass of sounds, like the mixture of the croaking of a frog and the grunting of a boar. The same sounds came from their mouths and, though I did not detect the nuances of any sort of language, we were able to communicate using this debased animal dialect.
Looking around, I noticed that most of the humans in the clearing were scattered about in varying postures of leisure. In the river nearby, half a dozen or so humans floated lazily on their backs, letting the sun beat against their closed lids. Others were perched high in the trees, picking fruit after fruit and eating them with extreme fervor. The rest either slept or lounged listlessly in the shadows of the trees.
I had just decided to seat myself on a rock and wait for whatever was to come when a commotion stirred the inhabitants of the clearing from their separate stupors. From my observation, I can only assume that one man—most probably a stranger—had climbed up one of the trees and was stealing fruit. The trespasser's voice was different; it was not the frog-boar hybrid described earlier—this voice was more like the harsh cawing of a bird of prey. After a short beating (the purpose of which was merely to give the outsider a scare), the members of what I then realized was a human tribe let the man go.
As he made his way back into the thicker parts of the forest, I followed, trying my best to keep silent. He led me to another clearing—this one smaller than the other one, but with cattle and poultry. One woman was plucking the feathers off a chicken and not far off were two men attempting to slaughter a cow. The rest, as in the other tribe, lounged in scattered groups.
I was startled by a sharp pecking at my ankle: a rooster had escaped from his flock and had wandered into the forest. A soft grunting came from behind one of the trees and I recognized the woman from the first tribe. She gestured for me to pick up the rooster and to hurry back to the first tribe.
Things passed like this for weeks, and I learned that there were countless tribes scattered about the forest. What was noticeable was that each tribe stole from the other as a form of revenge for the theft from their own lands, the borders of which remain unclear. In effect, it was as if the inhabitants of the forest coexisted in an utterly selfish—yet effective—circle of exchange: theft in exchange for theft.
The most curious activity I witnessed my fellow tribesmen (as I had become accustomed to calling them) performing happened for the entire length of a week each month. I awoke one morning to discover that all of my human companions had begun to copulate with one another en masse. Like clockwork, when a woman was finished with her partner, she would move on to another male who, penis erect, seemed to be waiting for one with whom to mate. The men, too, moved like clockwork; however, unlike the women, once the men were finished, they returned to their leisure activities. I had not had a chance to witness the same sexual phenomenon occurring in the other tribes, though I can presume that they performed the same type of mating ritual.
As I stood watching the females move from one man to another, a woman approached me and, as she drew close, her features became all too familiar—she was one of the sisters from the school's convent, the Mother Superior! She seemed not to recognize me and began to ask me to be her next mate. I was so transfixed by the scene before me it was only then that I became conscious of my penis, which had become erect without my knowing. Then and there, I lay down with the nun and became subject to a rather mechanical experience with a minimal amount of pleasure. Once my member returned to its flaccid state, the Mother Superior left me to my own devices and wandered away. I took to the river to bathe, after which I resolved to follow the course of the water to see where it would lead.
The longer I followed the trail beside the river, the muddier and smellier became my surroundings. A fog began to creep over my ankles, and it was a challenge to breathe. I felt the heat of the sun begin to wane as the trees about me grew thicker and larger, their leaves twisting together, creating a canopy over my head. It was difficult to see in the gloom and my eyes adjusted to the darkness just as I was about to run into what appeared to be a solid, massive wall that stretched high into the heavens so I could not espy its top.
I knocked experimentally on the wall and felt its roughness—I had rapped my knuckles on the thick bark of an enormous tree. Slowly, I began to circumvent the trunk, trailing my fingers along the tough, damp bark. I stopped after a few dozen steps; there seemed to be no bypassing this obstacle. To both my left and to my right, there was only a long stretch of tree trunk, its circumference seemingly immeasurable.
I started back in the direction of the tribe, but it was at this moment that a most fragrant smell greeted my nostrils. It was smoky and sweet, and I became aware of the empty feeling in my stomach. I turned my gaze skyward and saw, growing amid the leaves, the reddest and plumpest fruits which I could not name. They seemed to glow with their own energy, and were the only source of light in that dark place. I gently wrapped a palm around the fruit hanging lowest to the ground, ready to pluck it from its thick, black branch, when a voice rumbled out of the darkness, low and gravelly.
"I would not do that." A horrific, wooden face formed out of the tree bark before me, its eyes and its nostrils knotted black lumps, and its mouth an angry, brittle gash.
I felt my body shudder, and I managed to stammer an apology. "I-I'm sorry…?" The fact that the face had spoken in my own earthly tongue was surprising; I had not heard it in so long—had in fact forgotten it upon entering the forest—that I was not prepared to hear it in this dark neck of the woods. The thousands of words I had picked up during the course of my life came flooding back, as if they had been reserved for this moment when I encountered a being who spoke the language.
The wooden man introduced himself as Parek, a tree demon. "I have been here since the beginning of this supposed Paradise. I have seen the same fate befall all those who have eaten the fruit of this tree. I remember most vividly the very first two… Their dull faces, upon first bite, took on a sudden brightness, as if they had just realized who they were… or what they were. I saw their wonder turn into horror and shame. They began to scream and scrabble at the dried leaves on the floor of this forest, and held them to their bodies feverishly. They appeared to be half-crazed, running from the very spot where you stand, and running right through the gates that stand behind this tree."
I moved as if to look past the tree demon and see the gate, forgetting for a moment the enormity of the tree.
"Oh, it stands there still," continued Parek. "Even after thousands of years. Journey far enough around this trunk and you will eventually find it. But you will be old by then, and weak, wearied by the secrets the fruit has divulged to you. And you will need to eat the fruit, for without it you cannot even begin to understand the way the mechanism of the gate works. No doubt you are a curious man; no doubt you will attempt to open the gate and see what lies beyond it. But I am telling you now: do not. Will you not agree with me that the most terrifying things are those about which you know nothing?"
The tree demon was right—I was curious, and I did feel a yearning to see what was behind that gate but, just as on the Earth I knew (the Earth which I was not even sure I was occupying at the moment), uncertainty allows for too much inhibition. I had, after all, gotten somewhat used to life in this forest, and was yet unwilling to let go of it all in exchange for a place which I did not know was better or worse.
I traveled back to the clearing where the tribespeople were still performing their mating ritual. In a patch of sunlight shining through the trees, I glimpsed two snakes mating as well, as if they comprehended the humans' activities and decided to join them.
I stayed in the forest for years—at least, it seemed to be that long. The animal language of the tribe came back to me when I communicated once more with the other tribe members. I forgot about the tree and about Parek, and waited out my days in the odd, inscrutable Paradise. I took to taking long walks about the forest, getting lost a few times, and finding my way back to the tribe only after days of travel. It was a tiring existence, but I never grew bored with it.
I had already gotten myself used to the prospect of never returning to my old world when, during one of my longer explorations of the forest, I came across a familiar cramped little copse, where it was dim and chilly. I smelled a familiar smoky-sweet scent and raised my head to see a plump, red, shining globe. I felt a stirring in my chest like the red orb was beckoning to me and, this time, no voice came to stop me though I half-expected Parek to appear and warn me yet again of the dangers of the fruit.
It was warm in my palm and, when I took a bite, its insides were warm as well. A comforting feeling of sharp, increased awareness swept over me. I felt myself gliding almost—certainly not walking—around the tree, past it, and to the gate, which was golden and shining, trapped in between two cement columns which had been overgrown with vines. The gate had managed to escape the choking creepers and plants; it was devoid of any sort of contamination—untouched. Words were inscribed on one of the columns, but they were covered in a thick layer of grime. I thought to myself perhaps these were instructions that could enlighten me, teach me how to escape this place I had been trapped in for years. I tried to read the inscription but, as I approached, everything began to fade and I soon found myself back in my bed, on the Earth that was my true home.
"They say that some of the man's friends whom he spoke to about this dream said that, while in Paradise, the man felt as if he were trapped in a dumb animal who could not speak nor have any sort of intelligent thought. He merely wandered about, accepting everything as it came, but he remembered everything after waking up, and so was able to recount his tale.
"A few of the man's friends asked him if, after seeing Paradise, he felt regret for his disbelief, and would be willing to go through a conversion. If they had been in his place, they said, they most likely would. His friends, who expected the man to agree to this suggestion to convert, were disappointed by his answer: 'Perhaps Paradise is simply not for all. The only thing that I regret is waking before I discovered how to operate the mechanism of the gate.'"