When next my eyes fluttered open I found myself in a very different place. It’s difficult for me to explain and describe now because I have been here for so long, but I will endeavour to try.
I think the sky was the first thing I saw, but it might have been the ground. Either way we’ll go with it having been the sky. It was a pink-orange colour most peculiar. I remember my eyes narrowing, my brown eyes. Oh, I haven’t told you anything about me, physically I mean. I’ll get to that, probably. It isn’t really much of import. It might prove more imperative later, I’m not sure. Regardless, I’ve deviated again from my story, I apologise for that. You have to understand so many things have happened since then. Many of them had been difficult to comprehend until they were not. That too is a strange thing to say; alas I feel it is true however.
Now back to what I found when I awoke. Like I said I first saw pink-orange, which I feel more confident in saying I think was indeed the sky, at that time. The clouds were fluffy but not in the way they had been in my life. Instead, these clouds were small and woolly; I think that would be the best way to term them because in many ways I would associate them with sheep. I remember smiling and gazing at them for a long time until finally a voice spoke to me.
The tone of the voice had been soft, warm, welcoming, comforting. I didn’t know it but felt as if I did. It was that kind of voice. I’m not sure if you’ve ever experienced anything like that. I hadn’t but… Anyway, it’s not important and does not affect what I did next. And that, unsurprisingly, was to look for whomever the voice belonged to. It didn’t take me more than a single sweeping glance for my eyes to fall upon a wiry man with a bald head speckled with short white hairs and a long grey beard. He was clad in a brown robe the sleeves of which could perhaps have fit his torso through they were so wide. His hands meanwhile were hidden in the mesh of the meeting ends of the dangling sleeves. His breathing had been soft and slow, methodical I think it would be best to term it but at the time I thought he had possibly fallen into sleep. After all, his eyes looked closed, yet as I drew closer to examine more carefully if I was correct I remember him speaking, which dispelled my notion of him being in slumber.
“Welcome, I am Zion. You must be Niobe. It is good to finally meet you, though it is unfortunate that your time was so short in the world.”
I didn’t understand what was going on and so like a lost and frightened child I asked where I was. Zion’s retort was swift and offered no hint of irritation. It seemed as though he expected my query to be much as it was. At the time I did not understand as to why. Thankfully, I know better now.
“You stand in the place known today as The After. At one time it carried the title of Posteaquam, but those days are very long gone. None of us who stand here today stood here then. Only the creators would know and if they remain they do not reveal themselves to us.”
Very curious I thought as I told Zion I did not understand. He smiled. I remember that clearly. So clearly that it is as if I occurred yesterday. I know it did not but…
Alas I have once more begun to meander off the path of this retelling.
In response to my admittance of not understanding and my staring eyes upon the sights that surrounded us, which I feel would best be described as being akin to water colours running down the face of a canvas, he said. “Come with me Niobe. We shall walk this place and I shall answers all the questions which you seek. It is the way of The After and you may find some questions are answered without my speaking.”
That statement alone I found most baffling and intriguing. To be honest I was lost. I wanted to say as much but for reasons I could not properly form I did not. Rather, I nodded in agreement. I saw no danger and so Zion and I walked.
We ascended steps that I thought might never end, yet climbing them did not wear me down. I walk them frequently now and pay no mind to the fact that physical exhaustion does not dwell here. However, the stairs; their ascent and descent, were a minor footnote compared to the sights I was greeted to.
Vast valleys, gorges and enormous rushing waterfalls filled the horizon. It was beyond compare the beauty of what I saw. But it was not like the world I knew. The water flowed up instead of down. I thought it impossible for the longest time when I did take note of it, which was not in that moment. At my arrival, my first walk in the place known as The After I saw but did not see. True sight came later when I had become settled.
But it was on this walk Zion explained via my questions that The After was not in the same realm as the one where Earth resided. Rather, it existed beyond, not in terms of space but time. It sat in a realm all of its own and that Forever’s are granted passage to dwell here for as long as they might wish too.
When I asked what a Forever was Zion chuckled, though did admit, “Why we all are Forever’s; me, you, all of us who walk this realm.”
His words and this place were fascinating but it sounded like madness. I knew it could not be possible. It had to be a dream. It was too much for it not to be. Life is different; it holds a kind of clarity. I would liken it to the focus on a camera. Life is in sharp focus at all times for all things. The After on the other hand is not. It remains in focus but in a blurred sort of way. Some might wish to call it a haze. Such terminology does not sit well with me and yet I cannot argue against it. Here, in The After, everyone is correct in terms of their interpretation of this realm because while the content remains consistent for all the experiences felt they differ for each Forever who witnesses them.
We passed many a Forever that day. Some looked nothing like I would have imagined they should. They held appearances closer to that of fairytale creatures or beasts of myth and legend. Still, I felt they fit in this world, though it did not change the disbelief that the sight of them brought forth in me.
It was a while longer before I asked how. Or at least it felt as though it was a good while until the question passed my lips. By the time I uttered it we had come to a halt. It seemed, words unspoken, that the tour was over. I felt pangs of disappointment at such a revelation while Zion explained, with growing audience, “The origins of The After are not clear to us. One day it simply seemed to be. The oldest amongst us did at one time seek answers…”
With Zion having left his statement unfinished I asked what they found.
“They found nothing. No marks were left that might guide us to our founders. Yet, there must’ve been a first for this realm did not always exist.”
How did he know that? By the time this question passed my lips there was quite the crowd and all of them chuckled when they heard my query. I felt a little offended in the moment. Since I have learned the chuckle was not them mocking me but each recalling how during their own introductions how they had asked much the same things I had felt compelled to.
Zion answered my query, as he said he would, all the same. “We can feel it as such. In time you will too.”
I didn’t believe nor understand those words. In fact, I thought them a cop-out. A way to quickly move on to other queries I might have by giving a non-answer answer. Wisdom born from my time in The After has taught me otherwise.
When the next query passed my lips I asked if all people end up in The After.
Zion and all those around us bowed their heads in the moments prior to him admitting, “They do not. One in every three million and seventy three are Forever’s capable of arriving in this place.”
With what I now see was considerable naivety I asked what it is that determines a Forever and how long their lives in The After can be.
In response there was, as I recall it, a long period of exchanged glances that I believed might never result in a conclusion. It had crossed my mind in those moments as I waited that perhaps I had muttered something that either no one previously had or which should not be voiced.
Thankfully, the glances did peter out. In their place Zion cleared his throat as if he was about to reveal a great and tragic truth. Then said, “No one knows what defines a Forever but what we can say is that, as far as we are aware, there is no limit to how long you may exist in this realm.”
Those words, I could not believe them. Zion had admitted that this place had not always been, yet here he was confidently espousing that it had no end. It made not a lick of sense. If it has a beginning it inevitably has an end. Such is the order of the universe. Nothing can or will last forever, though it made sense as to why we were dubbed as such. I could’ve asked who named us, but I did not. Something told me that too would be a mystery. Still, I felt there was more to come. I had been right. With heads still bowed the crowd continued to keep their gazes averted leaving Zion to meekly admit, “Forever’s once here cannot leave. It is a one way trip. At one time we did not admit this openly, and prior to that we do not know it. Since those early days, as we who stand before you know them, events have instilled in us the necessity to inform those new to this realm of said truths. We have found it makes the transition…easier.”
Zion’s words were not as shocking to me as he and the crowd around us imagined they would be. I took them in my stride. Perhaps it was because I doubted them. These Forever’s seemed wise and yet so ill-informed as to where they were, where I was too. It struck me that they might be unaware of what was and was not possible. Not on a grand scale but on a much smaller one. It meant, to me at that time, that there might have been things they had missed. It should’ve been impossible for I later found many had been in The After for eons. Still, I felt as though Zion wanted to say more. Perhaps apologise for dumping this news upon me. He did not and truthfully I didn’t wish him too either. I was dead, in the world I knew, but had been given a new future. What I would do with it, or could do with it, I hadn’t an iota of a clue and that was captivating to me. Life in the world had been stifling, suffocating. Many a time I’d felt as though it would crush me beneath its insistence on always being the same, on me having little input on how I wished to shape my life unless some decision I could not know the importance of broke my way. From the moment I woke in The After I did not feel as if that restraint existed. It was enlightening, refreshing, freeing.
Following the revelations of the day, the answers to my many questions and the tour around The After I was welcomed in the only way the Forever’s know, with a celebration. It came in the form of a great feast that was held within a hall that had no roof to blot out the calming wonders of the changing sky.
All of us ate until they could not move a muscle, myself included. And it was there that it was explained that I could look however I wished too. That was not a shock to me. After all, I’d already seen forms most bizarre as I walked this realm on my tour. What did come as a shock was when the means by which this could be achieved were explained to me. It was said all I had to do was close my eyes, focus on myself and will my appearance into being. Many that night and in the days that followed compelled me to try. Such things were seen as normal, with some Forever’s choosing to change their forms on a regular basis. Most admitted they went through a number of looks prior to settling on how they appeared when I first set eyes upon them.
I, on the other hand, felt compelled to remain largely unchanged. The face I had was unique; a perfect blend of my mother and father. I could not bring myself to cast that aside, so I made simple small refinements to the base design. These refinements came in the form of removing scars that blighted my skin. Most of which were suffered when I’d been a young girl who as a tomboy liked to climb and fall out of things. Well, I liked to climb. I never liked the falling out part. It was an inevitability it seemed, but not one I ever enjoyed suffering through. By contrast, it appeared as though some of the boys did enjoy the falls. I too this day do not understand that. Perhaps they wanted scars to show off in later life, feeling as boys that it would hold weight once they hit maturity. I imagined they regretted it now, if any of them still live. I did not know as I recalled these events if they still did. Time, you see, works differently in The After, but I will get to that in due course.
Once the feast ended I was guided, again by Zion, to what would be my home. I did not see the wonder of it for it was small, plain, boring. A box that was unremarkable in every sense of the word. Zion explained, “All dwellings start out like this.”
I doubted him for on our shuffle I had gazed in wonder at the magnificence of massive towers that split or had bulges like branches from a tree trunk, at massive castles, sprawling estates and pretty thatch cottages like something out of a fairytale.
Sensing my doubts Zion showed me the truth of his words. He reformed my dwelling into a house as I knew it. It was, compared to those I had marvelled at during our walk to that very spot, rather plain but I found it perfectly suitable to my needs. Zion chuckled to hear me admit that but stressed I should create whatever I felt best suited me, both inside and out. I understood but still asked how it was possible. He shrugged. I found comfort in that, bid him farewell for the evening having suddenly turned tired, and retreated inside.
The next few hours I spent shaping lethargically the interior I wanted. Several times I checked the outside dimensions believing my internal reshaping would somehow affect the exterior. It did not. When I was done I had created my dream home, internally, and passed out on the bed I imagined for myself. Physical exhaustion remained absent; I simply felt rest was for the best mentally. I did not understand The After for a long time and lived much as I would’ve in life. A common occurrence that many informed would be an affliction likely to stretch into the weeks and months still yet to come.