Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
Editorial    
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Poetry
Features
Series
Archives
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Forum
Flash Writing Challenge
Forum
Dan's Promo Page
   

The Tale of the Heavenly Bureaucracy

by Stephen Weinstock


On the road of Heaven, Cta walked by the beautiful temples where souls congregated to discuss their lives and study timeless scriptures. It was cold amid the dense, wet clouds and she detested being left outside, but none of the buildings were open to her. She walked for miles until in the distance she saw an office with rows upon rows of cubicles, but not enclosed in any building.

Getting closer, Cta came upon a huge line of souls in front of a white reception desk. She inquired about the queue, but was only told, "Get your form here."

Cta got in line, supposing it a necessary step to further herself in Heaven. The line moved sluggishly, but finally Cta stood in front of an official.

His white lab coat rustled in the damp wind, reminding Cta of billowing wings. Without looking up, the official said, "Cta. New from Europe, Earth, 17th Century. Religion?"

Unsure of the question, Cta replied, "In the last lifetime? I didn't really have one --"

"None," the official said curtly, entering data on a form attached to a glass board. "Station L-14006, on your left. Next!"

Cta took the form-board and walked down the endless row of cubicles. Each section was marked by a letter, at first in the Greek alphabet, then dozens of other alphabets, and finally English. By the time she reached Section L, Row 14000, Cta was exhausted; her feet ached in the thin sandals she had adored at first. Now she hated them.

Another official seated in a cubicle took Cta's board. There was no chair for her. "No religion, is it?"

"I didn't know what to say -- or why," she answered, testily.

"No attitude, please," the official said. "We run a tight ship. All based on a soul's religion. There's the usual complaints, relatives with differing denominations separated, but it's perfectly simple: you're in Heaven; who's your God? Things run smoothly. What more do you want?"

"I want to know where I'm supposed to go and what I'm supposed to do."

"What you do is your business; where you go is mine." The official stamped the paper from the board and kept it, then placed three luminescent sheets on the board. "Fill this out in triplicate."

Cta sat on the floor next to the cubicle and looked at the form. She saw nothing at first. Who would have thought Heaven was such a bureaucracy? Cta appreciated a well-run system, but wanted to understand it. Suddenly the form lit up and a strange face appeared on the first sheet. It was human, with cat whiskers and ears. In a sweet, needy voice, the cat-form spoke. "Sorry I kept you waiting. Shall we start? Name?"

Amused by the talking form, Cta told it her name.

"Right," the cat-form said. "Cat."

"No, no. Cta. C - T - A."

"Sorry. Awfully close to my name. Bit of a mix-up, wouldn't that be! Me without a religion and you stuck in a form. Right. C - T - A. Any dead relatives?"

"Yes! My mother and father. Will I see them?" Cta asked excitedly.

"Not at that step yet. Must go in order. Date of death?" The cat-form continued its questions, botching many of the answers on the form. When finished, the cat-form said, "Now in triplicate. Turn the sheet for the next copy."

"It won't automatically copy?" Cta said, weary of the process.

"Heavens no. Won't take a moment." Cta turned the page and was startled by a second face, this one gnarled and unfriendly.

"About time! Stupid cat takes forever," the mean-spirited form growled. "Name?"

"Cta."

"I know, I know! Dead relatives?"

"My mother and --"

"Father. Don't you think I know already? Good Lord!"

"If you know all the answers from the first form, why didn't you enter them before?"

The mean-form looked completely affronted by Cta's comment. "Are you telling me how to do my job? Do you think I haven't thought of these things? It's absurd, but it works!"

Cta apologized. "Please, I'm tired. Do you have to be so mean?"

"What's the worst that can happen?" the form said. "You're dead now. Just answer the questions." Cta went through the form again, this time badgered and scolded through the whole procedure. She wondered if she hadn't taken a wrong turn to Hell.

Eventually the mean-form bullied Cta to fill out the third page of the form. Turning the page anxiously, Cta was shocked to see her own reflection on the glossy sheet.

"You should know all my information. Do I have to go through this again?"

"Do I have to go through this again?" the Cta-double mimicked in a whiny voice. "Of course, it's triplicate. Name?"

Cta sighed in exasperation. "Cta."

"No, no, no, no, no," the reflection said. "What name would you like in Heaven?"

"That's my soul name. It's what I'm called in the interlife."

"Don't want anything snazzier?"

Cta thought a moment. Cachatelle? Cachacachayaya? No, no. "Cta will do."

"Excellent answer," the double said. "Dead relatives?"

"Mother and Father."

"Do you wish them dead? Would you rather they were alive again?"

But I'm dead, Cta thought. And I may get to see them. And I've come to terms with their death over the years. "No thank you, Miss Trick Question. I accept them dead."

And so it went. The same exact questions, with the false Cta asking leading questions for Cta to rethink the meaning of her answers, which ended up being the same exact answers.

Except for the last one. "So," the Cta double said, "no religion?"

Cta stopped to think: I don't like what they're up to here, but I should answer the truth. Damn them! "No accepted religion. I was a witch. I believed in a divine being and a lord of the underworld. But I practiced white magic, not Satan worship. For the good of humanity."

"Ahhhh," the double murmured. "That explains why you have the magical version of form 6.02." Cta saw the cat, the mean-form, and the two officials peering over the double's shoulder out of curiosity. "Religion: Other," the double wrote. "Occult."

With that, the official from the cubicle snatched the form-board, tore off the sheets, and processed them. After an eternity, he spoke to Cta. "Occult, Section 43. Off you go."

Back on the road of Heaven, Cta went in search of Section 43 of the Occult area. She noticed clapboard street signs pointing off in various directions at intersections, with signs like "Catholic Cloister," "Buddhist Mountain," and "Jewish Quarter." Once again feeling left out in the cold wet air, and not knowing where to turn, she headed into the Jewish area to have a look. As expected she saw families lighting candles, rabbis unrolling scrolls, and in one chamber, a group gazing upward at a galaxy of lights projected from an odd, metal menorah. Wandering to areas with unfamiliar religions, she overheard a fascinating debate between Dynydyans and Aplpaoans, two aesthete factions from a prior universe. Despite their distant age, Cta recognized them as ancestors of the wild followers of Dionysos pitted against the beautifully formal worshippers of Apollo.

Breaking her concentration on the debate, a voice spoke to her: "Are you lost?" Cta looked at the form-board and saw a new face, a conductor with a heavily lined complexion. "You could use a good map," the kindly man said. His face dissolved, its lines changing to streets on a map. "Just tell me where you want to go," the pleasant voice continued. Cta explained her destination and the map-form-board guided her, transforming into new charts as she entered an area. When the map led her to the Protestants and then the Catholics, Cta explained that in her Scottish lifetime wars between those factions had emptied coffers meant for good people, and she had rejected both religions in favor of using the occult for political action.

Finally, the map reached the Occult section, where all kinds of witches, magicians, and necromancers were busy sending spells. "Best protection against Down Below if you ask me," the friendly voice said. "Good people, with our best interests at heart. Unlike their devil-loving cousins, whom they ward off. As for Section 43, see this hallway? Go to the end, turn left, go five doors down, and then go into the sixth. Best of luck." With that, the map disappeared and Cta's reflection reappeared on the form-board. She walked down the hallway, turned left, went down five doors, but she lost count and instead of entering the sixth door, she walked through the seventh.

Before walking through the wrong door, Cta had been impressed by what she had seen: the tidy organization produced well-integrated small groups alive with discussion about how the beliefs had effected their lifetimes. She entered the seventh room expecting to find kindred spirits who would contribute to her evolution as a soul. Instead, she found a barren wasteland, much brighter and starker than the misty clime of Heaven. The door shut behind her, locked.

Cta hiked down the path of Heaven as it wound through this wilderness, looking for anyone or anything. She consulted her form-board but it only reflected her frightened countenance. When she cried out for help, the form came to life as a fiery looking preacher.

"What is it, sister? Surely you see you've been cast out?" Cta certainly felt that way, but demanded to know why. The preacher's robe flailed about as he gesticulated. "As an ethereal being in the prehistoric world you held dark sway over those who heeded you. In the ancient world you were greedy and conspiratorial in your positions of power. In recent times you were bitter and loveless, so you sought comfort in obsessive, inflexible ways that hampered your powers. A fitting reward for your past, sister. Even as an unclean witch you failed both your peers and those attached to you from the ancient days. You don't deserve to be with your own kind. Thus you are cast out!"

The preacher vanished from the form-board in a puff of smoke. In shock, Cta stumbled aimlessly down the path. Yes, as the young witch with outsized responsibilities, she had gone by the book, literally her grandmother's book of witchlore. Hadn't she outgrown that inflexible tendency? Cta's head spun with the vastness of the preacher's other accusations.

After a time, she came upon a figure seated alongside a secluded curve in the path, under a gingko tree: a wizened female with bright eyes and a half smile "Welcome," she said, sage-like in her tone. "Another fortunate soul jettisoned from the offices of Heaven, Inc."

Cta felt relief just hearing the sage's humorous attitude toward her fate. "It's crazy there. Just when I was admiring its organization and understanding the value of its rules, I'm thrown out."

"In Heaven, sometimes we are denied our own folly," the sage said.

Cta considered. "So my folly is mad, rule-bound fixation, like what I've just experienced?"

"You said it, not me. Are you rule-bound?"

"I like a good bureaucracy," Cta said, "especially if it favors me. I admit it."

"There's comfort in making everyday life seem like it's only everyday life."

"Isn't it?"

"Even Heaven protects us from the searing light, by organizing religions to death."

Cta responded, "My inflexible organization protected me from searing truth?"

The sage shrugged. "To let it go is to release yourself."

"And enter paradise." Cta was surprised by her response. Exhausted from walking, she sat down under the gingko tree. Undoing the straps from her sandals, Cta spoke quietly to the sage seated next to her. "Between you and me, I'd be happy with a decent pair of shoes."

THE END


© 2010 Stephen Weinstock

Bio: Stephen Weinstock's novel 1001, based on the Arabian Nights, is an eleven book series about a group of people who discover they have shared 1001 past lives; the series has 1001 chapters, each containing a past life tale. Other stories from the project can be read at the sites for Liquid Imagination, Infinite Windows, and the upcoming new Matters Most Extraordinary. Stephen has worked as dance composer/musician at Juilliard and the 'Fame' School, co-written the award-winning sound-theater piece Mt. Quad, and composed the musical Rock and Roy, with Barry Jay Kaplan, about the double life of Rock Hudson.

E-mail: Stephen Weinstock

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.