Just below the threshold of consciousness, there were voices. It was hard to judge how many. Perhaps a multitude? Perhaps not? Certainly there was more than one. One voice does not murmur or babble nearly so effectively.
“Shhh, I think she’s awake.”
“How can you tell?”
“I sense consciousness stirring. How do you normally sense that someone is awake?”
“No, that’s not what I meant. I can obviously tell that it’s conscious.”
“Well, if that’s not what you meant, then I have no idea how to adequately answer your question. You and I need to have a long discussion about linguistic precision in relation to context.” There was definite exasperation in that statement, as well as a hint of uncertainty. “Just out of curiosity, if what I thought you meant was not your intended meaning, what was it that you meant in the first place?”
An exasperated sigh. “I meant, how can you tell that it’s a she? Doesn’t look like any kind of woman that I’ve seen before. Seriously, you look more like a woman than it does.”
“I am a woman.”
“So you keep claiming. For my part, I’ve seen no evidence of it in the entire time I’ve known you, and we’ve known each other for longer than I can remember.”
“But,” objected the voice making claims to womanhood, “I have breasts.”
“How could I possibly know that? I’ve never seen them.”
“It’s not like I go about with them exposed, but there are clear bumps underneath my robes at the location where breasts hang out.”
“Yes. How could you not notice that?”
“Possibly,” mused a skeptical voice, “It has something to do with fact that the bumps you claim you have are covered by a very long, almost masculine, beard.”
“That’s sexist. Anyway, the beard is fake. As you know, I wear it for reasons of tradition.”
“I know no such thing.”
“You do. I told you just last week. In fact, I’ve told you as much countless times over our excessively long acquaintance.”
“Have you? Perhaps, if you allowed me to tug on it….” There was a loud slap.
The sound of the slap, and stream of curses that followed it, brought Mamma Universe to full consciousness. She lay, as far as she could tell, in a hammock. As her eyes came into focus, she could make out the boughs of a large tree, its canopy spread out across her field of vision. It swayed slightly, which caused its leaves to make very pleasing rustling sounds. Two bearded faces peered down at her. Both looked concerned, and one had a slight pinkish tint visible on its left side where facial hair became skin. “What happened? Where am I? Who are you two?”
“See,” said the beard with the pink face, “I’m not the only one who doesn’t know how to ask a question properly.”
The face without any pink in it ignored its companion’s statement. “Just take a few moments. I’m sure you’ve had quite a shock. We’ll answer all of your questions directly. Here let me help you out of that hammock. I find that they can be difficult to get out of, even if I haven’t been unconscious for some time.”
Mamma Universe allowed herself to be gently wrestled from where she had lain. Even with the aid of the bearded woman, it took some effort. She was definitely weak, with a touch of disorientation that produced slight motion sickness as she struggled to a seated position.
“There now,” said the feminine beard. “Just sit for a second, and then we’ll take you across to the garden terrace for a nice cup of tea. Perhaps a biscuit, too. Or do you prefer pastries? I’m more of your pastry woman, myself.”
Mamma Universe mumbled that tea sounded like a nice idea, although she’d happily forego anything food related if it was all the same. She wasn’t sure that she could stomach any solids.
“As you like.” Said the bearded woman. “You don’t mind if I have some pastries, though? I’m feeling a little peckish. I could really go for something with custard in it.”
Mamma Universe admitted she had no strong opinions on whether or not pastries were eaten in her presence, and her companions should feel free to do as they pleased food-wise.
“Ah, very good. Kind of you to be so understanding. Especially after what you’ve been through.”
“What have I been through?” For the life of her, Mamma Universe found that she had no clear recollections of anything previous to her waking up in a hammock, under a tree. There were some confused images adrift in her mind – a gun, an absence of rain, some angry hermaphrodite, and a…. Was it a bright purple light?
“Let’s deal with all of that on the terrace. It’ll be much nicer for you. It has long been my view that receiving answers while perched on the edge of a hammock is not as optimal as you’d think.”
“Okay,” said Mamma Universe. After all, that did seem reasonable. “But, could you at least tell me your names? I’d prefer not to keep thinking of you two as beard-woman and….” She paused. What had she been calling the other one in her mind. Oh yes, “slap-face.”
“Hahahahaha, slap face. That’s brilliant.” Beard-woman produced a notebook and pen from inside her robes, and jotted the name down. She’d definitely use that one again later.
Slap face, for his part, looked nonplussed. “My name,” he said, in an attempt to move the conversation away from unwanted nicknames, “Is Ajax. My other bearded colleague, who claims to be a woman, is Persephone.” There was a brief silence before Ajax added, “I think Phillip would suit he/she more, though.”
“Shut up slap face.” Persephone shot Ajax a razorblade glare. “I think it’s time you ran along and sorted out that tea.”
“I don’t see why I should have to get the tea,” Ajax protested. “Why don’t you do it? It was your idea.”
“You want another slap?”
Ajax was sure that he didn’t. Not that he wanted to get the tea, either. But all things being equal, brewing tea was likely to be less painful. He scowled, and headed off in a cloud of bad-tempered mutters.
“Don’t forget the pastries,” Persephone called after him. “You know the ones I like.” She turned back to Mamma Universe. “You feel up to a walk? The terrace isn’t very far away, just through the rose garden over there.”
Mamma Universe admitted that she still felt a bit shaky, but would be happy enough to have a go at walking to the terrace.
“Are you sure? I think we have a wheelchair floating around somewhere, if you’d like. I don’t know why we have one, but we do. Possibly The Gardner – that’s what she calls herself, anyway – thought it might make a nice ornament. I would have thought a water feature more appropriate, but The Gardener is delightfully eccentric that way.”
“No thank you,” Mamma Universe assured, “a walk would do me some good.” Well, she hoped it would do her some good. She’d never tried to produce good from a walk before, although she had heard claims about the general goodness of walks at one time or another.
“As you like,” said Persephone, as she helped Mamma Universe to her feet. “Just sing out if you change your mind about the chair, though. It’d be no problem to go and fetch it.”
The walk, much to Mamma Universe’s amazement, did produce some good. It didn’t make her feel less confused, or any stronger, yet there was something soothing in it. It wasn’t the movement itself that soothed, it was more the setting in which the movement took place that produced the effect. The light had a strange, almost surreal quality to it. It was as if the day was trying to be both early morning and late afternoon at the same time. A light breeze – warm, but not sweat producing – caressed her skin, and tousled Persephone’s faux-beard. It carried mixture of smells, all reminiscent of an early summer: freshly cut grass, a heady mix of flowery aromas, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. A menagerie of exotic creatures – terrestrial and avian – fossicked and flitted in playful movements through an impressively landscaped parkland. Those creatures in particular filled her with an unexplainable calm. She didn’t know why, but it was like she was again seeing friends that had long since been lost and given up on.
There were other people there, too. At least, Mamma Universe thought of them as people, even though they were a mixture of sentient species from all over the universe. Some walked in groups. Some in couples. Still others strolled solitary, pausing to admire an impressive tree, a really cool looking flower bed, or a colorful fish as it jumped from a water feature in defiance of gravity. Some, so it seemed, she thought she recognized, but couldn’t quite place where she had met them before.
They entered the rose garden through an opening in a large, densely foliated hedge. And if the parkland they had just left had been impressive, the rose garden was astounding. There was an explosive mixture of various colors; colors that should really clash, yet somehow didn’t. Instead they blended, complimented, and excited. The air was heavy with the perfume of a thousand healthy blooms, and the space – quartered by perfectly raked gravel paths – basked and saturated itself in the purest sunlight. Persephone led Mamma Universe down the garden’s central access towards the far end, where it seamlessly became the terrace.
The terrace itself, composed of smoothed flagstones, overlooked a lakeshore and the lake beyond it. Dotted over its even surface were a multitude of wrought iron tables and chairs, each with their own unique patterned umbrellas blossoming from their centers.
“Oh, how lovely,” Mamma Universe breathed.
“Isn’t it, though,” agreed Persephone. “I think you’d be hard pressed to find anything like it pretty much anywhere else. Look there’s Ajax. He got here fast. He better have made that tea properly. He’s famous for never letting it steep properly. Most of our friends like to call him Ajax-Of -The-Anemic -Tea, as a consequence. Come, let’s join him.”
Happily, the tea was perfect, and after a few sips Mamma Universe began to feel more settled. “So, you said you’d answer my questions?”
“Are you sure you don’t want one of these pastries?” Persephone brushed some errant crumbs from her beard, and reached for another tasty, custard-filled treat. “They’re quite delicious. Even if the tea is substandard.”
“There is nothing wrong with the tea,” Ajax said affronted. “I even warmed the pot first this time. Am I right, Mamma Universe? You tell him/her, this tea is fully delicious.”
“Yes, yes,” Mamma Universe replied, starting to feel a bit vexed that no one would answer her questions, “this is very good tea.” But wait, Ajax had used her name. She couldn’t remember giving her name to either of them. “You know who I am?”
“Oh yes,” answered Persephone, through a mouthful of custard and pastry goo. “Everyone here knows who you are. Was that the question you wanted answered? I must say, that one was a lot less trouble to deal with than the ones I thought you’d be asking.”
“No, I have more questions.” Mamma Universe took a deep breath, the calm of the parkland was beginning to fade. “First, I’d like to know how I got here.”
“Easy,” said Ajax, making a close study of his tea, just to be sure he was right about its deliciousness. “You just sort of appeared. Which is pretty much how everyone gets here.” He looked up from his china cup, and noticed that Mamma Universe did not seem overly satisfied with his explanation. “Okay. Let me ask you a question. What’s the last thing you remember?”
“A bright purple light, I think.”
“And before that?”
It was still hazy, but slowly came into focus. “I think, no I’m sure, I was shot.” The realization became solid in her mind. “What the fuck! That hermaphrodite bastard actually shot me.”
“See,” Ajax responded, as if that would be a good answer. “You were shot. That’s how you got here.”
“But I don’t understand. Where exactly is here?”
Ajax and Persephone looked at each other uncomfortably. A silent battle of wills was underway. Neither of them really wanted to deal with this bit. It could be quite uncomfortable. In the end, Persephone lost. Reluctantly, she swallowed what she was chewing, and leaned towards Mamma Universe across the table. “Look, there’s no easy way to say this.”
“Perhaps if I put it this way, it might be a little easier. You have perhaps heard of a race of great Historian-Philosophers?”
“Yes, but I’m not sure how that’s relevant.”
“We’ll get to that,” Persephone gave her beard a ponderous, and she hoped, authoritative stroke. “It’s like this, Ajax and I are of that race of Historian-Philosophers. We are, in point of fact, Historian-Philosophers.“
Mamma Universe snorted disbelief. “Nice one. Who are you really?”
Two bearded faces lokked back at Mamma Universe seriously.
“What? Really? But that race is long since extinct. How is it possible that you two are part of it? Well… unless….” This was uncomfortable. “Unless I’m….”
“Dead,” Ajax finished. “Which, of course, you are. Quite dead. As dead as something can be, in fact.”
This was quite the revelation. “So this place is the afterlife? The one that not even I’ve ever been able to see? I mean, the afterlife that life goes to once it’s properly dead?”
“It’s an afterlife,” Persephone clarified. “There’s more than one. This one is only for all the life that’s gone extinct. Sure, all beings end up here eventually, but only after their light has fully gone out of the universe.”
Mamma Universe was having some trouble processing this news.
“You’re here, in this specific place beyond the vale, because you were the only example of your species to ever have existed. So you see? You aren’t just dead, you are also extinct.“
“And,” added Persephone, in an attempt to helpfully labor the point, “you can’t get much deader than that.”
END OF PART NINE