(first published in Potato Soup Journal, July 5th, 2021)
At first when I died, it was rather predictable. Beginning with that out-of-body-experience thing: I’m hovering, up near the ceiling, in the local Accident & Emergency Department, looking down on a rather battered and splattered me, plus an attendant nurse and junior doctor. Then it’s the dark-tunnel thingy, with a wee pin-prick of light that’s starting to get bigger and brighter, and bigger and brighter.
And then…. Pop! I’m in a largish, empty room with white walls. Now it starts to get different…
The white door opens and Leonard Cohen comes in. He consults his clipboard: ‘Hello, erm, Malcolm Barnstable? Welcome to the First Circle; I’m your guide. My name’s Cohen, Leonard Cohen. According to my records here, you were run over by a herd of dairy cows. We don’t get many of those.’
It took me a second or two to gather my wits. ‘Got you now: it’s Dante’s First Circle of Hell, for all those nice pagans. And you’re the stand-in guide for Virgil, as a fellow poet?’
‘That’s pretty much it, Malcolm. Call me Leonard, why dontcha? Virgil’s still knocking about. But, with the numbers coming in these days, he’s needing a helping hand. So Percy and I now do the English speakers.
‘Yeah, Percy Shelley. “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,” and all that.’
‘I see. Er, you’re not wearing laurel leaves on your brow?’
‘Nope, no leaves. They were offered, but I prefer the fedora – it’s kind of a trademark. But Percy wears the old laurel leaves. He said it was either that or some seaweed. You’re stuck with me because you’re down in the records as “agnostic.” If you’d been signed up as “atheist,” you’d ‘ve got Percy. You want your tour just now? Or would you like a spot of nectar first?’
I settled for the nectar, which I could definitely develop a taste for. As tactfully as I could, I asked about Leonard’s co-habitation of the Agnostic First Circle.
‘Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s true that, strictly speaking, I’m a Jewish Zen Buddhist, but that’s a pretty small constituency. And you might say that agnosticism is a central tenet of Zen Buddhist practice. Though if you had the inclination, I could nit-pick that one with you. After all, you’ll find you have plenty of time here for long discussions of abstract…’
And then: Woah! Oooff! Ouch! Suddenly, I’m back in Accident & Emergency.