He hoped she would die today and return to him. He was so tired, waiting for her, in this so-called heaven. It was only half-heaven for him, until she returned. Until then, this place — despite its golden light and sweet aroma, despite its steady 72 degrees — didn’t seem heavenly at all. Just crowded. Packed with soul mates, reuniting. All around him, the other soul mates crooned, sighed and moaned as their wounds healed and they became whole. Hearing them, seeing them — it all made his loneliness that much harder to bear. To make matters worse, the others pushed and jostled him, without apology.
He maneuvered his way through the crowd until he reached the edge of the heavenly sphere and gazed down at the blue-white orb that, until recently, had been his home and was still hers. Waiting for her to return was particularly lonely this time. It was always like that, when their lives hadn’t connected. His most recent incarnation, as Jeff D. Karnes (what did the “D” stand for? — he was starting to forget these things), had been one of the worst in that sense. He saw his soul mate nearly every day, and yet they had never touched. Never talked. Never even made eye contact.
Circumstances had conspired against them, he thought, and then he laughed aloud, causing the other soul mates pressing against him to jerk away momentarily. Conspiring circumstances? No. The truth of it: She had scared Jeff D. Karnes, with her ragged clothes and matted hair. And being afraid, he could not love her. He could not love someone so obviously lost, so cut off from the world. “Love” — he laughed at himself again. He had not even come close to loving her. When he had walked the earth as Jeff D. Karnes and encountered his own true love, his eternal soul mate, he could barely stand to even look at her. Instead, he would avert his eyes and think “poor gal,” or “dear god” or “where’s her family?”
“You know what she will say when she returns.” It was the Assistant Director. The AD — not a presence he could see; just a sweet quiet voice in his ear. Sometimes when he was waiting for his soul mate, the AD would talk to him to keep him company.
“Yes,” he said, “I know what she will say. She will say ‘You must be braver next time.'”
No response. The AD had moved on or else was just letting his own words sink in.
You must be braver next time — yes, his true love had said that before, and more than once. She had said it not so long ago, after their lives as two girls from the same village. Her as Klara, him as Lisle. He didn’t usually remember what their names had been when they walked the earth, but he did when the life had ended badly. And that one most certainly had. At the end, Klara and Lisle had clung together in a root cellar as that nasty little man (Neapolitan, he thought at first, but then remembered) Napoleon and his awful soldiers scourged their village, burning, raping, and killing as they went. Lisle had not lived much longer after that: She had swallowed rat poison and died in the root cellar before the soldiers could find her. But Klara, she had made it through and lived on — not much longer, true, but long enough to see soldiers die at her own hand. She sold them poisoned apples as they made their long cold retreat until they caught her at it and slashed her throat. He had watched that part from here, from this half-heaven, and when she returned, she had said, “You should have stayed alive,” and “It was great fun, killing those bastards,” and, of course, “You must be braver next time.”
“Were you braver this time?” the AD whispered, and he had to shake his head. In his most recent life, as Jeff D. Karnes, he had not been brave at all. He had not been brave enough to bring her into his life, or to step into hers, and yet he could not keep away. As Jeff D. Karnes, he saw his true love nearly every day. During the week, he saw her on his lunch hour runs after the — (for a moment he couldn’t remember what it was called. “The daily call” — that was it) the daily call with his boss, he would go on a run at Griffith Park, never anywhere else. Every day at lunch and even on weekends (his studio apartment was just across the street from the park, with a big window looking out toward it), he ran the park trails. He did not know then why he did so, but it was all so obvious now. Despite all the conspiring circumstances, the scared little heart beating in Jeff D. Karnes’ chest had yearned to be with her.
He wiped condensation from the skin of the heavenly sphere and focused on the spot where she lived: the brown and green hills, the massive oaks, the dusty trails, and the most precious thing of all to him — the black tarp draped across a row of shrubs that protected her little hovel. Maybe she would crawl out today.
Or maybe she wouldn’t. He hoped she wouldn’t; he hoped …
“It’s usually like this, isn’t it?” the AD asked. “You waiting for her? And not the other way around.”
He had to nod at that. “She likes to linger in the world.”
The AD kept silent for a while and then said, “Funny, isn’t it, how she’s always crawling out of places.”
It was true. He had stood at this very spot in the heavenly sphere and seen her crawl from a root cellar, her skirt full of poisoned apples; from a mine, covered in coal dust; from a trench, wearing a gas mask. And this time: from her hovel behind the shrubs.
When he was still Jeff D. Karnes, sometimes she surprised him when she emerged. He would be running along listening to his — (what was it called? he wondered, and then it came to him) his iPod, and suddenly there she’d be, always in the same loose and soiled clothing (an old gray pea coat, army pants, worn-out boots), her long black hair thick and tangled.
“That was all you noticed about her,” the AD said, sounding terribly sad. “You didn’t even notice the color of her eyes.”
He knew more about her constant companion, the little gray mutt. “Her dog’s eyes were black,” he said, partly to the AD, partly to himself. The dog was a friendly thing, always wagging its tail when Jeff D. Karnes approached, looking up at him, so trusting, so honest, and once it had even rolled onto its back, begging for a belly scratch. Not once had he kneeled to scratch the dog’s belly or pat its dirty little head. He had stayed away from the dog, not wanting to interact with its owner.
“You should have stopped to talk to the dog, if not to her.”
But he never had. Circumstances had conspired to make his heart hard.
“What were those circumstances you keep on about?” the AD prodded, but he could barely remember them on — the parents, the siblings, the friends. The schooling, and then the first job, and the second, and the third. Jeff D. Karnes — maybe the “D” stood for “discontented,” he thought now, because that was what he was.
What a miserable life he’d had! Living alone. Running at lunch time. He would add it to his list of failed lifetimes. Maybe even worse than the life before this one, when he lived in the great tundra. That time, she had come into the world just as he did, but it took more than 15 years for them to meet, and then she had turned up as Banak, a boy in a band of wanderers — nomads who followed the tuktu herds. “Come with me,” Banak had said to him. But he had not gone, he had watched Banak the nomad boy trek across the barren land until there was nothing more to see and never saw him again. He had lived long after, nearly 100 years in total, with children and grandchildren to attend to, but lonely all the same.
But when that life ended, she was not waiting for him in heaven. He’d had to wait for her! (He waited for the AD to bring that up, but it was an awkward point that no one, not even the AD, apparently, liked to broach.) And when she finally did return, she confessed that she had lived two other lifetimes while he squandered away in the tundra. “I got bored, waiting,” was all she said. And so, he learned that, while he had hunted whale and patched canoes, she had killed her share of Tommies and doughboys, and later, as he had watched his children and then his grandchildren start their own families, she had traveled muddy jungle trails, preaching peace in long saffron robes. “I can’t just sit around waiting for you,” she had said, but with a laugh and kiss, and then they had reunited, bathed in the sweet golden light, and half-heaven became all heaven.
The AD woke him from his reverie. “She always needs a mission. That’s what spurs her on.”
“The dog is what’s keeping her going in this incarnation,” he said. “But now the dog is gone.” For the past few days, whenever his own true love emerged, she did so alone, no dog in sight, and only to quickly scrounge through the trash cans, picking out old bags of potato chips and small milk cartons, before disappearing behind the shrubs again.
The dog was dead, most likely. And now she had nothing left to live for. Surely she must be ready to return to him. He saw a rustling in the shrubs and felt giddy. Maybe today she will commit suicide, he thought, just like Jeff D. Karnes did.
She emerged, brushing leaves and twigs from the same loose clothing she always wore. When she returned to him, he would ask about the conspiring circumstances, and how she had ended up living behind a shrub in Griffith Park — alone, dejected, an outcast …
The AD gasped, and that’s when he saw it. She was not alone. The dog was not dead after all. It trotted alongside her, its tail wagging, its ears perked up. Behind the dog trailed a string of puppies, tripping and scampering over their fat little paws.
She would not be returning to him anytime soon, he saw that now. “No need to cry,” the AD said, but it was too late. The reunited souls surrounding him did not even notice his sobs, but she stopped and looked up at the sudden downpour. She looked up and let the rain kiss her face.
Published in The Ottawa Object, 2015