This was not what he'd imagined death would be like. Not searchlights and barbed wire, not the loudspeakers blaring away in a hundred different languages, their message incoherent in each. Not these long lines of naked men who stood huddling into themselves for warmth because the fact of their deaths had turned their very skins into a memory that no one else could touch. Not the bitterness of this cold that seeped into you like a judgement, that echoed through the architecture of your bones like a great cry.
They shivered in it, these unfortunate men, shivered in the poverty of bodies grown slack with age, bodies whose shame they had long trusted only to the promised confidentiality of mirrors, so that to see their frailty so cruelly exposed here was to lose the will to look distance in the face. Some of the men were crying - coins of delicate silver falling from their eyes covered in blood. Others held their heads high in a trembling defiance. Terror hung in the air like smoke.
In the watchtowers above them, the guards seemed indifferent, even bored, their faces set in a permanent scowl. There was nothing new for them in this sight, and they thought of the souls of men as so much laundry - white trembling shapes to be pinned to the skyline and left out to dry. They held submachine guns in their hands and cigarettes between their lips, and their pitiless faces seemed in stark contrast to the feathery white of their uniforms, its starched wings curving out in perfect arcs on either side. Only once, when one of the waiting men seemed to stray away from the barely moving line, did the guards show a reaction, swivelling their guns towards the man in a quick, threatening motion, shouting something incomprehensible at him and ushering him back. The message was clear. Try to leave this line and you would be shot.
But what would it mean to get shot if you were already dead, he wondered? Would it hurt? Would it be fatal? Is it even possible to die a second time? Is death an infinite sequence then, with each death taking you further and further away from life, like points on a line that, having once interesected life, now moves away from it forever? What was going on here? What did all this mean? Could these guards be angels, he thought to himself. Could this be heaven? Surely not. Am I in hell then? Wouldn't they tell you before they sent you there, wouldn't they want to rub it in? Give you a long sermon gloating about the enormity of your sins and how it was too late to do anything about it, lingering lovingly over the details of the punishment to come? Surely you weren't expected to figure it all out for yourself - just land up this way, unannounced and minus your clothes, waiting patiently for someone to let you in. It was all too preposterous. Besides, Hell was supposed to be hot, not cold. So what was this place?
He considered asking the people standing next to him in line, but a few initial hellos had been met with incomprehension, and he realised that neither of his neighbours spoke English. It figured, he supposed - what with all the people dying every minute all over the world it wasn't exactly surprising. He tried to recall the little Spanish he'd learnt at high school, then gave it up as hopeless. He tried peering down the line to see if he could spot someone more familiar, someone who could perhaps understand him - but the faces of the men in this line had already taken on the gray anonymity of death, they had blurred like newspaper photographs, so that it was difficult to tell one man from another.
At least he wasn't hungry. He wondered if the processes of digestion and excretion still applied to him. He tried to sense his bladder but all he could feel inside him was emptiness - not hunger, but a hollowness complete in itself, as though someone had scooped all the insides out of him and left this outer shell behind. That's all we are, he thought to himself, walking eggshells, just waiting to be broken.
Three hours later (if time could still be thought of as passing in this place) the end of the line became visible - it was a squat, gray building, like a large shed or a barrack, rising out of the mist. When he finally reached it and stepped inside, a guard ushered him towards a table where a clerk sat on a high stool, a large register open before him. "Name?", the man asked, with the brisk officiousness of clerks everwhere. "Occupation?" "Date of Death?" "Place of death?" "Age at time of death?". The thin scratching sound of a pencil scribbling in his answers. He was confused now. Shouldn't the clerk be looking him up, instead of asking him for these details? He supposed this information would be passed on to those concerned. Maybe Death was like a bank, you took in all the day's deposits and then reconciled them in the back office.
When the clerk was done he handed him a slip of paper with a 12 digit number on it, and shouted "Next!" while waving at him to move on. There was a door on the other side. He walked through it and found himself in what looked like a dentist's office. Two labcoated assistants took the slip of paper from him, ushered him into the high chair in the centre of the room, strapped him in. For a moment he just sat there in silence, then, just as the questions in his mind were forming themselves into words, there was the clang of a machine and sharp, sudden pain sizzled up his arm. He cried out, his eyes clenching as he tried to overcome the agony. So it was still possible to feel pain after you were dead, he thought as his mind finally cleared. That was useful to know. He looked down. The twelve digit number from the slip of paper had been branded into his forearm. For the first time since he had died and come to this place, he felt truly afraid.
Shown out of the branding room by a guard, he found himself in the largest waiting room he had ever seen. Miles and miles of wooden benches stretched in every direction. Under the high, dimly-lit ceiling the silence echoed without aid from human voices. There was the fug of eternal waiting, of flights delayed forever, of trains that would never, ever arrive. As he sat down on a cold bench, it occured to him that the whole room looked vaguely like one of those stark churches he had seen on a trip to Austria, except that the place of the crucifix had been taken by a clock whose hands at stopped at midnight.
Every now and then a number was shouted out over the PA system in this room, and somewhere in the distance a wan figure would stand up, shuffle his way out. It didn't take much to see that the number of these calls was far exceeded by the number of people coming into the waiting area from the branding room, so that the number of people in the waiting room was constantly increasing. Were there some who never got called? he wondered. What if he was one of them, what if he had to spend all eternity on this wooden bench, like a common tramp, sleeping fitfully on its hard surface - or rather trying to believe in the possibility of sleep, which is the only belief still possible for those who have died.
It seemed like forever before his name was called; no, it seemed like an instant. It was difficult to judge in this place, where nothing happened. Can time be said to pass if nothing changes, he wondered, is there time in the empty forest before the tree falls? He didn't know. His brain felt fuzzy, out of focus. He moved towards the exit (there were no signs to guide him, but some instinct told him where it was) knowing only that almost anything would be better than getting stuck in this place.
At the exit, he was met by a couple of guards who confirmed his name, then whipped a hood over his head, and led him away. He went stumbling down invisible staircases, was dragged along passages that he recognised from their smell and from the constant sound of water dripping somewhere in the distance, so familiar from his nightmares. When the hood was taken off him, he found himself blinking in a tiny cell, its space almost entirely taken up by a large table at the other end of which sat the Questioner. He didn't know how he knew he was the Questioner - he just did. He wasn't dressed that differently from the other guards, but there was something about him, an air of authority, the sense of invisible threads of command spreading out from him to the others, like strands of some malign cobweb. He didn't look particularly threatening - he looked bored, and therein lay the secret of his menace.
The Questioner read out his name. He nodded. Suddenly a searing light was switched on right in his face, the pain of it slicing cleanly through his eyes. "Right", the Questioner said, "get on with it. Tell us the truth". "About what?", he asked, bewildered and in pain. "About yourself, your life", the Questioner answered, "look, we know you're a miserable sinner. We know you've committed adultery and murder and all those other sins. So don't waste our time. Just come clean now and it won't go too badly with you. Try to lie to us and we will have to hurt you. You don't want that." "But, but, I don't understand, who are you? What is this place? Am I in hell?" "No, hell is what's waiting for you when we're done with you. We're the angels of Death, we're here to get you to make a full confession of your sins before we send you through. But no more questions. Tell us what we want to hear or else. Now, how many people did you murder in your time on earth" "Me? Murder? No, no, I didn't kill anyone. I never even tried to harm anyone. Look, there's obviously been some mistake, I - " A stabbing pain in his left hand cut him short. He looked down and saw that one of the Questioner's assistants had tied a rusty thumbscrew onto his little finger, and was turning the handle to screw the point deep into his flesh. As he watched, he gave it another turn and the agony shot through his arm afresh. He tried to scream, but no sound came out. A thin pool of his blood was forming on the table, trickling through the cracks in the wood to the floor. He couldn't believe this was happening. He looked into the faces of his interrogators and saw no mercy there, only the jaded professionalism of men grown tired of repetitive work.
Perhaps he should just tell them what they wanted. In the stare of those eyes, he felt a deep sense of guilt swelling in him. Perhaps, after all, he had harmed someone, had killed someone. Something inside of him protested against this thought. No, no, he was innocent, this was all a mistake - he had to hold on to that, had to convince them that they'd got the wrong person. He gritted his teeth and prepared himself for the pain to come.
He didn't know how long it was before he opened his eyes and found that he was out of the cell and lying in a white hospital bed. Every inch of his body screamed with pain - he looked down and his hands were bandaged stumps, and he couldn't feel his right leg. He heard a bell ring somewhere and started in fear. What have they done to me? he thought.
The next time he regained consciousness, a kindly bearded face was peering down at him. "Congratulations", it said, "you've made it! A little rest here and you'll be all set to enter Heaven." "Heaven", he said, "I'm going to Heaven?". "Indeed you are", the doctor said, for it was now clear that that was what he was, "where else could a fine, pure person like you go?" "But the Questioner? The cell?" "That's all over with", the doctor said, brushing it aside lightly, "a mere formality, in fact. You've lost a leg, I'm afraid, and your hands will take a long time to heal, but your bones will mend eventually and then we'll fit you up with a prosthetic and you'll be on your way. It's nothing really, just a quick pit stop before you head out into eternity".
"I'm so relieved. I knew it was a mistake all along. I kept telling them that but they wouldn't believe me."
"Mistake?", the doctor said, his eyebrows rising, "No mistake - that's just standard procedure. You have to go through the angels of Death before you come here."
"But they tortured me, they did terrible things to me, you see yourself the wounds I have"
"So? There's nothing new in that. How would they find out whether you were innocent or not unless they interrogated you?"
"Shouldn't they know already? Don't they have records, couldn't they look them up to see if I've been a good person?"
The doctor laughed. "I see you're still labouring under the old human misconception that we watch over you while you're alive. We do nothing of the sort, of course - just think of the logistical difficulties of it - monitoring 6 billion people all the time. Besides, it's inefficient. Why go to all that trouble when we can just question it out of you when you get here?"
"But what if you accused someone of something they didn't do and they were so terrified of you that they admitted to it? I know I almost did."
"Weakness of character. Lying to the Angels of Death. All serious flaws I'm afraid. Look, okay, so maybe now and then we'll get someone who'll confess to something they didn't really do and will end up going to Hell when they deserved to make it to Heaven. So what? Heaven's pretty crowded anyway - they've got so much more space in Hell. It's not like a few less people up here is going to make a difference."
"So you mean that's all it comes down to - all those prayers and things we do down on Earth have no meaning - it's all about what you say in that interrogation cell?"
"Pretty much. Though, of course, there are parts of the ritual that are useful to us. The Angels of Death introduced the whole concept of confession to help them in their work, for example. They find that people who've been schooled in it will tell them what they want so much more readily. It makes their job a lot easier, and they've already got too much of a backlog. But enough talking. You should rest now. In a few days we'll be releasing you and then you can be happy forever and forget about all these sordid little details. Goodbye. I'll see later. Oh, and congratulations once again."
Watching the doctor leave, he sank back onto his pillow, lay staring at the pearly white ceiling for a while. Then he raised himself on one arm and looked at the ward around him. There they lay - the blessed - laid out in their beds of wretchedness, swathed in bandages, each man bearing bravely the wounds that had won him his place in heaven.