I died in a tropical rain forest, protesting the logging industry. I didn’t want to die, but I was prepared for it. I had left a will, I had talked to my family about the risks, I had meditated and read the right sorts of books. I had many thoughts about the afterlife.
None of them prepared me to go from bleeding out on the banks of the Orinoco River, lush and green and surrounded by screeching construction equipment, to a silent, frozen birch forest, with no clear transition. I died angry, not ready to be done. I opened my eyes and was somewhere else. Still angry. Still not ready.
There was still a river. It was snow-covered, solid from shore to shore. I wouldn’t have recognized it as a river at all, if I hadn’t gone to college in Wisconsin, where rivers got like that annually.
“What the actual,” I said out loud, and I could see my breath on the frozen air. My neck was no longer pumping blood onto the ground beside me. I was dressed for the weather: jeans, boots, a wool coat, even a hat. Mittens. When was the last time I had worn mittens.
“This must be hell,” I said out loud, and thought better of it: in hell, my mittens would have a hole in them, or one would be missing, or they’d be wet already.
I stood up.
“It’s not the hell you were expecting,” said an alto behind me, and I jumped and nearly slid down the snowy bank onto the icy river.
“Sorry,” she continued. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m Lydia. This is hell. But not, like, Satan’s hell.”
“Cora,” I said, slowly offering her a mitten-covered hand to shake.
“It’s the Greek hell,” she continued. “Unexpected, right? Most people I meet here have thought, well, will it be Christian, will it be Buddhist, will it be, I don’t know, some kind of interdenominational interdimensional woo-woo combo platter. But nope! It’s Greek! Wild, huh?”
I was trying to muster a response to this news when a whooshing, hissing sound overtook us from around the bend in the river. I turned back to look. A sledge sailed past, pulled by six reindeer with glowing antlers. A man in red stood on it, cracking the whip.
“Was that—was that Santa Claus?” I said.
She stared at me. “No, just some Saami guy.”
“What’s he doing in Greek hell?”
“What are you doing in Greek hell?”
“I don’t know!”
Lydia shook her head. “Honestly I don’t think that it’s hell for the Saami, I think it’s just sort of…what there is. And if you hadn’t figured it out already, it’s not the punishment kind of hell—at least not for everybody. The Greeks didn’t do that, it’s gotten tangled up with Milton and everyone else.”
“How does Milton get to influence my afterlife?” I demanded. “I don’t care about Milton, I don’t even care about A. E. Housman.”
“Of course you do. No one who doesn’t care about A. E. Housman knows the Milton reference.”
“‘And malt does more than Milton can,’ yep, I know it too.” She peered at me. “Don’t expect a great deal of malt here; if the Greeks were big on it, they didn’t import it to hell.”
I tried not to scowl. Bad enough that I wasn’t doing anything useful; worse that I wasn’t doing anything enlightening. I had to figure out how to get myself out of this. “I think I’m more lost than when we started this conversation.”
“I get that a lot.”
“Are you some kind of Beatrice or—”
“That’s Dante,” she said patiently. “I’m beginning to regret bringing up poets. I told you, it’s not that kind of hell. No, I’m just…I’ve been here awhile. I know the ropes.”
“So this is the Styx?” I said, looking at the frozen river. “I expected it to be…wetter.”
Lydia laughed, but not meanly. “There are five rivers,” she said. “The Styx, the Lethe—those are the ones people know—and the Acheron, the Phlegethon, and this one. The Cocytus. Come sit with me, let’s get comfortable so I can explain.”
It was clear that Lydia knew the terrain—she chose a copse of birch trees just up the riverbank that were thick and sturdy enough to lean on comfortably, with a soft cushion of moss beneath them, shielded from the snow.
“Not that one,” she said as I was about to sit down against a tree. “Here, further in.”
“It’ll be quieter.” I supposed she was right. The frozen river winked and gleamed at us through gaps in the trees, but the rushing noise from under the ice was almost completely masked by the ice itself, and by the branches of the forest surrounding us.
“The Acheron is the river of woe,” she said. “It’s for cleansing. You go in, and the stuff you’ve done wrong stays there without you.”
I made a face. “Must be pretty polluted. Human sins, yuck.”
Lydia stared at me. “I hadn’t honestly thought of it.”
“People mostly don’t,” I said, the edge of my old organizer’s anger swimming beneath the surface.
“Well. There’s the Phlegethon, which is the river of fire. Be glad we’re not there. It boils violent people.”
“I thought that was just the Christian hell!”
“Nope, we’ve got one here, too, it’s just that not everyone goes there. Rapists, murderers, dictators, that sort of crime. Nasty stuff. I’ve seen the edges of it, when I walk long enough. You don’t want to, trust me.”
I wondered how long Lydia had been here, how long I could expect to be here. But I stayed quiet and let her finish.
“Our river is the Cocytus, the home of traitors and frauds.”
“Should I even be trusting you telling me this? It’s sort of one of those, whatchacallit, philosophy conundrums, isn’t it? You tell me you’re a fraud, so…which time are you lying?”
Lydia smiled. “Sir Mix-a-Lot likes big butts and he cannot lie, Sir Mix-a-Lot’s identical twin brother does not like big butts and cannot tell the truth? I don’t know what to tell you, Cora. I don’t think I’m a traitor or a fraud, but this is where I wound up. Maybe that’s why I’m still here.”
I tapped my finger on my chin, thinking. Did this mean I was a traitor, too–or a fraud? I gulped. Every activist had to wonder. No matter how dedicated you were—and dying for a cause struck me as pretty dedicated, thanks—there were always ways to be better. Truer, deeper, purer. There was always someone who was.
But that’s true of whatever you are. If you’re rich, you know other rich people—you know other richer people. You may be other people’s richest friend, but you’re almost never your own. Same thing for artistic success, beauty—or poverty, ugliness, despair. We cluster, we humans. We find others like ourselves. So activists find other activists. I was certainly the most dedicated activist my cousin Sylvia knew, but I was not the most dedicated I knew.
Did that make me a fraud?
I couldn’t see how. I had dedicated over a decade of my life to the cause. When the earthmovers showed up, I stood my ground. There was nothing more real than that.
So why was I in this part of hell? What sent me to an afterlife on the banks of the river of lamentations? That had never been my thing. I wore my first “Don’t mourn, organize” T-shirt when I was fifteen. Surely this was not my hell. Surely this was not my river.
I never believed in a perfect universe. Maybe this was all a mistake.
Lydia was waiting patiently for me to sort my thoughts—or perhaps she was just breathing, taking in the smell of ice and trees. Just being. If she’d been in hell a long time, maybe she had learned a lot about just being.
“Thanks for telling me,” I finally said. She nodded. “Is there—what else should I know? Anything?”
She sighed. “This is the worst part. It’s easier to show you than to explain it. You’re sure you don’t want another minute to relax?”
“No. Show me.”
We got up and walked back to the river, our boots crunching on a layer of snow once we were out of the shelter of the trees. I followed her around the curve of the river, looking mostly at Lydia. When I glanced at this new stretch of river, I gasped involuntarily.
There were people in it.
“Jesus Christ!” I yelped.
Lydia shook her head. “Haven’t seen him.” I gave her a not-funny smirk and took another step toward to the river to give them a closer look. The river had frozen around them, but they stood at varying heights in it. Some were frozen up to their knees only, some up to their chins, some visible as dark forms under the ice. Their exposed skin was limned with frost, their hair hung with icicles. Those whose heads were above the water had frozen expressions of anguish, open mouth, closed eyes.
Not a sound came from them.
“Remember what I told you about the traitors and the frauds,” said Lydia.
I surveyed them again. You couldn’t tell by looking—of course, the frost obscured a lot. But even so, it was hard to imagine that I would know, looking into their faces, what crime had brought them to this fate.
Which returned me, annoyingly enough, to me.
Lydia and I were not submerged in the river, frozen like the traitors and frauds. And she didn’t seem surprised to see another person—like she was accustomed to all of this. “Can I…have a moment to myself? I need to think about all of this.”
Lydia shrugged. “Of course. Take all the time you want. I’ll be here, apparently.”
Apparently. So for all that Lydia was showing me the ropes, she didn’t have a complete picture. I supposed that made sense: I didn’t get a rulebook in life, why should I in death. Still, it would have been convenient. I wandered back the way I’d come, lost in thought. Why me, why here, why now…well, now was covered with “that was when I happened to die.”
It was suddenly hard to swallow, hard to breathe. I blinked back the tears forming in my eyes, scrubbing at them with my mitten tips. Don’t mourn, organize. Right. It was time for some literal organization.
I slammed the heel of my hand against one of the nearest birch trees in frustration and then reared back, startled. I touched again, more carefully.
The birch was wailing.
I could only hear the sobs when I touched it. The trees lamented on the inside. But once I was in contact, it came through my bones, fierce and sad and overwhelming.
The tree I’d been sitting against hadn’t done that. No wonder Lydia had told me it would be quieter. Tentatively, I reached my mitten out to the next tree. The noise was fainter. Another two trees away from the river and it was gone.
The trees that were close enough to send roots into the river were in mourning.
I pondered this but couldn’t make sense of it, at least not in a way that helped me. In life, I would have had the moral dilemma of how to use this to fuel people’s understanding of the crisis trees faced with polluted water sources, without damaging the trees further. But I was not in a situation where media strategy would help, unless I wanted to harangue the people in the river. I saw no indication they could help me.
I wasn’t sure anyone could.
The Saami man on the sled who had gone hurtling past: had Lydia even tried talking to him? Perhaps he was here for the same reason we were, whatever that was.
The cold had seeped through my winter clothes. It was not enough to be debilitating. It was enough to be uncomfortable. I’d left this kind of weather on purpose, and I couldn’t help but think of my return as temporary. Lydia didn’t seem to have housing of any kind. How could I build a life with just a river and some trees and whoever wandered by? Visits to the Popsicle people?
But if it was as simple as walking until I found an exit, I had a feeling Lydia would have tried that. She said she’d walked. I got up anyway and walked into the forest. Hell allowed it. I walked and walked among the trees. The scenery didn’t change.
I turned to see what the view behind me looked like, and the river was still visible through the trees, as if I had never left.
I tried walking upriver for a long time—probably days or weeks—and then back down. It was all much the same. None of it gave me any relief, any variation, any…life. Any life at all. All of my explorations, all of my attempts to find something to push or pull or twist or bend—all of it came to nothing.
Sleep did not seem to be an option either, though in the plus column I wasn’t hungry. But that made it worse somehow: an eternity without making scrambled eggs, drinking a cup of coffee, even eating an ice cream cone in the frigid weather? An eternity of icy toes never getting either dangerously cold or comfortably warm? No. No. There had to be some way out.
I’d had experiences with other people being mean and capricious, uncaring, cold. It never occurred to me to believe that the universe would be the same, and I couldn’t believe it now.
Cold. Now there was something I had been accused of. For all my passion for the natural world, I had spent my life calculating how to get the most out of my activism: how to reach people, how to create actual change. And that had not always sat well with my more passionate comrades in arms, who did not always want to stop to consider every alternative in minute detail. I had always felt that my planning served us all well, but did someone—something—register it as something less than genuine?
I leaned against another tree absentmindedly, and its soft moan shook me deeply. I wanted to wail along, to pour all my disappointment at being dead at all into the bark of the tree, the moss at its base.
My scalp tingled. There was a warmth in my toes that I hadn’t felt since before I’d died. I needed to use this, I needed to be at full capacity to use this. I swallowed hard, and then once more, to try to get control of myself.
My toes chilled immediately. My fingers ached again in my mittens.
Did it need my tears? Was that what I was missing?
I had lived by “don’t mourn, organize.” Perhaps there was room for both.
I could not cry on command, could not summon back the tears I’d so desperately tried to squash. I stood there on the riverbank, staring at its wide icy expanse, and tried to think sad thoughts.
An entire lifetime of training diverted me: where had the human Popsicles come from, was there any saving them, did Lydia and I even speak the same language or was there some kind of magical afterlife effect, what would I do if I was stuck there, could I even try to make a fire from very cold birch trees, just to improve matters, or would that send me straight to the realm of the fiery river.
None of this made anything any warmer. None of it. Perhaps I was stuck. Not even thirty, and not only was I dead, uselessly, horribly dead, but I was stuck in a bleak, frozen afterlife.
The tears started to flow again.
I glanced down. Under my feet, the snow was melting.
I had another two false starts, too fascinated with the mechanism to focus on my own situation. It turned out I was too good at re-centering myself on practical details.
Perhaps I could both mourn and organize.
I took a deep breath, which hitched in my chest, and walked farther down the riverbank. I pulled off a mitten. Very tentatively, I leaned over and brushed the ice with my bare fingertips.
Tears finally came to my eyes, enough to spill over and run down my cheeks to the river below. The frozen river was colder than I remembered ice being, colder certainly than ice in a drink. It was painfully frigid, burning cold through my hand from just a fingertip touch. I made myself hold my hand there, and the ice warmed and melted as I wept. My hand sank into the warmed water almost of its own volition.
It hit me what the accident had taken from me. My life, yes; but when you are living a life, the details of what the entire thing means escape you. You know, perhaps, that you will have a finite number of times to hug your niece, or eat an apple—or swim in a warm lake. But what does it mean, the idea that it won’t last forever? A few moments of concern, then back to the thing itself.
Being dead was something completely different. Being dead was knowing that I would never bake another Christmas cookie, never slide between cool sheets on a hot night again—that this, this frozen river, was what I had. It was all I had.
The corporate thugs who had sent me here had taken so much from me. They had taken everything but myself, and that was…remarkably different, without everything else.
The river water melted by my tears was still shatteringly cold. But it felt right to submerge my hand in it, and what was the worst that could happen? I was already dead.
I pulled my hand out of the water, scrambled to my feet, and stepped out on the river.
Though I knew myself for no traitor, no fraud, the river opened for me. It welcomed me. I could tell that I was sinking into frozen water—it was refreezing around me—and as the tears glittered on my cheeks, I let myself feel the full weight of everything I had not accomplished, and never would. I thought of the plans I had for my nonprofit, all the things they would have to scramble to do without me. I thought of my best friend Trish from college getting married with no maid of honor.
I found my ability to lament only when I was waist-deep in the river of lamentations. It didn’t feel good, but it felt right, like my own internal river had finally found a channel.
A motion on the riverbank caught my eye.
It was Lydia. She stood staring out at me, her face blank, more frozen than mine.
No wonder she was stuck. She had tried to live on the banks of the river of lamentations without learning to lament.
I struggled against the ice, expecting it to be almost impossible to return to shore. Instead, the river parted for me more gently than running water would have done. “Lydia,” I said. “Lydia. Come in. You have to…you have to let it out, Lydia. You have to let go. You can get out of here, if you mourn for what you’ve lost.”
“How do you know?” she asked, her arms folded across her parka-clad chest.
And I opened and closed my mouth, and I didn’t know. I didn’t know how I knew. But I knew what I needed to do, all the same. The river had given me that. “It feels right,” I said.
She shook her head. “Not to me.”
“I’ve lived here for years. You haven’t.”
“You haven’t either, you’ve just…been here. You’re dead. There’s no living here.” I put my hand out awkwardly. I had given a few uncomfortable hugs to grieving friends in college, but bringing the food, cleaning the kitchen while the mourners rested, was more my thing. I had never said anything similar to this before, but I had to. “Come on. Weep with me for what we’ve lost. We’ve lost so much.”
My voice cracked on the last words, but Lydia’s arms crossed tighter, and she was backing away, shaking her head, even as the river pulled pulled me deeper. Welcomed me with the waves of ice that warmed, once I was under them, like plunging into the ocean on a summer morning.
“Lydia,” I said, sobbing openly now, and the river sobbed with me, a nearly silent rhythm into all of my bones.
But another step back and she was gone, disappeared into the trees, and I had to decide. There wasn’t much time to pull myself together—I could already feel that. Soon I, too, would be under the waters. If I was going to get her, it had to be now.
It was not.
Lydia’s death, like Lydia’s life, was her own, and I knew so little of it. Perhaps someday she would think of me, she would learn to mourn. Perhaps in weeks or months or years it would be enough to motivate her to take the plunge—or perhaps despair would overtake her.
But in the meantime, this was my death, as it had been my life, and it deserved to be mourned.
Those who drank from the Lethe forgot all they had learned in their next turn of the wheel. Everyone knew the Styx; a few knew the Cocytus. No one could tell me what drinking deep from the river of lamentations would give my next life, but I had to hope that my next life would taste less of forgetfulness and more of learning. I took a deep breath and plunged my face deep into the river, letting myself feel all the weight of the lamentation I needed. I had never felt so cold, or so warm.
Marissa Lingen is still recovering from her physics education. She writes speculative fiction, poetry, and essays, mostly in her home in the Minneapolis suburbs even before all of this. She likes Moomins and tisanes immoderately and has read more sagas than a person really should.