Jonathan closed his eyes, died, and immediately woke up in a place that was, he assumed, Heaven. He could hardly contain his astonishment. A lifelong rationalist (a physicist to boot!), he was fully prepared for the eventuality that death was the end. But here he was — moments before occupied with the mechanics of dying (it wasn’t as bad as I expected, he thought) — and now in what he hoped might be “a better place.”
As a place it leaned more towards his idea of heaven than hell, though in truth it did not fit his conception of either well. He stood in a grassy field with rolling hills which he realized oddly resembled the default wallpaper of Microsoft Windows XP. His rational mind tried to convince him that this was some sort of dying-related-asphyxia-induced hallucination, or that he had not even died at all, despite all evidence to the contrary. Perhaps the life that he had up until this moment presumed he had actually lived was the illusion, and this bland yet cheery landscape the reality. Certainly the green grass rippling in the mild breeze and the fluffy white clouds in the blue sky seemed real enough. But his life before death had seemed equally real as well. It was all truly puzzling.
Engrossed as he was in these philosophical musings, he did not notice until the last minute that someone was approaching him from over the top of one of the rolling hills. The fellow was almost on top of him when he noticed him, and indeed was close enough by then to determine that he was not a “he” after all, but rather a woman. And a rather comely woman at that.
Being a physicist, Jonathan lacked the poetic vocabulary that really would have been helpful to describe this woman adequately. That she was of an indefinitely young age, was about 5 feet 8 inches tall, had light brown hair and dark brown eyes, was slender of build and so forth really failed to do justice to her. Given the context, he might have used the term “angel” to describe her, though only in an earthly sense, as she appeared to lack a set of wings.
The woman stopped in front of him and looked him up and down. He greeted her with a cheery “Hello,” and paused as one normally would to allow her time to respond. As no response was forthcoming, he continued.
“What is this place?” he asked. He felt this question was a little less silly than starting with “Where am I?”
The woman appeared puzzled. She spoke.
“K’aire. Onoma soi ti estin. Podapos ei?”
Jonathan had assumed that she would speak English, though come to think of it he wasn’t sure why. He didn’t recognize her language at all. It wouldn’t have mattered much if he had, as he didn’t speak any languages other than English.
He attempted to indicate to the woman that he was friendly and had no weapons, using hand signs. It was at this point belatedly that he became aware that his clothes had not made the transition to the afterlife, which put him in an awkward situation to say the least.
The woman (who, if you are curious to know, was clothed in a flowing white robe) turned and with a hand gesture beckoned him to follow her.
So they set off over the rolling grassy knolls, Jonathan rather desperately looking for something with which he could cover his nakedness and the woman in white leading the way in silence. As there wasn’t much else to do on this journey, Jonathan’s mind again became preoccupied with theories of what this place was that he had found himself in, post-mortem.
If it was some kind of biblical afterlife, it was somewhat disappointing: certainly nice scenery — and a beautiful woman! — but somehow he had expected more. Also, his naked condition could not hide the fact that he had been resurrected not in some idealized youthful Statue of David-like body, but in the same 50ish, flawed, somewhat pot-bellied body that he had departed the mortal plane in. Oh well.
The two topped a grassy rise. A small valley lay beneath, split by a sparkling blue stream. A white marble columnated structure rested adjacent to the stream. The design was that of a small temple of the sort found in ancient Greece. The woman (whose garment he now recognized to be what one would find on a Greek goddess) led the way down the side of the hill towards the small temple.
Jonathan smiled. It appeared the Greeks had gotten it right after all. There were probably hundreds or even thousands of afterlife stories among the world’s religions. They couldn’t all be true. Frankly he was surprised that any of them were true. Of course nobody believed in Zeus or Athena or Apollo or any of those old Greek gods anymore. Nevertheless all evidence at this point indicated that they were real, as was their afterlife. He was a little cloudy on his Greek mythology though. He remembered something about Elysium Fields, but also some awful Underworld with a dark lord named Hades and a ferry piloted by Charon who steered the dead across the river Styx. Well maybe he was jumping to conclusions. He needed more data, more information before setting up his hypothesis, he said to himself in good scientific fashion.
By this time they had reached the white temple. Inside was a statue of a goddess seated on a throne. The woman in white bore an uncanny resemblance to the marble goddess. At the base of the statue were some words carved into the marble — words which were unmistakably written in the Greek alphabet.
Well that nails it, Jonathan thought. I’ve died and gone to heaven, though clearly this is a more pragmatic and concrete heaven than the biblical one. I am clearly in the presence of a goddess. I’m a little hungry and am beginning to get the urge to use the bathroom, but all told, this is much better than I had any right to expect.
He wished he could communicate with his goddess/companion, for he had many questions, not the least of which was where he could get some clothes. She seemed oblivious to his nakedness, which was somewhat reassuring, but he couldn’t envision spending eternity in this state.
The goddess (he wished he could read the Greek script to ascertain which one she was — Athena? Hera?) laid her hand on the corner of the base of the statue and suddenly a secret door swung open. Jonathan could see a set of marble stairs leading down into darkness.
A secret door activated by a secret button would not be surprising in a bad B movie, but such things are indeed rare in real life, he thought. Of course this isn’t real life, but still…
The goddess (if that was what she was) motioned for him to descend and reluctantly he did so. She did not follow him. Instead she activated whatever secret switch closed the secret door. Now Jonathan found himself walking down stairs in pitch blackness. This was disconcerting to say the least. The word “underworld” popped back into his head.
I’m not sure what I will find at the bottom of these stairs, but I think it won’t be nice, he thought.
The stairs went on for longer than he expected. He had to place his feet carefully to avoid slipping and falling down into the darkness. Such a fall would be fatal in the world of the living. He was not sure what the consequences would be if he was already dead.
Might be an interesting experiment, if circumstances were different, he told himself, again using that scientific mind that had gotten him so far in life. He continued to focus on the task at hand, namely getting to the bottom of the endless subterranean stairs.
After a couple of hours (he judged) the stairs began to get more uneven, the atmosphere became dank and humid, and the temperature had dropped several degrees. In his clothesless state, he began to shiver. But he seemed to have no other option other than to go on.
Eventually he reached the last step and almost fell when his feet tried to descend another. He was in a tunnel with damp stone walls. Far at the end there appeared to be a faint glow of light.
The light was farther away than he realized. But, as with all journeys, he finally reached the end of the long corridor and passed into a dimly lit cavern. The lighting came from phosphorescent material on the walls which glowed a ghoulish pale violet. The cavern was enormous, stretching into the distance, its nether wall lost in mists. A continuous moaning sound came to his ear, faint, but becoming louder and more pitiful as he walked to the small boat moored on the shore of the underground river, where the monstrous ferryman waited.