Behind the Veil : A short story by Sarthak Kukreja

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Behind the Veil : A short story by Sarthak Kukreja

From the shortlist of the first Short Story Competition organised by Bengaluru Review.

Mere seconds before the impact completely crushed my skull and shattered my bones, I had a sudden burst of clarity. This was it. There was no making it out of this one. I most certainly was going to die. Everything happened all of a sudden and things around me had moved so fast. It seemed as if the entirety of the accident had taken place in just a quick flash. I’d been driving, speeding towards the local grocery store to grab myself a pack of smokes. Completely lost in a torrent of thoughts, I shot past a traffic signal that had just turned red. I paid no heed to the rusty old box, blissfully ignorant of the fact that this seemingly trivial decision, a decision I had made in a state of restlessness and absent-mindedness, had just ushered me into the last few moments of my life.

A massive bus throwing itself onto me was the last thing my eyes ever saw. The sound of metal clashing and people screaming was the last thing my ears ever heard.

The end.

Things felt so .. Anticlimactic? Was this what my life had amounted to? A pointless, avoidable death? Things weren't supposed to end like this. It was not the way I was supposed to go down. This ending. It felt like a cruel joke, the kind fate often loved to play on me. An entire life of possibilities and experiences gone. Squandered. Just like that.

Rapidly losing my consciousness, my mind asked about the age-old question. What fate, if any awaits a man on the other side, once he dies?

***

I found myself standing in a dark void, surrounded by infinite stretches of nothingness. I should have been wailing and screaming to myself. I had just thrown my life away. But no. Instead, I felt calm, devoid of any feelings of regret. Something fundamental inside me had changed. I was surrounded by the air of a dream, but I was fully alert and felt wide awake. Where was I? Was I in a coma? By some miracle, had I actually survived? Or was this the afterlife? Was I to spend eternity forever wandering this huge abyss of darkness?

It was as if the empty void sensed my confusion. A cloaked figure materialized in front of me, floating in the air. The cloak radiated a soft violet He spoke gently, his surreal voice booming across the entire void.

“They call me Father Time, I guide all wandering souls.”

“Oh uh, thanks?” I awkwardly mumbled. I did not know how to respond.

“You must be having questions.” he asked.

“A.. Am I.. Am I dead?”

“Yes”, came a quick and direct response.

“Is this is the afterlife?”

“Yes, but only in the sense that this is what comes after your time in the living world has ended. Life after death is quite different from what you humans have led yourselves to believe”

“So, what is this place? What actually happens after Death?”

“This is the space between the realms. It is located at the center of all things. Upon their death, all souls from the realm of the living are sent here.”

“Will I be here forever?”

“No, mortals souls cannot survive here alone. If they stay for too long, the void absorbs them into itself. You need a place to stay. The realm of the living no longer welcomes you. You will need to find another one that does. ”

“Uh Okay. That makes sense. So uh, How do I find one of those?”

“I shall help you. Together we shall visit many realms. Once we reach a realm, you will have to appeal to the God that rules over it.”

“G...God exists?”

“Gods do exist. But most of them do not much care for humanity. They mostly keep to themselves and only interact with one another. Few Gods — mainly those of physical entities, have entirely sealed off entrances to their kingdoms. No mortals are allowed there.

“But there are still few that will let me in?”

“Yes. There are. If they deem you worthy, you will be offered a place in their kingdom. If multiple Gods offer you a place, you are free to travel between their realms, as and when you desire.”

I opened my mouth to speak but Father gently cut me off.

“We have stayed here for too long. Come, let me take you to the nearest realm. Close your eyes”

I did as I was told. I felt him place his hand over my head. A few seconds later, when I opened my eyes, the dark void had been replaced by a large spread-out city. The smell. It was wonderful. I soaked in the air that held the distinct smell of a bakery. Nostalgia hit me like a brick and I was taken back to the hours I spent playing in my aunt’s bakery as a small kid, providing company to my mother as she helped in organising the cakes.

“This realm is ruled by the younger of the two brothers. God of the Arts. His subjects call him The Creator.”

Father Time accompanied me as I walked through the land. The land of the artist, I saw painters and dancers, writers and musicians, actors and directors, even chefs and comedians. Everyone expressed themselves through their own form of art. After a while, I began to hear a song so captivating, that I had no choice but to seek out its source.

When I finally found it, I was greeted by a rather peculiar sight. A plump old man stood next to a circular wheel almost as big as him. He used one of his hands to rotate the wheel, constantly shifting its speed and direction. Wearing a synthetic glove, he used his other hand to make various gestures in the air. It seemed like the music that had mesmerised me was being created from these hand movements.

“Is this an instrument?” I asked. I was hypnotised. The instrument looked elegant and I could feel it’s sounds overflowing with emotions.

The man noticed me and smiled. As he began to speak, the sound of the instrument dimmed, gradually fading into the background of our conversation.

“Yes. This is a rhailo. I form the chords in the air using my left hand and I move the wheel accordingly to create the sound. The movement of the gloved hand creates a magnetic field. In the field’s presence, the wheel is able to create music. The blueprint for the rhailo has been in my family since generations. When I was alive, I spent my entire life trying to create this instrument without any success. Most of my friends laughed at me. When I came here, God had one look at the design and marvelled at its ingenuity. He even had his brother create the instrument for me.”

“May I try?” I asked him.

“Of course” he replied. Handing over the glove, he began to explain the fundamentals of the instrument to me.

When I gave it a try, no sound came out. After a few minutes of struggle, when I finally managed to create some sound, it came out shrill and cacophonous. Not sweet and melodious, like when the old man had played.

Smiling, he spoke.

“It’s actually not as easy as it looks. Needs at least two decades worth of solid practice.“

I moved on. Father Time led me to the creator’s castle. Inside, lay countless artifacts. Beautifully painted canvases, vinyl recordings, sculptures, musical instruments and so much more. Some corners of the walls were even sprayed with colourful graffiti. I did not look. I would have an eternity to explore them once God had accepted me. We entered his throne room.

The God’s dome-shaped throne room had been decorated by the most renowned sculptors known to history. I gasped as I saw the interior of the room, I did not know that men could ever be capable of such artistic feats. However, even all the combined grandeur of the room was shadowed by the ephemeral deity who graced the throne.

I stood with my feet frozen and my eyes transfixed. There was no question about it. This majestic being seated in front of me could only be a God. His thick silver hair reached his shoulders and his skin glowed, softly radiating the blue of a moonlight. He wore a garment of rich fabric that vaguely resembled dark trousers. His forearms and shoulders were surrounded with intricate and well-crafted armor but the rest of his upper body was bare, revealing a lean and muscular physique. A magnificent pair of white wings sprouted from his back. They were about as wide as a man was tall. Reflecting the light radiated by the body, they were a sight to look at.

A few feet taller, he rose from his throne and walked towards me. Every step had soft grace and a firm gravitas to it.

Father time softly spoke to me.

“To request refuge, kneel before him and speak. A God can harness the ancient magic. Once he does so, he can see the mortal’s past just by looking at him. Based on what he sees, the creator will make his decision”

I did as I was told.

“My lord. I have no artistic talents. I cannot paint or dance or sing. But I am moved by what I see around me. I am eager to learn. Would you offer me a place in your kingdom?”

God’s eyes had changed. The pupils had disappeared and the eyes were now a bright and shining yellow. He looked at me. With a voice that echoed across the room, he spoke.

“There is a fallacy in the way you think, child. That is not how Art is. Every soul has an innate ability to create. No one shall ever be denied entry here simply because they feel that their art is inferior to others. One of the most beautiful things about art is its subjective nature. For everything you create, there’ll be somebody or the other who appreciates it. Maybe because it reminds them of a certain memory, or maybe that’s just how their mind is. That somebody else may even be yourself. For first and foremost, an artist creates for one’s own self and soul.

He paused for a minute and continued.

But child, I am truly sorry. I cannot offer you a place in my kingdom. I looked at your time in the realm of the living. Your entire life, you have looked down upon the artist. You laughed at his resolve, mocked his way of living as he endured life. Never once in your adult life, you attempted to create something for yourself. When your own daughter told you she wanted to dance for a living, you even threatened to stop talking to her. You are not welcome here.”

The words were harsh and they stung, but they rang true. Indeed, throughout my life, I had looked down upon the artist. I had even gone on to completely shun the arts in my pursuit of the sciences.

“It is alright, countless other realms and Gods still remain.” Father spoke.

“Now, we shall visit the elder brother. God of knowledge, The Scholar”

Soon, we are in a completely new land. The air carried the smell of books and paper, both old and new. Giant castles surrounded me on all sides. Some were libraries. Some were laboratories. Each had its own dedicated research and team. I met scientists, mathematicians, professors, historians, doctors, biologists amongst many others. The only thing they all had in common was their inherent desire to learn. I even found entire buildings devoted to the study of magic and alchemy. There were engineers working hard so that they could create machines and bring some of their favorite science fiction concepts to life. One of the smaller buildings caught my attention. It was a cube-shaped glass building. Even though it was so simple compared to the others, it was crowded and bustling with far more activity. I made my way inside. Everyone was seated around a small levitating sphere. They were busy making notes and performing calculations.

“What are all of you doing?” I asked a girl near me.

“We’ve created our own mini-universe! All of us are observing its people and the laws of nature that govern this little universe. It is so exciting, we’ve already learned so much about our own world that we never knew”

The God of knowledge had the biggest building of them all. His castle was full of graphs, globes, and laboratories. Blackboards all over were full of complex equations. We could not find him in the throne room but rather, we found him in a lab, tinkering with some mechanical devices. He used his hands to make notes, but his mind could make tools and machines levitate across the room. He assembled and dismantled them as he experimented. He moved them to his whim, designing and building structures like an architect.

The scholar shared his brother’s sharp facial features and athletic physique. He was taller and did not have wings. His skin shone a dark ruby red, and the black of his sharp beard matched the black of his cloak. As he walked, embers of fire and sparks of black electricity flickered erratically around him.

Remembering father’s instructions from last time, I knelt before him.

His eyes closed. When they reopened, they were overflowing with the same gold light I had seen radiate from his brother’s.

I spoke.

“Lord, I have spent my life in pursuit of the sciences. I have even rejected the arts to do so. Surely, you must have a place for me in your kingdom.“

“My child. Indeed, it is true you have spent your life in science. But son, you only ever did so as a means to gain money and respect. When science failed to do so for you, you tossed it aside and looked for alternatives. Souls that reside here pursue knowledge in an attempt to seek answers to questions they do not know. They wish to explain and understand the world around them. Unlike you, they do so to satisfy their inner curiosity and to help others. And yes, you did reject the arts but do not fool yourself into believing that it was Science that made you do so. Many inhabitants of my kingdom often travel to my younger brother’s realm and stay there for centuries.

Father Time placed his hand on my shoulders and spoke.

“It’s alright. There are still realms to visit, child. Now we shall travel to meet the sisters. First, we shall visit the elder of the two.”

Soon we were in the land of The Dreamer, Goddess of Desire and Ambition. She had been born in a realm long forgotten and a time before the Gods even. In her early days, she had lived life as a beggar and was eventually even turned into a slave.. The child, frustrated by being mistreated by everyone, dreamt of becoming a queen and rising above the common folk. Millennia later, she sat in front of me as a mighty Goddess.

The cities of her kingdom floated in the sky. They were not like other cities. These were made from crystal and diamond, ruby, and emerald. At night they shone bright, and travelers from far away realms came to see them.

Here, Ambition was celebrated. Desires were meant to be fulfilled and dreams were supposed to be pursued. No matter the circumstances, one was always encouraged to maintain faith in themselves and keep hope alive. In addition, traits like honour, duty, and integrity were celebrated.

As a symbolic gesture and a constant reminder of her roots, the Goddess still maintained the attire of a beggar. She proudly displayed the drawings on her right arm, tattoos which once were an indication of her status as a lowly and dangerous slave. Despite her attire, however, nobody could ever doubt that they were in the presence of a Goddess.

I proceeded to kneel before her.

“Stop!” she said as I began to speak.

“I know what you seek child. But I’m sorry. I too cannot offer you a place in my kingdom. In your youth, you were full of ambition. You sought fame and money. But your ambition was not healthy. Instead of looking to better yourself, you sought to bring everybody else down. Later in your life, when your friends and family tried to improve themselves and pursue their dreams, you got jealous. Instead of working to achieve your own dreams, you tried to suppress theirs instead. And towards the end of your time on Earth, you stopped dreaming altogether. You gave up your ambitions. You threw away all your interests and desires.”

Every God’s refusal stung more than the last. All the emotions that I had not been able to feel in the void were now starting to bubble up.

Trying not to think much about what had just happened, I requested father to take me to the younger sister.

“The lover, Goddess of kindness and affection” he replied, and soon we were in yet another beautiful land. Surrounded by Gardens, I took in the sweet smell of fresh grass. The Goddess of Love did not have her own castle. She did not sit on a throne and took on the form of a human, living amongst the souls. She spent all her time with her subjects. Slender and graceful, the goddess with denim jeans and long hair was the most beautiful woman I’d ever laid my eyes on. Her smile was lovely and her voice was gentle. Happy campfire songs played all over the gardens. Everyone loved each other and lived like a family. Souls here were nurtured and showered with all kinds of affection. The affection of a concerned parent, who is ready to sacrifice everything for the happiness of his kid. The affection of a teacher who wants her students to learn, the affection of spouses, friends, and siblings. Every form of affection, from respect to pity, was displayed and celebrated. The ones who believed in polygamy kept multiple partners. For others, the kingdom magically made them meet their “The one”.

As my eyes met those of the Goddess towering over me, I was frozen.

I did not kneel. I simply spoke.

“My Goddess, I came here seeking a place in your kingdom. But I cannot bring myself to do so any longer. I realize that I do not deserve to be here. I’ve lived a selfish life. I took the love of my parents for granted. Not once did I reciprocate that love or think about their happiness. I demanded and demanded from my wife, never stopping to think about what I could do for her. I betrayed my dearest friends when it suited me and I turned my back on my children when they did not do as I asked. The last thing I did as I left my house was to shout at my family. They were crying and all I could think about was my own box of cigarettes.”

Tears started to appear in her eyes as she listened to me.

“You speak the truth, my son. Yours was a life devoid of love and compassion. You have hurt more people than you shall ever realize. My kingdom does not welcome souls such as yourself. But by realising your follies, you have taken the first big step. I hope to someday welcome you into my realm. But for now, you shall have to leave.”

When we reached the next realm, I did not even bother to look around. I dropped down on the floor and within a second, all my pent up emotions burst out in the form of tears.

As always, Father Time placed his hand on my shoulder to comfort me. Sobbing uncontrollably, I spoke.

“Mine is a life wasted and full of regrets. I’ve been so stupid. All these years, how did I never see it? I have behaved like a complete idiot. I had myself squandered my life long before the accident ever could’.

Snot and tears had drenched my face but I went on.

“I am worthless. I could have become an artist, or a true man of the sciences. I could have given my family a better life. Forget loving my family, I could not even love my own self. Please, Take me back to the void you found me in. Let it devour me, eat me, make me a part of itself. I do not want to live in any realm”

Setting down next to me, Father spoke.

“And what purpose would that serve?”

“I don’t deserve to be. Which realm is going to accept someone like me?”

“I know of one that will.”

I looked at him.

“What? Tell me about it? Take me there”

“I already have. Look around.”

Standing up, I noticed the place where Father Time had brought me to for the first time. We were in a dimly lit cave. Apart from the two of us, there was nothing else here. The only sound was that of water trickling in the far distance.

“Where have you brought me? Is this another realm?” I asked Father.

“Yes. This is my realm. I live here. ”

“You… You are a God?”

“Yes.”

It was stupid of me not to realize this earlier. It was so obvious. I had seen his powers. Clearly, Father Time was not a mortal.

“This realm welcomes me?”

“Yes. I welcome all who wish for a second chance. Now, follow.”

We walked towards the sound of trickling water. After a long time, we came across a large and violent river.

Dipping his hand inside the water, Father spoke.

“My realm is not as big and exciting as others we visited. All magical power I can muster, I spend on this river.”

“What’s so special about it,” I asked.

“As long as they truly repent their deeds, It offers souls like you a second chance. Now, step inside and keep swimming upstream until you reach the source. It is going to be a long journey.”

Slightly embarrassed with myself, I told Father that I had never learned how to swim.

“It does not matter. Those who truly wish for another chance cannot drown in this river. Just remember, you have to keep swimming no matter what.”

I stepped inside the river. The water was freezing. I was the coldest I’d even been. I prepared myself for the long swim.

But before I started, I had one last thing to do.

I faced Father Time and asked.

“Is this goodbye?”

“For now, yes,” he replied.

After a few seconds of silence, I spoke again.

“Father?”

“Yes, my child?”

“Thank you for everything.”

He did not reply. But his eyes conveyed more than words ever could.

Slowly and awkwardly, I finally began to swim upstream. I swam for hours. The water was gradually getting warmer and slowly, I began to forget things. I no longer remembered my family or my house. Soon I had forgotten about the accident that killed me, and the various realms that I had visited that day. By the time I reached the white light, I had forgotten who I was and what I was doing. All I remembered was a voice telling me not to stop. There was something about the voice that comforted me and made me trust it completely.

***

A young man rushed to the hospital. He ran into the rain, his expensive clothes drenched. He did not care, he just didn't want to be late. A few minutes ago, he had received some very important news. His wife had gone into labor. Soon, he would become a father.

***

Sarthak Kukreja is a 23-year-old sci-fi nut who spends his time writing short stories with weird endings and struggling to learn the guitar. He is into all kinds of geeky jazz such as Video Games, Anime, Books, Comics, and Movies. He is active on Instagram .

***

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