A 21ST-CENTURY INJUN’S VIEWS OF DEATH & REBIRTH

Excerpt from Divine Play, pp. 866-868

Once, Elkhorn Cooper Voka had a vision.  He treated it as a dream, but he was awake, lying in bed, when it overtook him.  He dreamed he was maybe eighty years old, sitting in a kitchen.  

The little boy sitting at the table with him asked him something.  Charles Bird, his name was.  Grandfather, Charles Bird asked, is there reincarnation?  Do we believe in reincarnation?

Coop mused on how many answers were required.  There were jelly stains on the plastic gingham covering, black scars in the checkerboard linoleum, dented pots on the stove blowing up a steam of sage and chili from the white gas stove.  His wife, Alice, tended to the cooking occasionally, meanwhile smoking a cigarette and reading the newspaper as she stood by the sink.  A lean brown woman, in jeans and flannel shirt¾sixty, but still tall, limber, haughty, with her high cheekbones and aquiline nose and oblanceolate eyes that were too heedful.  There were some facial lines, some white hairs amid the black¾and the hair was chopped short.  I’m too old to do the Indian princess any more, she’d said.

In the attenuatedly brown-carpeted “living” room, a window showed a row of off-white metoplastic prefabs with steep demi-asphalt-shingled roofs, counterparts to this place, and to the others adjacent.  A settlement on greenish sand under a plum-colored sky.  Why replicate the Res of his grandfather’s time a thousand light years from Earth? He could breathe, beyond the sage and chili, dust and scents of dead mice and dry air of desert spring, already too hot, and his own sour odor, the “old man smell,” Alice called it.  Odd how she was a stranger to him, but simultaneously he knew everything about her.

But he must respond to the black-haired, round-faced tawny eleven-year-old that regarded him.

When one lies in his coffin, he began, and by one I mean man, woman, boy, girl or baby―but I say he, so I don’t get slowed down.

You mean to tell us, Alice said, watching through the window, that you can get slower?

Shush, Coop demanded.  When he’s resting in his casket, he continued, they say he dreams of heaven.  And under all that churned up, spaded up soil of his grave, his dream is not disturbed.

Who is they?  Charles Bird asked.

The ones who know about these things.  Don’t worry about that now.  This is transmitted tribal wisdom.

Charles Bird slightly flared his eyes, and he realized the boy couldn’t know about tribe or tales.  The few that had retained such traditions were likely made unsane by them, such as the designers of this settlement, acting out some kind of wish-fulfillment that was not Coop’s wish, nor his fulfillment, any more than the boy’s.  The houses looked flimsy, but metoplastic materials bound in EM would endure for centuries.  The stove burned gas, but the gas was self-contained, recycled.  The huge gray cylinder out back provided endless purified reconstituted water.  A facade of poverty.

He dreams about heaven, as I say, in his grave.  But all the while his body is corroding, corrupting, and some think that when the last fragment dissolves, the dream of heaven ends all at once, like music that stops, uncompleted, when the equipment breaks, and the crowd hardly breathes, the silence intensified by their expectation that it will start again.  But finally the people mutter and laugh and slide on their coats and shuffle to the door, because the silence outlasts them and outmasters them.  Do you understand, or am I carrying on too much?

Always too much, said Alice, stirring the chili with her right hand while the left arm stretched to keep the cigarette above the world.

Like when you’re listening to music and take off the conductors, Charles Bird told him.  It’s so quiet it’s loud.

Yes.  Good.  But when the dream of Paradise fails, there is no dreamer left; there is nothingness.  So some people claim. 

What is nothingness?

The reciprocity of spatial relations, Alice said, paraphrasing Sartre.

What did you say, Grandma?  Charles Bird asked.

 She smiled at him.  I’m just teasing your grandfather, Charlie.  I’m sorry to interrupt.

 She’s right, though, Coop said.  Grandma was quoting a philosopher.  Some philosophers declared that anything outside of a human being’s awareness was nothingness.  Which means―it seems to me―don’t talk about or think about what you don’t notice.  Anyway, not everyone agrees that we end up in nothingness.  Other folks have read science some, and they kinda stir around in their seats and say, Ho, wait up.  I don’t think the body can just vanish.  There would still be molecules, and atoms, and particles, and infinitely smaller bits besides, and they would continue to dream of the kingdom of God.

So God is a dream too?

 Heh!  No, not a “dream” in the way you mean.  We’ve all been schooled that a dream is “imaginary”; therefore ineffective; therefore worthless.  To the ancients, a dream was just another place where a soul can be.   And these “dreaming” particles wouldn’t stay buried.   The earth moves, it trembles, it heaves up, and the dreaming bits would find their way into minerals, and plants, and animals, and people.  So here you are, a young man going through his day, while these particles are rustling, murmuring in their sleep inside you.  That could be where your dreams, your feelings and ideas come from, from all these pieces of folks that lived in the past.  Some Aboriginal people on Earth even called the primeval days the “dreamtime.”

But if you’re filled with these dreaming particles, all your thoughts should be about heaven, shouldn’t they?  I don’t remember ever thinking about heaven.

You’re thinking about it now.

Oh, yeah.  He grinned.  Right.

No, I know what you mean.  Mostly nobody is thinking of heaven.  Not all the dead dream of heaven either.  Some of them put themselves in a hell, maybe a place of fire and torment like the preachers preach, maybe an underground prison where they get stabbed and whipped and pestered by demons, maybe abiding in an empty room, alone, where nothing doesn’t change.  And if you carried around all these hell-fired atoms and particles, do you suppose you’d be a contented, friendly person?

No.

No.  These folks can’t recall a time when they weren’t miserable.  They’re hopeless, they’re angry, and they pour poison down their throats and shove it up their veins, until the one skill they have left is causing misery for everyone.

So life after death is either a good dream or a bad one?

No, Alice said, Grandpa’s just wandering.  You asked about reincarnation.  We believe that humans created that notion, by misreading their holy books.  Even religions that maintain there is no rebirth to this world often describe heaven as if it’s identical to this world. 

She’s right, Charles Bird.  But the good thing about those “earthly” heavens is that they’re telling us that God made one universe, not two, not a material place and a spiritual place.  And one set of laws apply to everything.  You see?  That brings science and religion together.  It would be like mathematics and geology.  Equations and rocks?  How can they be part of one thing, anything?  But when you study them far enough, you realize the principles are the same.  Why would the people of the world think heaven is like earth? 

Because that’s all they know.

Exactly!  You are exactly right!  My grandson, he said, turning to Alice.  The genius.

Sure!  she replied.  You know what a genius is, Charles Bird?

Uh….  He glanced at Coop.  No.

A genius is a person that reproduces geniuses.  She was not looking at them, but she was smirking.

OK, let’s not mess with that, said Coop.  Your grandmother’s making etymological humor.  She’s a genius too….  Anyway, as you correctly observed, all people know about is this world.  A human being starts here.   His immortal indestructible soul begins when he’s conceived in his mother―or in a Petri dish, or in a geno cell library.  All his ideas, all his fantasies, expressions, metaphors, jokes, emotions―all of it is centered on this world.  What are you studying in science class?

Today was the four bosonic string theories in 26 spacetime dimensions.

Way beyond old fluff head, here, Alice replied, her mouth clamped about her cigarette, her forefingers pointing at her head.

Stop, he chided.  She knew it annoyed him when she proclaimed her “shallowness.” But that was his style as well―inconsistent.  Can you visualize a bosonic string?

Depends if it’s an open string or―no.

How could human beings comprehend an existence without bodies, or light, or time or space or duration or forms, or sights and sounds?  If you could appear after death and tell them, the words would just be like noises you hear all around you, whose source you can’t locate, made by creatures or things you can’t identify, for purposes you can’t appreciate.  But that existence, that we call the “next world” or “heaven” or the “afterlife,” is here, not up above, not far away, but right here, but we don’t have the equipment to perceive it.  So reincarnation isn’t so far wrong.  When we die, we don’t “come back” here.  We never left “here”!  And yet this life and the next are as different as “x2 + y2 = z2” is from igneous rock….  Meantime, you have to contend with everything around you.

 I wish you would contend with that broken step to the porch, Alice observed, before Charles Bird’s family comes back and somebody gets a busted bone.

You see?  I couldn’t focus on heaven or eternity or anything for five seconds without being reminded that I have to keep mending all the holes and broken steps and overgrown lawns and dirty dishes and flat tires and sickness and arguments and lost jobs in the cosmos. 

No, Alice said, running water over the embrous tip of the herbal cigarette, and fetching bowls and cups from the overhead cabinets and passing them out.  There is a condition, not a place, just beyond what we can see, where human souls exist forever, and they are happy or sad according to the good they did in this universe.

So you believe that, Grandpa?  Charles Bird wondered.

I told you grandma was a genius, Coop said, and when Alice looked at him, added, is a genius.  I would never doubt anything she says.

It was pretty likely he had avoided an answer, but Charles Bird was smiling, and that was sufficient for the vision to end.

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About Tom Ukinski

Tom Ukinski is an attorney in state government in the Midwest. He's been writing plays, novels, short stories, comedy sketches and screenplays for many years.
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