© 2013 Kirby Sanders
Petting the cat on her lap, she looked me square in the eyes and said “You know — this is your ninth life.”
The cat purred as I said “Can I go home now?”
The cat leapt onto the table and walked toward me — briefly rubbing its side on the large candle.
“Not yet,” she said. “You have not finished.”
“What if I don’t want to finish?” I exclaimed. “What if I just want to go home?”
“Sorry, pal. It doesn’t work that way. But when you do go home, you probably will not come back.”
The cat jumped onto my lap and I swear it smiled.
“At least that gives me something to look forward to,” I said.
The cat jumped to the floor and walked to the door — as did I. It seemed to bow as I walked outside.
The dawn, per normal for the city, was a muddy gray light as I walked home. The cat walked with me for several paces — to the foot of the bridge and then turned to go home. We smiled at one another, knowing that we had shared the final moments of our ninth lives.
I felt confused as I approached the foot of the bridge. An odd disheveled and shrouded figure stood by a barrel fire and stepped in front of me as I went to step onto the bridge.
“Some homeless panhandler,” I thought to myself as I absent-mindedly reached a hand into my trouser pocket to see what coins might be lurking at the bottom.
“The bridge is closed,” said an ethereal feminine voice from beneath the shroud before me. “You may only cross if I guide you. Have you a coin?”
“Well,” I laughed, “that is as good a scam as I have heard in quite a while. What manner of coin would you like — penny, quarter or Krugerrand?”
“Any will do. You need only show it to me. You may give it to me when we reach the other side.”
“We will play the odds then,” I said, jingling the change in my pocket. I closed my fingers and extracted a quarter. “Will that suffice?” I asked as I showed the coin to the strange figure before me.
“It will suffice,” came the laconic, almost bored response. “It is the principle that counts.”
As we stepped onto the pavement of the bridge, it seemed to slightly shudder beneath my feet — a disconcerting feeling; uncertain and somewhat frightening.
“You do know,” said the mysterious shroud leading me, “if you pass this way you shall not be able to return.”
“So I have been told,” I said.
“Come along then.”
The shroud leading me seemed almost to float rather than walk. As we made our first several paces, the bridge did not seem much different than it had the several times that I had crossed it before — except for that damned shuddering and wiggling of the pavement beneath my feet.
“So,” I said — partly out of curiosity and partly to dispel some nervous energy, “what is your name, oh companion of mine?”
“Charon,” she said. We walked on without another word spoken.
As we approached the central arch of the bridge, the condition of the structure changed dramatically. It was decrepit. Side rails appeared to have collapsed into the river below. There were great holes in the pavement with only inches on the sides by which to pass safely onward. The dark and turbulent river swirled beneath us. The water seemed to moan as it coursed between the rocks below.
“Charon,” I said, “I have crossed this way before and never was it this decrepit. It looks as though it has been bombed.”
“Time changes things,” was the only response.
The central arch of the bridge was reasonably solid, but another strange sight presented itself. Small clots of people huddled on either side of the bridge — leaping, hurling themselves into the river below.
“My god, Charon,” I asked in shock and incredulity. “Why are they doing that?”
“Tired of waiting, I suppose,” came the disinterested response. “They refused to proffer a coin although they had many — nary a coin for themselves nor for others in need.”
“But is there nothing we can do for them?” I asked. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the small fist of coins that lurked there. “Will this help at least some of them?”
“Too late for that. They made their choices and now they must ‘live’ with them.”
We reached the arch of the bridge, passed through the small mob of wailing leaping souls, and I noticed a golden amber glow on the horizon ahead. The pavement stopped writhing and the way seemed clear.
“Almost there,” said Charon with nary a note of real interest in her voice.
As we crossed the pinnacle of the bridge, the golden amber glow resolved itself into a vision of the city itself. It was a balanced and beautiful sight; somehow welcoming and comforting. It seemed to offer warmth as a cold and misty breeze blew up from the moaning river.
At the far foot of the bridge was a gate and a bored policeman sitting at a bland utilitarian desk. He did not look up as we approached. Rather, he fixed his gaze upon a stack of papers as he tapped upon a keyboard. The computer monitor in front of him cast a slight yellow glow. The golden glow behind him obscured his features.
“Another one for you,” Charon announced to the officer as we stopped at the desk.
Without a glance away from his reports or keyboard, the officer replied, “Have you received your due?”
Charon turned a hooded face toward me. I opened my left hand to reveal the promised quarter. Unbeknownst, I had been gripping it so tightly that it left its imprint in the flesh of my palm. Charon’s gaunt fingers took the coin. I stared at the imprint in my hand — somehow bemused at the line that said “tsurT eW doG nI.”
“Yes,” said Charon. “I have received my due.”
“Very well then,” the officer replied.
With that and without a further word, Charon turned and walked away — back toward the other side of the bridge.
“Name, please?” the officer said to me.
“Herron, sir,” I replied. “Red Herron.”
As the policeman dug through his stack of reports, I took the opportunity to take his measure. He wore Sergeant stripes on his sleeve and his bronze nameplate was inscribed “Peters.”
“Ahh — here it is,” he said as he pulled a report from the stack of papers beside him. “Herron, Lawrence Michael aka ‘Red’ Herron. You are early.”
“I didn’t realize I was on a schedule,” I replied.
“No problem,” he replied. “Sometimes the computers and the reports are a bit delayed. Busy day today.”
As Peters puttered with papers and clacked on his computer, I glanced through the gate beyond him. Behind it was a large rather crowded plaza. The buildings and the paving stones all appeared to be various shades of white marble — Greco-Roman in design but for a scattering of classical Muslim, Oriental, Spanish and Hindu motifs. What looked like shops lined the perimeter of the plaza, every window emanating a soft golden glow as though the entire facility was lit by unflickering candles. The glow reflected off of the streets and the other buildings, which lent the entire area a warm and comforting atmosphere.
“Just about done,” Peters said as he purposefully punched the enter key on his keyboard. Three printers began to whirr in unison on a sideboard nearby. He gathered up the items from the printers.
“Alright then, Mr. Herron,” he said, finally looking up at me. “Just sign here.”
He handed me the three items that had had issued from the printers. The first appeared to be something like a passport, the second was a laminated name tag with a neck string and the third was a plastic credit-card type of thingy.
“Please keep these with you at all times,” he said with a smile. “The booklet is your official I.D. Please present it if requested. The name tag is your ‘quick pass.’ If you wear it easily visible, you will be less likely to asked for your full I.D. This plastic card will allow you to obtain whatever you might need by way of nourishment, clothing, lodging, etc. There is no ‘limit’ on it — unless you get greedy. Then — well — that is a whole different story. A story you do not want to become involved in.”
“Okay,” I said as I signed the form he had placed on the desk.
“For the moment,” said Peters, “you are restricted to the central plaza. I think you will find it pleasant enough. Someone else will come find you shortly and direct you to another location. Be patient. Word of advice — two blocks up on the left side of the square are the baths and the tailor. You might visit them first. You smell a bit — funky.”
“No sweat,” I said with a slight twinkle in my eye. “It has been a long day.”
Peters reached beneath his desk. A buzzer buzzed and the gate opened beyond. “Go on in,” Peters said, turning his eyes back to the stack of papers on his desk.
As I walked through the gate I heard his bored voice call out “Next! Next, please.”
As the gate closed behind me I stood for a moment — trying to get my bearings. The plaza was — a plaza. A square surrounded by a square with a great fountain at the center. At midpoint of each perimeter side was another gate leading — somewhere. As I stood somewhat bewildered, I felt something rub against my ankle. Looking down, I espied The Cat –- massaging itself and purring against my leg.
“Hello, little one,” I said, feeling somewhat conspicuous for talking to a cat in public. “What are you doing here?”
The cat nudged me toward the left side of the square, ran ahead a few paces, and then stared back at me as if to say “So — are you coming along or what?”
What the hell. I followed the cat. I didn’t have any better clue as to where I was going.
She (I don’t really know if the cat was a “she” — didn’t look that closely — I assumed she was a she by demeanor) was not all that remarkable. She was a just a little gray tabby with brown highlights and a white star on her forehead. Thinnish and lithe, she was just your all-purpose standard issue cat of a cat. She continued her run ahead and then looked back and waited as I wandered aimlessly taking in the glowing square. From time to time, announcements would be made from — somewhere. Three quiet chimes followed by “Arthur Pendleton, please meet your party at the west side of the fountain,” or “Angela Barnes, please meet your party at the east side of the fountain.” Stuff like that.
The cat stopped in front of a large building just ahead of me, looked back and meowed authoritatively. When I caught up with her I noticed a large engraving atop the stone portico at the front. It read, quite simply, “Baths.”
“Can’t say much for their branding,” I murmured to myself. “But at least I know where I am.”
The cat sat there licking herself; purring and raising her left front paw in a classic “kitty rampant” position.
Peters’ “funky” comment had made me a bit self-conscious, so I bumbled my way into the building. A handsome young woman sitting at a counter glanced up and stared straight at my chest. It made me somewhat uncomfortable, her staring that way.
“Ahhh, Mr. Herron,” she said. “Welcome. We were expecting you.”
Looking downward at my own chest, I noted the focal point of her stare. She wasn’t staring at my chest. She was reading my name tag. I moved up to the counter and she wrinkled her nose as she tapped on a computer keyboard.
“Yes,” she said, “it is good that you stopped here first. May I have your access card?”
Somewhat confused, I handed her the plastic credit-card thingy and she swiped it through a slot on the counter. A split second later, her computer chirped. She glanced at the monitor, smiled, and handed the card back to me.
“Thank you,” she said as she handed the card back to me. She gathered up a small stack of things that included a large towel, a white Egyptian flannel kaftan (both neatly folded and warm to the touch), a pair of soft sandals and a small basket of lotions, soap and shampoo.
“Room 23B, please,” she instructed. “Center hallway, about half way down. Leave your clothing by the door. Someone will be by to collect it. The robe and sandals are yours to keep. After your bath, you may wear them out or you can be fitted with a suit and shoes at the tailor next door. No one particularly cares which, really. Either way, they are yours to keep.”
“I would kind of prefer a suit,” I said. “It is what I am accustomed to.”
“Fine,” she replied. “I will notify the tailor to expect you. Do you have a color preference?”
“Gray,” I replied. “Charcoal gray — maybe with a thin navy pinstripe? White isn’t exactly my color.”
“The cat will have to stay out here. If you require assistance, there is a bell cord within easy reach next to the bath.”
The cat curled up on the counter next to the girl and continued her ablutions. The girl reached over and petted the cat gently. I made my way down the long hallway and found 23B. It was a pleasant tiled room, warm and slightly steamy with a low counter / bench all the way around — but for a gap wide enough to accommodate the door. At the far wall was a spacious bathtub filled with warm water. I set the basket by the tub, towel and kaftan nearby and doffed my clothes in a heap on the bench beside the door. The clothes did appear disheveled and dirty and, when I had undressed, I did notice an odor about myself that would properly be described as “funky” — at best.
I felt the temperature of the water and it was perfect. Just the way I like it, hot but not too hot. In the little basket I found a capacious washcloth and a bottle marked “Bath Oil – Frankincense & Myrrh.” I opened the bottle, poured it into the water, and the room filled with a pleasing, slightly sweet but “woody” aroma. The water became an orange-brown color like saffron. I eased myself into the tub and relaxed with a great sigh. I washed my hair with the small bottle of shampoo. More scent of the exotic spices wafted into the room. Soon I drifted off into a delightful state of torpor, interrupted after a time by a rapping on the door and a pleasant young man’s voice saying “Mr. Herron? I am here to collect your old clothing. Is this a convenient time?”
“Sure,” I replied without opening my eyes. “Why not.” I settled back into my delightful stupor as the young man came in and then went about his tasks.
Eventually, feeling satisfied and slightly wrinkly, I extracted myself from the tub, donned my robe and sandals, outfitted my “passport,” name tag and “access card” and made my way back down the hall.
When I reached the foyer, I noticed a line had formed at the counter. The young woman glanced in my direction and cheerily said “Mr. Herron. I hope your experience was pleasant. Tailor is just next door to the left. They are awaiting you.”
The cat jumped from the counter and joined me as the young woman continued tapping her keyboard, swiping cards and efficiently handing out stacks and baskets.
The tailor shop was pleasant but unremarkable. The suit they had made for me looked a lot like my old one — except that it fit better than the old “off-the-rack,” wasn’t as shiny and threadbare and didn’t smell funky. They also decked me in a new shirt, tie, belt, socks and boots and gave me a cloth shoulder bag for my kaftan and sandals. I wasn’t really comfortable with the girly shoulder bag, but I wore it anyway. When in Rome, eh?
“Food is available just up the block,” the tailor said as he sent us on our way.
“Just use your access card.”
Cat and I made our way up the street past a plethora of cafes and restaurants offering food and drink from every corner of the world. We glanced into several, but I wasn’t hungry. We did not stop at any. Cat did her usual deal; running ahead, looking back, meowing impatiently and switching her tail until I caught up.
Three soft chimes rang out from the unseen public address and the soft voice intoned “Herron? Mr. Red Herron. Please meet your party at the north side of the fountain.”
I didn’t know what party I might be expecting, but I made my to the north side of the square. It was filled with the delicious aroma from a vendor’s cart roasting chestnuts. I stopped and got a bunch — delivered in a crepe cone and lightly washed with a drizzle of Grand Marnier. Cat and I sat on a bench as I idly nibbled chestnuts and the cone.
Eventually, a uniformed man with a clipboard came by calling out “Herron? Mr. Red Herron?”
I acknowledged and he came up to me and sat beside me on the bench. He reached his hand to mine and introduced himself. “Lieutenant Michaels. Pleased to meet you.”
With barely a pause, Michaels continued, “We have reviewed your record. It was spotty at times, but you have access to the north sector of city. The boss made the final decision. Sorry for the delay. It required some discussion.”
“Okay,” I replied. “So what does that mean?” I popped the last chestnut into my mouth, chewed mindfully and somewhat skeptically.
“Well,” Michaels replied, “the north side is probably the best side. Closest to the boss. Just one thing — the cat will have to stay here.”
I finished off my crepe cone, looked at the cat and then back at Michaels.
“And what if I will not leave the cat?”
“You will both have to stay here.”
I thought for a moment and licked the last traces of Grand Marnier off of my fingers. The cat sat purring beside me.
“This is good enough,” I said. “The cat and I will stay here.”
“Right answer!” said Michaels with a beaming smile. “Come along, please.”
We three walked to the north gate. Michaels swiped his access card along a slot by the gate. The gate opened and we all stepped through.
Just as we entered the gate, a breeze blew up and the cat was obscured in a swirl of dust. The cloud of dust grew upward like smoke and suddenly I thought I saw an occluded image of Charon. Then the dusty smoke subsided.
Before me stood Angela, tall and lithe with her streaming red hair -– and just that little bit of tummy that I remembered so well. My dearest Angela whom I had buried ten years previously and ever since mourned.
“Welcome to heaven,” Michaels said as he flipped through the papers on his clipboard.
Angela gazed into my eyes and said “It’s about damned time.”