Plugs

A harsh wind buffeted him as he emerged from the hut, a squat, stone structure without windows. All around him the wasteland stretched, black rock in sharp ridges pocked with sulfurous pits that steamed and smoked, stretching into the distance, mile after desolate mile. The sun, barely risen, glowered red through the haze.

He set down a clanking leather satchel of tools and set off across the rocks with a pair of old wooden buckets. These he carried across the wasteland for most of an hour to a pit where he filled both with steaming tar. Then he carried them laboriously back to the hut.

At the hut he used worn tools to scrape out sections of the walls that were crumbling and refill them with carefully-fitted stones chipped from a nearby outcropping. Wth brushes long congealed stiff, he plastered tar over new stonework and cracks. He worked methodically, scrutinizing every square inch.

The work went slowly. Twice more he trekked out to the tar pit and hauled back his buckets, heavy and steaming. By the time he was finished, the sun was beginning to set. He was exhausted, dusty, aching with cold, and smeared all over with tar, but the hut was as perfect as he could make it and wouldn’t need his attention again for a month or so. Gratefully, he gathered his tools, lifted his buckets, pried open the door, and ducked back inside.

The interior was larger. A startled shriek of “Daddy!” frightened gem-colored birds out of the bushes. His wife and three children ran to him along the riverbank, made colorful by the purple and orange and golden sunset over the distant hills. The children had been picking fruit, and from over a fire nearby he smelled some kind of forest bird roasting.

His daughter and young sons threw their arms around him when they reached him, ignoring his commands not to get themselves dirty. His wife leaned over them and kissed him on the lips. “How is it?” she said.

“Still pretty solid,” he murmured to her. “It will last for some time yet, I think.” Then he reached down to hug the children, but they were already chasing each other through the trees in some new game.

(A sequel to “And Then a Curious Thing Happened“)
“Your wife? But God, man,” said Ruggs, “What I want to know is where you got a second head!”
“Oh, this? I don’t remember where I got that,” said Albert Hedeby.
The second head stirred. It was not ruddy or full-cheeked, like Albert Hedeby’s first head, and it didn’t have his brick-red beard. It was thin, and parched-looking, and nearly bald, with only a few white wisps across its pate. It opened its watery, gray eyes and turned to look at the first head, which had become overcome by drowsiness. When the second head stretched its neck and looked at Ruggs, the first closed its eyes entirely and dropped, snoring, onto Hedeby’s chest.
“Ah, but I remember,” said the second head in a voice that was little more than a whisper.
“Dear God,” said Ruggs. “You can talk.”
“I could always talk,” the head said. “What my esteemed colleague failed to mention–” he spoke certain bitterness, “–was that the hospital where he was nursed back to health was not, shall we say, strictly traditional. No, in fact they did a great deal of experimentation there, and at the time they were regrowing limbs.”
“Impossible! And Hedeby hasn’t lost any limbs!” protested Ruggs.
“You mean, he isn’t missing any limbs,” said the head. “He most certainly lost one, his left arm, to a surgeon’s saw. You see that it is a bit larger, a bit more robust than the right? They were successful with Hedeby, even if they weren’t with some of their earlier cases.”
“But that’s unconscionable!”
The head smiled thinly. “I rather thought so myself.”
“And after they regrew the arm, they thought they’d experiment with heads, and … ?”
“Oh, no,” said the second head. “It was just that the regrowing of limbs can have certain unfortunate side effects. But then, two heads are better than one, they say.”
“But if it was then that you grew, then how can you–well, for the love of heaven, you seem to be very nearly a different person than Hedeby! And in the weeks I’ve known Hedeby, I had always assumed you were completely insensible! Where did you come from?”
“From Edwin and Mathilda Hedeby,” the head replied. “I am, of course, the original head.”
The healthy head snored peacefully, and as Ruggs watched, the sickly one turned and regarded it with a kind of brotherly hate.

Scott had been torn away in the middle of a kiss with his girlfriend, Lara, and he had been thrown about twenty feet off the ground, spread-eagled as though in mid-skydive. The pillar of light that had come down from the sky had smashed into the pavement with a warped rainbow of raw force that made the air shudder with its ferocity. Shattered glass from shop windows had been blown into the air in fragment clouds that shimmered in the brilliant glare of the blast, creating an illusion, for just that moment, that the whole world had stars in it, that everything could step free of the bonds of gravity, that everything was beautiful. This was the top of things, the most glorious thing Scott had ever experienced, with the thrill of the adrenaline already streaming into his blood and the hammer of cortisol not yet mauling his anxiety levels to the hysterical peak they would reach in the following ninety seconds.

Before he plummeted back down to crash into an upended Volkswagen; before his face was burned and permanently disfigured; before Scott’s panicked and painful flight from the rainbow-trailing attack ships that dropped down into the city like hungry pterosaurs, there was this perfect moment, this moment of wonder and beauty, completely mystifying to an unprepared human population.

In some ways, Scott thought, however horrible everything was that came after, didn’t that one startling moment make it all worthwhile?

No, it didn’t, he decided. Now, weeks later, he lined up the bug-like alien guard he’d been stalking in the targeting window of his stolen alien fusion rifle and fired.

Good morning! At least, it is morning where I am. We begin. In last week’s lesson we learned that the space-time continuum is shaped like a pretzel, and that we are merely the salty bits. This week we shall consider the secret of reincarnation.

It isn’t a secret. Indeed, it’s pretty banal; and, like all my other lessons, you can learn it right where you are.

So where are you? Are you in this present earthly life: avoiding working, perhaps; or hoping your baby won’t wake before you finish today’s lesson; or in a café, trying to remember why you ordered green tea and a pretzel; or in the catacombs, reading this in a text message sent by one of your fellow revolutionaries?

Or are you in the afterlife: reading this in the demon-infested examination room for souls that is the Bardo; or hearing this on the breeze as you sit under an apple tree in the Summer Country; or chancing on this in Hell, for I believe—correct me if I am wrong—that Hell has Internet access these days, though very slow; or in a lecture hall on Purgatory Mount; or listening to shabti-servant read this aloud in the Duat as you help Amen-Ra dress for dinner?

In all these places the secret is close at hand. For the secret, my dear students, is:—boredom.

Yes, boredom! For when the day comes that you are sick of apples in the Summer Country, or tired of Amen-Ra’s diva hissy fits, or you decide you’re not going to let one more demon roast your privates, on that day you will start searching for the backdoor to the afterlife. You will find it. You will step through that door and go into a womb.

So. If you are in this present earthly life, where you occasionally order the wrong thing, the chances are that you have a soul that thirsts to know more than the taste of paradise or the suffering of hell—a soul that is easily bored.

All the souls around you long for more, too.

So chew on that along with your apple or your Purga-Pretzel (I understand that in Purgatory, all pretzels are rubbery). Let me know what you think, for I too am longing. Thank you for the honor of teaching you, and I hope to see you next week.

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