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Introduction

 The Upanishads

The Upanishads are a collection of texts that contain some of the central philosophical concepts of Hinduism, some of which are shared with Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The Upanishads are considered by Hindus to contain utterances concerning the nature of ultimate reality (Brahman) and describing the character of and path to human salvation.

The Upanishads are commonly referred to as Vedanta, variously interpreted to mean either the “last chapters, parts of the Veda” or “the object, the highest purpose of the Veda.” The concepts of Brahman (Ultimate Reality) and Atman (Soul, Self) are central ideas in all the Upanishads, and "Know your Atman” their thematic focus.

The Upanishads are the foundation of Hindu philosophical thought and its diverse traditions. Of the Vedic corpus, they alone are widely known, and the central ideas of the Upanishads are at the spiritual core of Hindus.

More than 200 Upanishads are known, of which the first dozen or so are the oldest and most important and are referred to as the principal or main Upanishads. The mukhya Upanishads are found mostly in the concluding part of the Brahmanas and Aranyakas and were, for centuries, memorized by each generation and passed down orally. The early Upanishads all predate the Common Era, five of them in all likelihood pre-Buddhist (6th century BCE), down to the Maurya period. Of the remainder, some 95 Upanishads are part of the Muktika canon, composed from about the last centuries of 1st-millennium BCE through about 15th-century CE. New Upanishads, beyond the 108 in the Muktika canon, continued to be composed through the early modern and modern era, though often dealing with subjects which are unconnected to the Vedas.

Along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahmasutra, the mukhya Upanishads (known collectively as the Prasthanatrayi) provide a foundation for the several later schools of Vedanta.

With the translation of the Upanishads in the early 19th century they also started to attract attention from a western audience. Arthur Schopenhauer was deeply impressed by the Upanishads and called them “the production of the highest human wisdom.” Modern era Indologists have discussed the similarities between the fundamental concepts in the Upanishads and major western philosophers.

(Source: Wikipedia)

 The Katha Upanishad

The Katha Upanishad is one of the mukhya (primary) Upanishads, embedded in the last short eight sections of the Kaha school of the Yajurveda. It is also known as Kathaka Upanishad, and is listed as number 3 in the Muktika canon of 108 Upanishads.

The Katha Upanishad consists of two chapters, each divided into three sections. The first chapter is considered to be of older origin than the second. The Upanishad is the legendary story of a little boy, Nachiketa— the son of sage Vajasravasa, who meets Yama (the Indian deity of death). Their conversation evolves to a discussion of the nature of man, knowledge, Atman (Soul, Self) and moksha (liberation).

The chronology of Katha Upanishad is unclear and contested, with Buddhism scholars stating it was likely composed after the early Buddhist texts (fifth century BCE), and Hinduism scholars stating it was likely composed before the early Buddhist texts in the first part of the 1st millennium BCE.

The Katha Upanishad is among the most well-known and widely studied.

(Source: Wikipedia)

 Yama

Yama, also called Imra, is a god of death, the south direction and the underworld, belonging to an early stratum of Rigvedic Hindu deities. In Sanskrit, his name can be interpreted to mean “twin.” In the Zend-Avesta of Zoroastrianism, he is called "Yima.” According to the Vishnu Purana, his parents are the sun-god Surya and Sanjna, the daughter of Vishvakarman.

Yama is the brother of Sraddhadeva Manu and of his older sister Yami, which Horace Hayman Wilson indicates to mean the Yamuna. According to Harivamsa Purana her name is Daya.

In the Vedas, Yama is said to have been the first mortal who died. By virtue of precedence, he became the ruler of the departed, and is called Lord of ancestral spirits.

(Source: Wikipedia)

 Yama’s Visitor

Naturally, the Katha Upanishad is set in ancient India. But what if it were set in today’s America? That is the premise of this novel.

The structure of the story novel follows the progression of the Katha Upanishad itself (as translated by Eknath Easwaran), beginning by quoting the first stanza of the Upanishad (italics), then proceeding to explore and interpret that quote in a current, American setting. Followed, then, by the next quote from the Upanishad and its current interpretation and dramatization—and so on, through the entire Katha Upanishad.

And this, for better or for worse, is the result.

 

::

Once, long ago, Vajasravasa gave away his possessions to gain religious merit.

 

Arthur Thelonious Sherry of 46 Rexford Circle, Birchdale, Maine, was doing tax battle again. That is to say, not he personally but by way of Waynemore Bland, his accountant of many years: a 43-year-old man who still lived at home with his mother, and who had lost none of his hair and made a point of wearing it long to prove it.

Arthur Sherry, who was losing his (no doubt about that) and wore it cropped to hide, or at best obscure, that fact, now sat in Bland’s deep visitor’s armchair and chewed his bottom lip, which made him look a bit like smiling, which he was not.

Not at all. Arthur was not happy. Not happy to be sitting in Bland’s office, for one. Bland should have had the foresight to arrange to come to him—even if the filing deadline was tomorrow, and Bland’s schedule was full. Instead he had gotten a lame “Sorry Art, can’t get away.”

And not at all happy that he still showed a profit. Too damn much of it. He looked across a yellow sea of lined paper at his accountant looking back at him. Way too much.

And lastly, not at all happy that he had had to bring Sebastian. So, unhappy all around, pretty much.

He stopped chewing his lip long enough to say, “So, it’s either the IRS or the charity of my choice. Is that what you’re saying, Wayne?”

“In a nutshell, yes.”

“And you didn’t see this coming?”

“I did see it coming. You saw it coming. We discussed it more than once.”

Arthur Sherry chose to ignore that.

“What is the damage, precisely?”

Bland ruffled through a sheaf of his lined yellow sheets, all covered with penciled calculations, rows and rows of them. He found what he was looking for. “Not less than half a million. Five fourteen, give or take the odd dollar.”

Arthur Sherry, on the pudgy side—liked food, hated exercise—shifted in his chair, which protested a little in return. Then he sighed, more for effect perhaps than from despair, leaned back and looked the accountant square in the face. “Half a million,” he repeated, not so much a question as an accusation. “Five hundred fourteen thousand dollars? That’s what you’re telling me?”

“Yes,” said Bland.

“Give or take the odd dollar?”

“The odd one, yes.”

“To charity?”

“Yes.”

“Or the IRS gets it?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I’ll be damned.”

“Yes.”

“The penalty of success,” he said, and shot a glance along with an unhappy smile his son’s way. “Take heed son, a valuable lesson: no success shall go unpunished.”

Sebastian looked at his father, but said nothing.

“Looks that way,” said Bland, and Sherry swung his head back in his direction.

Any recommendations?”

“Well,” said Bland. “All things considered, including the Public Relations angle, the world being what it is, I would suggest the Red Cross.”

“Or Green Peace,” said Sherry.

“Green Peace?” Bland looked slightly horrified.

“Joke, Wayne. That was a joke.”

“Ah.” Bland looked at his desk. Found a couple of pencils out of position. Moved them around to some other out of position.

“Remind me,” said Sherry. “How did we get around this problem last year?”

“We channeled the excess profits into a research trust.” Bland plucked the name from memory with ease, “The Sherry Geological Exploration Society.”

“Oh, yes. The Geological Exploration Society. The Sherry Geological Exploration Society.” He shot his son another glance, and another thin smile, inviting admiration. Hoping, at least on some level, that Sebastian was impressed. Then what the hell, he was only a kid, for crying out loud. He looked beyond Sebastian and out the window at a gray sky. Low handing clouds, would rain soon. Shifted again in his chair, could not get quite comfortable in his a little too tight suit and one size too small a shirt. The chair creaked another muffled protest.

His attention returned to the accountant. “So, let’s do the same this year.”

“Well,” Bland flipped back through his pages and pages. Then chose another pile, flipped through them. Found what he was looking for. “We’ve already done that.” And began reading from his notes, “Six hundred fifty thousand to the Sherry Geological, four hundred thousand to Inland Historical, and two hundred eighty-six thousand five hundred twelve, to be exact, to Southern Biological Survey.”

“And?”

“And we have exhausted existing tax law.”

“And we still?”

“And yes, we still.” Bland smiled, then sighed. Also for show, perhaps. “It is as you said, no success shall go unpunished.” A well-manicured accountant’s hand patted the many piles of paper on his desk. “And this proves it.” His patting disturbed one of his rogue No. 2 pencils which took to rolling then dived off the desk and onto the floor to his left. It did not make a sound as it hit the thick carpet.

Bland stopped patting and neatly bent over to pick it up. He put it back among its mates. Then ran this right hand through his long hair to coax it back into well-gelled place.

“Ah, what the hell,” said Sherry. “You’re right. Let’s go with the Red Cross. A good deed. And, as you said, PR mileage as well. And who knows,” he added, not quite as an afterthought, “if indeed there is a Heaven, it should be plenty enough to cover the admission-fee.”

He said this last in jest. Well, it was certainly meant to appear so, but his words brought a little more meaning along than he had intended. Once the words were said and on their way he realized they were in fact quite true, he meant them. And meant them not only as insurance, but as, as—he could not find, could not admit, perhaps, the feeling—as hope.

If the accountant noticed this, he did not let on. Instead he smiled at the quip. A quick polite smile while he again swept his hair back with his hand, a comforting if somewhat greasy reminder that he did not look like Sherry—wouldn’t ever, no signs of any, all still in place, none in his comb in the mornings—or he would have to wear his hair cropped as well.

Then he picked up one of his No. 2s, checked the tip for sharpness, made a note, looked up at Sherry and said, “Shall I make out a check then? To the Red Cross?”

“Yes,” said Sherry, and shifted again, getting ready to rise. “You do that.”

He heaved himself onto his feet. The chair sighed a muffled relief.

 

He had a son named Nachiketa who, though only a boy, was full of faith in the scriptures. Nachiketa thought when the offerings were made: “What merit can one obtain by giving away cows that are too old to give milk?”

 

It was not by choice that Arthur Sherry had brought his son Sebastian along to his meeting with the accountant. No, far from it. Business was business and any business was serious business, and since Sebastian was not yet old enough to partake, he would therefore, by definition, be in the way. Extraneous was as good word for it. Besides, and this did irk him, it would not even have been an issue, should not have been an issue, had Bland been able to come to his office, as he normally did. Accountants, he muttered, not quite audibly, at least those who plan their schedules properly, come to the Mountain, not the other way around.

And while we’re on the subject of accountants, why does he not just drop his other clients, can’t be that many, and move into the Sherry Building, where he belongs. Well, don’t get him started.

I cannot bring him, it’s a tax conference, surely you understand, honey, he tried. But Mrs. Sherry didn’t understand, had a tennis game, would not give it up—you know I play every Tuesday morning—and would not, absolutely not bring him to the game. Tennis was serious business and since Sebastian was too young to play, at least play well enough, and did not want to be a ball boy, and would never sit still (which was not true, he usually did) he would therefore, by definition, be in the way. Also, with Sebastian around, some important things that needed saying to one’s doubles partner and two opponents could not be said, little pitchers, long ears and all that.

And of course, on this day of all days, the maid had to be out sick. Off nursing some ailment or other, probably fictitious. And to cap it, there was the rule: Ever since the almost pool accident, Mr. and Mrs. Sherry would never, never, ever leave Sebastian home alone.

So, since he could not postpone, the filing deadline was the following day, he was—in a word—had. Cornered. Had to bring him. So he did. Had.

Sebastian, as if to prove his mother wrong, sat silently and mostly unmoving on a high, straight-backed chair against the wall. His jeansed legs and sneakered feet did not reach all the way to the floor, so instead they dangled slowly from the edge of the chair, falling asleep and tingling a little after a while. He shifted on the hard seat, tried to get comfortable. Tried again. He watched and listened, and shifted again. All this as quietly as he could.

He was not really bored, just uncomfortable. And shifted again. He watched his father make different and strange faces and talk and shift as well in Mr. Bland’s light-blue visitor’s armchair. He watched his father’s stomach strain against the tight shirt. He watched Mr. Bland fuss with his long, blond, gelled hair which really should be pulled back into some sort of tail, instead of greased like that, thought Sebastian. He watched his father chew his bottom lip, which made him look like he was smiling a sort of sad, thin smile.

And he watched his father’s thoughts.

For Sebastian had a gift. When he wanted to, and consciously decided to, Sebastian could see and hear other people’s thoughts. You would think that thoughts are invisible, but they are not. Not to the person who thinks them. Nor to the person who, like Sebastian, knows how to look and listen.

No, to those who can see and hear them, thoughts are more like three-dimensional movies that appear like landscapes around the thinker: scenes, small or not so small, with the thinker dead center like the invisible conductor of a thousand, thousand instrument orchestra—constantly changing, fading, rising, shifting, moving, telling.

Three-dimensional movies with sound and smell and feelings sprinkled in. Sometimes Sebastian saw and heard people’s thoughts better than the people who were thinking them.

At first, he didn’t think much of this, assuming, naturally, that this was normal—an everybody does. He discovered differently one day when he—and his was more like an involuntary knee-jerk answer than anything—denied having taken the last two pieces of chocolate out of the kitchen glass bowl, and his mother did not notice him lying. Instead, she simply looked at him hard, at his as-blank-and-as-innocent-as-possible face, and then smiled and said, all right then. Must have been Daddy. Or the maid.

She had not seen his thoughts, he realized.

He tried it again on another occasion, as a test this time. Twice with his father. And then once with the maid. Nope. They could not. That is when it finally came to him that he was indeed unique. Gifted. Raised. Blessed. Cursed. Aware. One or all of these things.

So, it was clear to Sebastian that although his father said it in jest, or attempted to, he did in fact think of heaven as he joked about the admission fee. And he thought of Saint Peter, old beyond age in a white tunic, standing guard at the Pearly Gates with a bearded and perpetual frown. His saintly frown, at least in his father’s thoughts, was either from mistrust—all kinds would probably try to sneak through—or perhaps from constantly scrutinizing admission tickets. Right now he was squinting and looking closely at his father’s slip of paper, upon which was clearly printed “$514,000.”

Saint Peter, who could probably do with glasses by the looks of it, held the ticket first closer then farther away from his face, then finally made out the amount, and looked impressed. Almost whistled. My, my. He looked from the ticket up at his father’s somewhat anxious face and smiled white and welcoming teeth. Waved the ticket: Not bad. Then he pressed a gilded button to his right which opened the gates of pearl to let his father enter.

His father, relieved now by the looks of it—very, actually—slid up to the gates and waited for them to open wide enough to slink through. Which he did, as soon as he could, just in case Saint Peter would have some sort of change of heart, and as soon as he was through he bolted down the golden road to yonder palace, clearly marked with a blinking neon sign the size of cloud, “Heaven.”

Then Sebastian saw what his father, still busy rushing for the safety of Hotel Heaven, did not: Saint Peter sadly shaking his head and tearing up the ticket he had taken from his father. Bits of heavenly ticket paper fluttering in the air before they simply vanished into sun dust. Then he set out for the real Pearly Gates, those that didn’t accept admission fees and printed tickets with amounts on them, but not before carefully locking the shiny fake ones behind his father’s vanishing figure.

 

To help his father understand this, Nachiketa said: “To whom will you offer me?” He asked this again and again. “To death I give you!” said his father in anger.

 

They did not speak in the elevator down from Bland’s tenth floor office. Sebastian was inspecting the ceiling mirror and wood paneling of the carpeted elevator while Arthur Sherry, blind to these surrounding details, continued to ponder five hundred fourteen thousand dollars that surely could be better spent, but then again, then again, it was a good deed, wasn’t it? A good, charitable, heaven-admissible deed, wasn’t it? He felt, tried to feel, drummed up the feeling of, piety. Strange feeling, but good in a way. Expensive though.

The elevator eased into a smooth stop and doors slid open onto the underground garage. Sherry looked through three pockets and one wallet before he found the parking ticket and offered it to the young man, boy really, who suddenly materialized nearby. The attendant, alert, took it, found the keys, found the car, backed it out, drove it up—way too fast. These monkeys should not be allowed to drive cars like his. He did not tip him, and the attendant retaliated by looking not a little snubbed, offended. Sebastian observing this, slipped him a dollar behind his father’s back. The attendant smiled very white teeth and winked at Sebastian.

 

In the car now. The rain has begun. In earnest. Arthur Sherry is weaving in and out of lanes to get past sluggards, as he calls them, shouldn’t be allowed to drive, should be kept off the road, sent back to wherever, he mutters. Sebastian doesn’t notice though, is not really bothered by the impulsive driving—as he normally would be, a little anyway—for he still ponders what he saw his father think back in Bland’s office, and what Saint Peter had thought of his father’s $514,000 bribe.

Sherry cuts across two lanes and cuts off a trucker (who blasts his fog horn as a thanks) and slides off the freeway at the familiar exit.

Sebastian looks over at his dad, it’s a concerned look. Sherry does not look back, but mutters something about truck drivers. Sebastian’s thoughts return to his father’s encounter with Saint Peter. And in the end—for he really loved his father, and in some matters, despite his age, he was the more mature of the two—he could not help but say, “I think you’d better come up with something better to sneak by Saint Peter.”

“What?” His father, intent now on making out the wet streets through the back and forth of the windshield wipers, quickly looks over at Sebastian, then back out into the rain. He grimaces and does not understand. That’s what his silence tells Sebastian, a silence that lasts for ten or so back and forths of the wipers.

“I don’t think he cared much for the $514,000 bribe,” Sebastian explains.

“Who are you talking about?”

“Saint Peter.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake.”

“No, I don’t think he’ll let you in. You’re going to need a better sacrifice than that.”

This time his father doesn’t answer for so long that Sebastian thinks that maybe the conversation is over, when they suddenly veer right and into a largely empty parking lot. Sebastian moves his face closer to the window and peeks out and up into the rain at the large sign by the entrance. Billions served. McDonalds. Many, many cows. His dad chooses a spot, stops, pulls the emergency brake tight, with a loud, rapid series of angry clicks, looks straight ahead for a few seconds and then turns to face his son. His eyes holds something close to fear, a first cousin perhaps.

“What made you say that, Sebastian?”

“Well, it’s true, isn’t it?”

“How do you know?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. I just do.”

“Well, it’s not, you know. True,” his father lies. “I was just kidding Waynemore. You know that, right?”

“No,” says Sebastian, “I don’t know that. You meant it, all right. And it just isn’t good enough. It’s just money. And money you would lose anyway. That is not a true sacrifice. It’s like offering cows that no longer give milk. Useless. Meaningless.”

His father falls silent, again for a long time. This time, though, he does not take his eyes off his son. “Well, what is, then? A true sacrifice.” he says in the end.

Sebastian is not sure how best to make his father see, and thinks about this for a while. Then he says, “It must be something heartfelt and meaningful.”

His father does not answer, and does not look away.

“Only by sacrificing cherished possessions can you expect merit in return.”

His farther still does not answer, but looks at his son as if seeing instead a father.

“What do you cherish?” asks Sebastian.

“I don’t know,” says Sherry, too stunned to really think.

“Do you love me?” asks Sebastian.

“Of course,” without really thinking. “Of course I do.”

“No really. Do you love me?”

“Yes, Sebastian, I love you,” he says then, thinking this time.

“Then,” he answers, “you should sacrifice me.”

“You?”

“Yes, you should sacrifice me. Offer me to Saint Peter.”

“You?”

“Yes.” And says for a third time, “You should sacrifice me.”

“As in… sacrifice, how?”

“You could burn me. Like Abraham did Isaac. Or maybe run me over with your car. Shoot me. Perhaps drown me.”

“Oh, Christ, Sebastian. You’re kidding, right?” Not so sure.

“No, I am not.”

“Then, you’re, you’re crazy. Positively.”

“No. I am not.”

“Yes, you are.”

“No, I mean it. Sacrifice me.”

“I can’t sacrifice you. You know that. I can’t kill you. That’s absurd.”

“I think you should. If you really love me. And if you really want to get past Saint Peter.”

“I do love you, I do. And I’m not going to kill anyone, least of all you.”

“I think you should, Dad.”

His father throws his hands into the shallow sky of the car and lands them on the steering wheel with a thud.

“You’re impossible.”

“If you want to get into heaven,” says Sebastian, intending to say more.

“Oh, if you’re so damn anxious to be sacrificed, Sebastian, I wish Death would come and take you,” interrupts his father, angry now. Loudly. It’s like a little explosion. His face a dark-eyed eruption of exasperation.

 

Then silence. A mist had begun to form on the inside of the windows. The wipers still did their to and fro in polite unison, and with little clicks. Sebastian said nothing, a little shocked at the sudden reaction. His father, looking straight ahead, clutching the steering wheel, sweating a little around his temples, said nothing. Echoing still. And still meaning it. The rain drumming the roof of the car surrounded everything.

 

The son thought: “I go, the first of many who will die, in the midst of many who are dying, on a mission to Yama, king of death.”

 

Since Death is indeed a good listener—with his ear to the ground of every end of every road, and since he will grant nearly any wish—if coveted deeply and addressed to Him specifically, and since his father on this rainy day had found Death’s ear square on and had loudly and deeply meant his wish, Sebastian soon found himself no longer in a car parked at the rain-glistered edge of a McDonald’s parking lot (its windshield wipers still to and froing with their soft click), but in a different place altogether:

At the head of a long line of children mostly his age, but immediately following an even longer line of cowled and weeping women, he was walking slowly, ceremonially, towards an at first distant, then gradually—step by ceremonial step—less distant, hole in the soaring mountain face ahead; heading, step by step, for a waiting, tongueless maw he knew only served to swallow. The children behind him were all dead, though not really. The women ahead of him were all dead, though not really. And ahead of them, and behind the children, the men. And behind the men, women, then children, then men, then women, then children, then too far away to determine anything but line, and line, and line to beyond the remote horizon, where it disappeared as a thin thready smudge on the desert floor or the desert sky—impossible to tell which.

Ceremonially: each slow step—for some it was more like a shuffle, feet never quite leaving dirt—was followed by an even slower stillness: a brief wait. The soft beat of a hibernating heart. Each foot then, upon landing (or arriving), grew a small cloud of red dust as sandal, boot, shoe, sole, found the ground. Sebastian looked back again over the heads of many children, relieved by those of men, then by those of women, all swaying to the song of rising, swinging, falling feet into dust: a snake, snaking its long, long way from he didn’t know how far toward the expectant mountain throat.

The dust stirred by a million feet coloring the sky red. Ahead, again, the line of cowled heads now and then sprouted arms that reached for the sandy sky, and then, vertebra by vertebra the dusty snake slithered into the mountain and down into the bowels of the Earth, if Earth this was.

So, his father had heard him, after all. Had understood. Had indeed sacrificed him. Wonder how he had done that?

When after a time—days, months, hard to say with a heart this asleep—the line, and he with it, neared the dark mountain yawn, he could make out Yama, the King of Death, tall and dark by the entrance, clipboard in one hand, pen in the other, taking his endless inventory. As each of the women ahead now reached him, He surveyed each cowled face closely, asked a question or two, listening carefully, then consulting his list, checking it twice, as if to establish naughty or nice. Asking other questions as needed, clarifying, just making sure, checking his list again, now and then making a note, very much making very sure was the feeling Sebastian got; and could well understand for Death’s determination would have consequence. Best to make very, very sure.

Of course.

But Sebastian, his father’s sacrifice to Death, had begun to feel a little uncertain: What would I matter to Death, so rich in dead, he thought. I am only one among so many, many. Perhaps, on balance, this wasn’t such a good idea. Of what possible use could I, a young boy, plucked out of a rained-on car, be to Yama? Just one among all these many to choose from. Perhaps I’m not such a good sacrifice after all, he thought.

Closer and closer. He looked around again. At the unending line behind him, at the mountain face ahead, towering now, almost leaning out over him, at Yama, tall, busy stooping, asking, checking his list, asking again, and finally, almost at the maw now and not so much dust raised by ceremonial feet to contend with, beyond Yama, far along the mountain face to the south—felt like south, anyway—Sebastian could make out another maw, another gape in the rock. A twin opening.

 

“See how it was with those who came before, how it will be with those who are living. Like corn mortals ripen and fall; like corn they come up again.”

 

Yes. Far to the south (it sure felt like south), many miles away, the mountain yawned again and Sebastian could now see, through the now dust-free dusk, how the snake, this endless string—each pearl, each vertebra a soul—returned into air, coughed up by the mountain, then threaded its way into the desert and out over the rim of a different horizon, only to return, he realized, only to return, he realized, only to return, only to return, return, return, like an immense, slowly—very slowly—spinning wheel, to the beating of a heart vaster yet.

Then he found himself at the very lips of the mountain. Yama, to his right, who stood at least seven feet tall and was really quite handsome, looked down at him. A long look. His eyes (black within black, they seemed) returned to his clipboard.

“Name?” More a wind than a voice.

“Sebastian.”

“Last name?”

“Sherry.”

“Sebastian Sherry?”

“Yes, sir.”

Yama examined his sheet, then flipped through to the next, then to the next.

“Sebastian Sherry?”

“Yes, sir.”

Yama looked up from his examination and held Sebastian’s eyes with his stillness. “What are you doing here? You’re not due yet.”

“Well, perhaps not,” answered Sebastian, and told the story about his father and the Pearly Gates.

“I see,” said Yama, appearing indeed to see. “Look,” he said, and leaned closer to Sebastian’s face, quite a stooping. Then all but whispered with a breath that Sebastian did not find at all unpleasant, “You don’t want to go down there just yet. Not your time. I tell you what: why don’t you wait in my trailer. I’ll come and see you a little later, once my shift is over.” Then He pointed with his pen to a shiny silver cigar some ways off to the right, south-westish (if south was indeed south). “Then we can talk.”

“Okay,” said Sebastian, half relieved, half mystified, and trotted off. Nobody else seem to mind. There were no yells of “Hey, what about him?” from anyone. Perhaps no one noticed.

It was quite a hike.

 

Nachiketa went to Yama’s abode, but the king of death was not there. He waited three days.

 

The trailer lay farther off by far than it had at first appeared to do. And as Sebastian slowly made his way toward it across the gravelly dusk, he realized why: it was huge. It was much larger than he had at first thought, and growing only slowly as he approached.

On his way to the trailer—there was no rush, Yama was still on the job, no signs of leaving yet—he stopped now and then to look again at the snake, the human wheel, stepping in such slow, sad unison, step, wait, step, wait, step, wait, like clockwork, tick, tock, tick, tock, like a star’s hibernating heart, di-dum… di-dum… di-dum… di-dum.

Unmistakably human, that line of heads and feet, heads and feet, heads and feet, where he had just left it, and still presumably human where the mountain heaved, far to the south. Sebastian strained to see, to ascertain, but could still only surmise.

In his mind, he could see the full wheel, the immense circle, necklace, chain that he felt sure connected all the way. But he wanted to see this with his eyes. He wanted to take it in and understand it completely. And so, he tried to rise high into the sandy and light-fading sky to view the wheel in its entirety, but try as he might, he could not, not even an inch. Too much gravity, too much mountain nearby, too many reasons why this should not be possible, and since he agreed with too many of these reasons he had to settle for the short segments he could view from where he stood, earthbound: The nearby crawling into and the distant out of, Yama’s towering mountain.

So, he set out again. The sand was part dust part tiny rocks, nothing in between (nothing like, say, the sand of a beach). Either dust or rock here—jaggedy pebbles by the millions. Very painful to walk on, without sandals, he imagined. Glad for his. They were well-made with good, thick soles.

As the silver cigar drew closer and closer.

He thought briefly of his dad, alone in the rain-imprisoned car, wondering no doubt what on earth had happened to Sebastian. But it had been his wish, albeit prompted by Sebastian, and surely, he knew that. Not panicking then, Sebastian hoped. Knowing, at least on some plane, what had happened to his son. Perhaps even a little enlightened now, realizing that you get what you wish for, especially where Death is concerned. And perhaps a little more alive with the sacrifice he had just made. This was Sebastian’s hope.

Then the silver cigar was nearly upon him and his thoughts turned to the size of this thing. Would you look at that. What, hundred and fifty, two hundred feet? Perhaps longer.

He stopped to look. Had never seen anything quite like it. Had seen trailers, of course, many of the silver cigar persuasion, but none this size. This just went on and on. Then he arrived at four high steps—no doubt made for Yama’s much-longer-than-his legs—which he negotiated with some difficulty. Scaling would be a better word than stepping.

He reached the door, handle at eye-level. He tried it. It was not locked and the door swung open, silently on noiseless hinges.

Before entering, he turned to take a last look at the wheel. Tick, tock, one by one, Yama hardly discernible in the fading light, stooping still, checking his list, Sebastian more than likely forgotten already. He turned again and negotiated the threshold.

Inside, the trailer seemed even larger. Endless. Much bigger than his house on Ewitt Lane, much bigger. The biggest ever silver cigar on wheels (did this thing actually have wheels? Sebastian had not thought of looking; thought briefly of stepping back out to check, but changed his mind). And very clean. Yes, sir. Clean and orderly. Death was meticulous or had a very good housekeeper, or both.

From within, the only thing that hinted at a trailer was that he could see the opposite side some forty feet in front of him, the width of th thing. To his left, however, down the length of the trailer, it seemed to go on forever. No end in sight, literally. More like a large, well-appointed submarine than a trailer.

He found himself in an entryway the size of a respectable room. Shoe rack to his right, two pairs of very large sandals on it. Yama’s surely. Place for coats, robes, even a shelf for, I guess, hats, thought Sebastian. Uncarpeted. Not hardwood, but a close relative. Sebastian could not make it out. Not linoleum either. Not stone. Wood of some sort, must be. He turned left and crossed the floor.

The next room, at least twice the size of the entryway: Several sofas, deep, with white, black, red, and blue pillows. A thick grayish carpet here, and as it turned out, throughout the rest of the trailer. Looked like shag initially, but the pile was finer, and a little shorter. And wonderful to walk on. He removed his shoes (and socks) and brought them back to the shoe rack, where they were dwarfed by Yama’s pairs. Walking back across the bare floor in his bare feet, the wood, yes surely wood, felt cool and almost glassy smooth to his feet. Back onto the carpet which now gave him the feeling of walking on the back of some enormous kitten. On very happy feet he strode down and into the heart of the cigar.

The next room: Obviously a library. Walls covered floor to ceiling with books of many kinds. Paperbacks, antique leather—well crafted, some, others bestseller cheap. Some original manuscripts in glass displays, he could make out one Shakespeare and three Blakes, and what looked like a small version of the Gutenberg Bible, or did it look smaller than he remembered this bible to be because everything else was larger? He wasn’t quite sure. But there was no doubt Death was well read, or at the least He was very fond of books.

Another room: This looked like a communication central with phones, screens, routers, multiplexers, dim light, no windows here.

There was a slight hum from the many fans to cool the equipment. So very many little blinking lights: a galaxy of technology.

A game room: These were serious games. Two very ornate chess sets, all set up and ready for the first move. A third, simply styled in light and dark steel. He picked up the black rook, and almost dropped it onto, into, the soft carpet. It must have weighed two, perhaps three pounds. It took his hand, which had expected something much lighter, by surprise. Could be painted gold, or platinum. Yes, most likely platinum. He returned the rook to its southwest corner.

A large snooker table. He ran his hand along the edge. No dust. Not a mote. Still, everything seemed so, so utterly undisturbed that dust should cover everything. Should, but didn’t. Someone cleaned really well, and often. A beautiful dart board. A go board, with two what looked like ebony bowls with black and white stones respectively. A set of mahjongg tiles, lined up and ready for action. He picked up one of the dust free bamboos, not ivory, heavier, more substantial. Replaced it. He could still hear the equipment humming next door in the communications room, the blinking, humming galaxy. Other than that, things were very quiet. No sounds entering from the outside.

Then a bedroom. Then another. And a reading room. Also with many books (although not as crowded with them as the library) and with a large, well-worn leather armchair beside a tall reading light.

Then an office. Telephones, another computer. Two baskets: In and Out. Paperwork. Sebastian ran his finger along the edge of the desk. Not a mote of dust here either. Especially considering the air outside, red with the fine stuff. Exceptional cleaners. And, he reflected, or, very good filters.

Then a guestroom. This was a guess. Then another.

But no kitchen. Nary a one. Sebastian was thirsty and was now looking for something to drink. Water, pop, anything. A fridge. Milk. But no. He journeyed still deeper through many more rooms, some obviously more like closets, storage rooms, even an incredibly well-equipped (no surprise there) cleaning room. But no kitchen. By the time he reached the end of the now confirmed to be kitchenless trailer his throat, who had been promised something to drink, was clamoring for liquid. But nothing to be found. Not a thing.

Sebastian made his way back through the many, many rooms. Another thing, he realized: there were no televisions (the one thing Sebastian always counts as he enters a place for the first time—he thinks of this count as the place’s “stupidity index,” the more the stupider). He finally made it all the way back to the penultimate room, the one with the sofas.

He picked one of them and sat down, sank down, to wait.

And he waited.

And waited.

And waited.

::