Neesha didn’t know what to expect from the afterlife, but it wasn’t this. The red robes adorning her body. The bald, bearded man with the same dark complexion as herself guiding her over cool grass. The way he had introduced himself after she had stepped through the tunnel of light: Cofa, Keeper of Shadows for this region of The Infinite. St. Peter he was not, but she hoped he could still provide a permanent reprieve from the harsh womb of the world.
Before Neesha could collect her thoughts and take in the full breadth of her pastoral surroundings, the travelers came upon a wood cabin. Cofa opened the door and motioned for Neesha to enter.
Inside, a large rectangular window stretched end to end on the opposite wall. The floor was laden with wood except for a large circular patch in the centre, which had been cut out and filled with pebbles. Two chairs faced each other across the ring. Cofa sat in the chair on the right. Neesha sat in the one on the left.
“You have carried much here with you,” Cofa said, glancing at the floor beside her. “A full life.” Neesha listened hesitantly, nodding. “But each life must come to an end. The separation from who we were in the world is always difficult, but necessary.”
“I am ready,” Neesha said, her voice shaky. “Everything here is so serene. Will I be able to see my family soon?” The words fell out before she could stop herself. “My parents? And…”
“No,” Cofa said. There was no malice in his words. Just information. “I’m afraid the ideas you might hold about the afterlife are different from the reality of The Infinite.”
“Oh,” Neesha said, the word dripping with disappointment. “Then what happens here?”
“Here is a place of separation from who you were, and of rebirth into your next life.”
“Reincarnation?” Neesha had followed the cross for the majority of her forty-four years. The idea of being reborn as a tree or a fly was not appealing.
“Of a kind.” Cofa rose to his feet and stepped into the pebbled ring between them. It was then that Neesha came to a realization: Cofa cast no shadow. Even as light streamed in through the giant window, the Keeper of Shadows shed nothing onto the ground.
“This is the first step in your separation from your past,” he said, sweeping a hand over the pebbles. “You must cast off your shadow to take it.”
“My shadow?” Neesha said, and looked to her side at her own shade. A faint glimmer of purple disturbed the dark.
“All your years are carried in it: memories; emotions; all that ties your mind to your former self. It is a heavy weight to carry. As Keeper, I see yours is full. You have lived, Neesha Sur.” He dropped his eyes to her side once more. “Joy. Grief. Disappointment. Love. Passion. Loss. You have lived the near-full range of human experience.” He frowned, his milky-blue pupils lingering on something in the dark pool. Neesha felt her cheeks warm.
“Why can’t I see anything?” she said.
“You may yet,” he said cryptically, then continued. “It is your choice, of course. You can decide to stay here and wander The Precipice for all eternity. While not a poor existence, an unremarkable and unpopular one for someone from the world. The other option is to burn your shadow away from your body and walk it to The Precipice to set it free and start anew.”
Neesha stood and walked to the window. In the distance, she could make out the edge of a cliff. To the left were rolling hills and winding paths. To the right, the distant eaves of a forest. The Infinite was vast and empty, yet beautiful. She turned and looked down at her shadow, squinting her eyes, wanting to see what Cofa had. Once more, she only grasped a dark purple glimmer amidst the dark. Her mind quested and lingered briefly on a memory, causing sudden tears to well up behind stalwart lids. She feared he had seen her weakness, and shame washed over her.
“Once separated and reborn, will I remember anything from my old life?” Her brows furrowed.
“A sliver of your old shadow may survive, but it is rare.”
Neesha clenched her eyes shut and flitted the memory away - it was better to forget and start anew. She turned and stepped into the ring with resolve.
“I am ready,” she said facing Cofa, then turned towards the window. “Burn it away.”
The milky-eyed man nodded and knelt on one knee behind and beside Neesha. He pressed his middle and index fingers against the centre of her shadow and whispered an indecipherable incantation. A red glow emanated from his fingertips, as a circle of red flame rippled out from the shadow’s centre and crested around its edges.
Neesha stared straight ahead, a knot forming in her stomach. Cofa rose to his feet. He watched the flames burn at the edges of Neesha’s shadow, the majority of the blaze concentrated at her heels. The shade burned and tore itself away from Neesha, then peeled itself from the pebbles and stood, as Cofa closed a fist, causing the fire to dissipate.
Neesha turned to stare at the ghost of someone she once knew.
“Come,” Cofa said, then made for the front door. Neesha’s shadow stretched its flimsy hand towards its former keeper, and laced its fingers with hers; black silk slid across Neesha’s skin. Clasping their hands together, they followed Cofa around the cabin and made for the horizon.
When they reached the edge of the cliff, there was only yawning blue sky. A gentle breeze kissed Neesha’s face.
“You have but one step more,” Cofa said. He reached into the folds of his robes and produced a needle and bundle of thread, offering them to Neesha. She released her shade’s hand and accepted the gifts in confusion. Looking down, she inhaled sharply; lying at her feet were a pair of black cherub’s wings.
“Affix them to your shadow and free it into The Infinite to become part of the fabric of all that is and ever will be,” Cofa said.
Neesha threaded the needle and picked up one of the wings, running a hand down the feathers. They were soft and fragile against her palm. She pierced the top end which she imagined sewing into the shoulder blades and turned to face her shadow. The dark form lifted a hand to Neesha’s cheek and ran its paper-thin fingers down to her chin. Gooseflesh rose on Neesha’s arms. Returning its hand to its side, the shadow turned to face the cliff’s edge.
Neesha’s lower lip quivered as she raised the black wing and placed it against her shadow’s back. Raising the needle with her other hand, her lips caved in, turning her mouth into a tight line as a tear rolled down her cheek. She looked to Cofa for instruction.
“You will not hurt her,” he said, then nodded slightly to encourage his charge. Neesha wondered how many times Cofa had done this.
With the needle between her thumb and forefinger, she pressed it into the area where she imagined the left shoulder blade would be. Neesha discovered that she could push her hand into her shadow and thread the needle back out towards herself. The piercing instrument did not go through the chest of the paperthin form, but was swallowed into its back while still fixing itself to the exterior surface. It was like phasing your hand through a wall, except you still had to find a way to get objects through in some other way.
“You are part of your shadow. The thread and needle are not,” Cofa said, answering her unspoken question.
Neesha continued, her thoughts straying to her life in the world with each journey of the needle. She found a rhythm, and fell deeper into her own mind, stroking the surfaces of memories, feeling a growing tightness in her chest. She finished the first wing and picked up the second, pressing it against the right side of the shadow’s back and plunging in with the needle once more, then harpooning back out. Her eyes grew unfocused, but she remained in perfect control of her hands and in awareness of her task.
Halfway through her stitching, she became suddenly aware of the quickened thrumming of her heart. She stopped a moment and rested her forehead against the back of her shadow. She could feel the familiar memory wanting to become manifest on the very tip of her mind. More tears squeezed from the corners of her eyes.
Looking down, the space between the wings seemed to swirl in a whirlpool that burrowed down into the shadow’s back. She pulled her head away with a shake and took a tremulous breath, then returned to her task with renewed vigor, finishing quickly and tying off the end, sweat moistening her brow.
She turned to Cofa and returned the needle and thread before facing her shadow, who was craning its neck to glance at its new appendages. It flapped them thrice then turned to face its former keeper. It seemed to dance before clapping its hands and jumping up and down with joy. Neesha allowed herself a burst of tight teary-eyed laughter.
“It is time,” Cofa said, raising his chin.
At his words, Neesha’s shadow placed its hands on its chest, its fingers digging into the black and prying open its centre. A whirlpool void met Neesha’s eyes.
“One last look,” Cofa said behind her.
The whirlpool turned into a series of vivid moving memories. A mother and father doting over a newborn. A toddler walking into her mother’s arms. A younger sister. School. Successes. Failures. Fights. Tears. Friends. First kiss. First girlfriend. Dancing. Work. Music. Marriage. A daughter. Hugs. Kisses. Tears. Car accident. Funeral. Depression. Divorce. Funeral. A sister’s hug. Funeral. Pills in a hotel room.
Neesha’s shadow closed its chest and opened its arms. Neesha’s dam broke. She collapsed and sobbed into her shadow’s centre, the tears seeping into infinite skin.
“I’m sorry,” she said between heaving sobs. “I’m so sorry.” Her shadow wrapped its arms around Neesha and pressed against her, enfolding her in warmth and acceptance. After a time, her shadow released her.
Neesha felt Cofa’s hand rest on her shoulder.
“The final forgiveness is reserved for ourselves,” he said. Neesha placed her hand on his and turned to face him.
“Thank you,” she said.
The milky-eyed keeper smiled, then faced the abyss beyond the cliff. He raised his right arm towards the endless blue and splayed out his fingers. The sky folded in a million places like the vertical blinds of an endless window. The blue was gone, replaced by the vast starry expanse of the infinite.
Neesha’s eyes widened and her breath caught in her throat. Meanwhile, her shadow jumped up and down and ran to the edge of the cliff, its black cherub’s wings flapping on its back. Cofa lowered his arm.
“You asked me whether you would see your parents here,” he said. “I answered truthfully. You will not. Your shadow, however, will be reunited with their shadows at the edges of the universe, contributing to its ever-expanding state. They, as all of existence, shall be together for eternity.”
Neesha looked at her shadow. It was jumping and pointing at the mawing starfield beyond the cliff, unable to contain its excitement. It kept turning expectantly to Neesha and Cofa.
“It is yours to free,” Cofa said.
Neesha nodded and walked to face her past. She took its hand once more, smiled, and leaned her forehead against its own.
“I forgive you and love you,” she said, stepping back and releasing the hand. She nodded and gave a single wave goodbye. The shadow bowed then ran towards the edge, leaping into nothingness before rising and soaring towards the distant stars.
When Neesha turned back to Cofa, he stood next to a radiant oval portal. Neesha felt lighter as she walked towards it, ready for rebirth in the womb of the world.
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