Camille was dead.
Like a sudden whiplash, she snapped her eyes open and jittered her body in an upwards motion, as if pulled by an external force. Camille sat upright, hands softly resting on the smooth surface below her, not really there, not in full control of herself just yet. Slowly, the materiality of things appeared one by one as she blinked, a sense of touch and smell and sight coming together to compose a strange picture.
The walls were made entirely of mirrors all around her. Camille tilted her head like a curious puppy, brows furrowed as she observed herself. She looked, as far as she could recall, exactly as she had always looked. But precisely that, she realized, was all she could remember. Like a new-born baby, or the newest human to be created, Camille inspected herself with careful touches, as if her five senses were all but a novelty to her. The softness of the fabric of her clothes felt new, and the coldness of the air like something never before experienced, just as the tickling sensation of her hairs brushing against her skin was an absolute novelty. The dizziness of her mind slowly translated itself into a headache, and as if shocked at the physical pain, she drove one careful hand to her hairs and fondled her aching head.
The mirrors were clean and haunting. Camille couldn’t drive her eyes away from her own reflection, like someone assigned a new human body for the first time in their life. Inspecting herself carefully still, she opened the buttons of her jacket, pulled up her sleeves, rolled her eyes as if testing them, until there was another throb. Like a bolt, it sliced through her brain, making Camille grimace for a short moment. When composed again, she slapped her hand against her cheek as if to make sure she was indeed made of flesh, or perhaps curious about the strange aching sensation, and found herself as cold as ice to the touch. Yet, the cold was no stranger, even less intruding; all that felt odd was that throbbing pain in her head – the cold was familiar, as if it had always been there.
Strange, she thought, I can’t remember anything. By now, Camille could tell she was human, and that the body she inhabited was indeed a human body, but she couldn’t remember what life was hers. As if she floated above humanity itself, like a bird watching from way up high, she could observe certain things she couldn’t comprehend. A blurred picture. Small colourful dots coming together to form a composition. She hated fire and she absolutely despised needles. Those were the only two facts about herself she could recall – that, and her name – but nothing else that could justify her existence.
She heard a giggle and turned her head. At the opposite end of the room, a person sat on a chair, she couldn’t say if man or woman. They had white robes, like a Buddhist monk, a shaved head and an amused smile as they wrote something on a big leather-bound book, like something ancient. Their face was androgynous, made entirely of elements generally perceived to be those of a face – a pair of eyes, a mouth, a nose, cheeks, a couple of ears – but nothing more that could distinguish them from all other humans, or any other alike them. Their giggling continued as the quill they held – what an odd choice for a writing instrument – scraped the paper loudly, their eyes rarely peering above the book to spy on the new-comer.
“Welcome, Camille Sobel,” they chanted. There wasn’t still the slightest evidence of a gender in their voice. Perhaps they were genderless. “On November 8th, 1998, you died. You were thirty-two years old. This is the afterlife.”
Camille opened her eyes wide and tried to ignore the throbbing pain in her head. “The afterlife?” She asked, incredulous; her voice almost high-pitched. “Am I in Heaven?”
“Oh, no—” they said, closing the book with a loud thud. “There is no Heaven nor Hell. Merely this—” their arms moved around theatrically, in a semi-circle that pointed everywhere around them. “The afterlife. Where you die so you shall be reborn again.”
She stood up slowly, battling her dizziness still, hiding a chuckle. “Reincarnation?” She asked, dumbfounded but amused. “So this is like, the afterlife recycling centre?”
The strange person giggled, blushing as they hugged the book, tightening it against their chest. “Oh, you humans and your earthly concepts—” they shrugged. “It never ceases to amaze me.” They finally stood up, still pressing the book against their chest with surprising care, like a new-born, and waved a vigorous hand at the new-comer. “Please follow me, Camille Sobel. We shall assign you your new life, so you shall be reborn again.”
Camille stood up and staggered, much to her surprise. It felt as if she had never before learned how to walk, and yet with every step the challenge decreased, like a fast-learner. Ow, she mumbled to herself, rubbing her forehead still as the throbbing pain continued, and followed the strange, genderless Buddhist monk as he passed through a door, disguised as yet another mirror.
Beyond the door laid a room, where at a desk sat another person in every aspect exactly equal to the first one, scribing something down on another identical book, with another identical quill, in the same identical old-fashioned manner. All around them, the mirrors had disappeared, giving way to polished wooden walls, a bright light emanating from a wide window, as if the sun stood right outside. Camille lifted a hand in protection as it filtered through her squinted eyes and burned deep into her brain, which still hurt, and almost felt like she lost her balance for a split moment.
Huh, she thought to herself. A moment, but what moment? There didn’t seem to be any concept of time in there.
Across the scribing man was a tall glass, separating the illuminated scriptorium from what looked like an apparently endless library. Shelves upon shelves stacked books, going as high as she could see, sucked deep into clouds high above their heads. At her eye level, however, sat hundreds of tables, where opened books seemed to move on their own. As Camille took a step forward, taking a closer look, she noticed letters appeared by their own accord, like stories writing down for themselves, pages turning when they became filled, seemingly to no end.
“We record every life that has ever existed,” the first person noted, appearing silently next to Camille. She jumped in fright and looked at them. She still couldn’t tell if there was a single evidence of a gender in them. That’s silly, she thought, this is the afterlife, after all.
“Every life?” She asked, amazed.
“Every human life. The stories write down themselves as humans live, so they can forever be kept preserved.”
“Do you control, like—” her hand swirled around her head in a confusing movement. “All of this?”
“Oh, yes!” They answered excitedly with a large grin. “Me and my companion, who sits over there, we are responsible for this geographical region and section C to E.”
Camille looked back on the scribing monk. They lifted their eyes from the book momentarily to look at both, but no smile came. In fact, they seemed rather grumpy, as if in a perpetual bad mood, like someone interrupted at their work; and just as quickly as they looked, they ignored her and continued their work. With widened eyes in surprise still, Camille looked back at the library.
“Well, that is one library from Hell—”
“Oh, no. This is not Hell, nor Heaven. This is—”
“Yeah, you’ve told me. It was just a manner of speaking.”
Camille frowned at her remark, as she realized she became truly unaware of how she knew the intricate meanings of her words. Although she wasn’t fully aware of what exactly a manner of speaking was, nor what these concepts of Hell and Heaven truly meant, they somehow found their way to her mouth. It felt as if she spoke automatically, a skill as much learned as forgotten, like a programmed computer, perhaps. How was she aware of the concept of computer?
“So, hey,” she interrupted her own thoughts. “For the million dollar question—”
“We cannot tell you how you died.”
Unprepared for that answer, Camille stood frozen before the two, one still focused on their writing, the other smiling happily as they perhaps considered their response to be positive. “Oh,” she mumbled. “Okay, then what about how I lived? I don’t seem to remember that—”
“We cannot tell you that either.”
The strange monk continued to smile as if their answers carried no negativity whatsoever, but Camille felt utterly disappointed. Silence fell between the three, one so deep and empty it slowly crept into her ears and made her body shudder, as if such a deep, profound absence of sound disturbed her physically.
“Well, then,” she retorted, raising her arms in a theatrical conclusion that was nothing short of her expressive disappointment, “what is the point, then?”
“The point of for your soul to move on, find another body and be reborn, in the continuous cycle that is earthly life.”
“The continuous cycle—” she recited, as if trying to make sense of all those words that only partly sounded vague, but at the same time seemed to carry an intricate and deep meaning, too complex for her to understand. Yet somehow, her brain – if she even had one – just accepted its secret and ancient logic as any given fact. As if she had been programmed to absorb the reality of the afterlife without questioning it, even though questions were something of a constant in her mind.
“I know you have many questions,” the first person remarked, with the same tireless smile on their face, as if they had read her mind. “It isn’t strange at all. It is in your human nature, to question everything beyond your logical understanding, you see. And certainly, when a human dies and enters the afterlife, their first question is always how.”
“Great,” Camille remarked. “But isn’t it a bit anti-climactic that we aren’t even given the chance to learn how we lived? That’s apparently the purpose of the soul, or whatever.”
The first monk giggled, hiding their white teeth behind the big book, as if embarrassed. “That is true, it is one purpose of the soul. But you see, it is here, where you and I and my companion stand, that all knowledge of one’s past life can be acquired.”
Camille forced a smile, a smile of someone who thought couldn’t comprehend half of what was being said, suspecting there was more between the lines. “So why not just give it to us?”
The monk’s giggle grew into a loud laughter, like a shriek. When Camille looked back, the second monk lifted their eyes from the book to shake their head disapprovingly. Feeling as if she had just said something absolutely atrocious, Camille frowned and stepped back. She was surprised at how embarrassed she felt, such an earthly emotion she figured would have stayed behind, where embarrassment found real meaning. But apparently the afterlife was unforgiving as well.
“Such a typical human thought!” The first monk uttered between giggles. As their laughter died out, they stared right into Camille’s eyes in what she would have classified as a scholarly pose. “It is endlessly fascinating how the desire to learn in human nature can so easily evolve into self-entitlement and the belief that one is amorally deserving of anything one wishes, based simply on the idea—”
“Alright, Diogenes, I get it. Too much knowledge for our tiny human brains.” Camille sighed and turned around, looking up at the endless columns of books and shelves, wondering whose lives were inscribed in there and how far back they went. “How can that influence anything, though?” She asked, squeezing her words out of her throat as she practically glued her face to the glass and looked up, trying to see the end of it all.
“It can change everything, Camille Sobel!” She looked back at the monk. They stood close to her, so close she felt surprised at how she didn’t feel their presence approaching her, with eyes almost bulging out of their sockets in what was clearly a simulated shock. Aw, Camille thought, they put such an effort into appearing human. “If you learn about your past life, the life you just lived, you will enter the next with specific knowledge that can bring great consequences.”
“Great or grave?”
“Fate would tell you that, but we lean towards grave as a precaution.”
“And that’s never happened?” The monk’s eyebrows pursed together, confused at her question. “You never got one guy who knew too much and went on to inform the world of the great revolutionary afterlife he just personally witnessed?”
They shrugged, a sudden blush appearing like red brush strokes against their olive skin. The monk looked back at their companion, who stared almost pedantically at them with a quill still stuck between their fingers.
“Twice,” the scribing monk replied. “That’s how you got new-age and reiki.”
Camille snorted a laugh, amused. She was familiar with both words but not their concept, just enough that the grumpy monk’s remarks made her laugh in amusement. Yet the thought process caused her such a strangeness in her mind she turned around to hide her frown.
“The discomfort you are feeling is normal,” the smiling monk said. “Souls are impersonal, and they show no imprint of any life whatsoever for as long as they remain in the afterlife. Here, the only distinction that exists from soul to soul is their temperament, or rather, their ethical balance, which is indicated by colour. The ethical balance of a soul is usually stagnant, but changes can occur in the life it is living significant enough to cause an abrupt change.”
“And I’m guessing the colour of my soul is something I can’t know either.”
The monk giggled again. “It is part of the notion that the soul must remain impersonal. What you are experiencing right now is, let’s say, the last remaining knowledge – that is, your former imprint – of the life you just lived – the bits of evidence that tell us that you, Camille Sobel, are you. Your personality traits, which are slowly fading away, bit by bit, as your soul readjusts to its return.”
“Hold on, you said this is exactly where knowledge can be acquired. Should you be telling me all this stuff? Aren’t you afraid I’ll go on to the next life to become a guru, or one of those spiritualists that make a ton of money out of spiritual healing, or whatever?”
The second monk, the scribing one, laughed softly, but it wasn’t an amused laughter, rather a condescending one. “Knowledge of the past life,” he retorted. “Everything you are hearing, however, is not new to you. Your soul knows that because it was born here, and it learns this every time it re-enters the afterlife. You simply think you have forgotten because you still have the remaining imprint of Camille Sobel with you. Which you are slowly letting go of.” They lifted one corner of their lips in a smirk. “You’re not learning, you’re remembering. Once you move on, it will all be gone once more.”
Something in her mind immediately told her they were correct, and undoubtedly so. So much Camille didn’t find the strength in her mind to fight logically against the argument, as if her confused self accepted that speech as her true nature, and unaware of all other possibilities, or any other truth, she truly had no grounds of disputing it.
“That sounds exhausting,” she found herself saying.
“You see, right there!” The first monk said, lifting a finger excitedly at her. “It is precisely your snarky remarks that tells us—”
“—that Camille Sobel is still present in you, the soul. Her imprint is still strong enough that it causes you to react accordingly to her average wit.”
“Average wit?!” Camille’s eyes darted between the two monks, bulging in offense. The scribing one hid a laugh, and Camille could see their shoulders shaking as evidence of their failed attempt at keeping their amusement secret. “I didn’t realize the afterlife was a comedy roast.”
“So fascinating—” the first monk remarked, squinting their eyes in a curious look as they slowly approached Camille. She felt observed with scrutiny and took a couple of steps back in discomfort. “Camille Sobel’s imprint is still strong enough that you actively fight in defence of her. So much that you still believe, just as she did, that her sarcastic manner is evidence of a bigger enlightenment than her incredibly average wit.”
“Alright,” she contested, now fully offended, “I didn’t die so I could have Diogenes and… Grumpy, here, roast me in the afterlife. I’m starting to wish the Catholics were right.” As she saw the first monk’s mouth open, ready to say something, she pointed an incriminating finger at him. “Don’t even think about telling me I would be in Hell.”
“Actually,” the monk said, “I was going to say how interesting it is that apparently Camille Sobel knows who Diogenes was.”
Camille smirked, but her smirk came tainted with her own contempt. “It’s her average wit. Maybe I was Diogenes once.”
“Oh, no—” the monk laughed, covering their mouth with their fingers and looking over their shoulder at their companion, who laughed as well. “Oh, dear no. Your soul could never possibly have originated Diogenes. Besides, this is only your thirty-fourth life. You’re still a youngling.”
Camille’s eyes widened in surprised. “Holy shit, I’ve lived those many lives?”
“Another evidence of Camille Sobel’s imprint,” they whispered to themselves, “rudeness and cursing.” Camille felt her face warm, an unexpected feeling twirling inside her stomach, telling her she shouldn’t have done that. Strange, she thought, what is that called? “Yes, but it’s not nearly as much as you think.”
“Are you kidding me? Humans can live up to—” Camille’s mouth froze as she realized she didn’t know the ending to her sentence. “Huh. You said I was thirty-two when I died. Is that young or old?” She truly couldn’t answer her question, which brought forth another feeling – that of being suffocated with the desire for an answer, but ultimately having her hopes crushed with the certainty that she couldn’t obtain it.
“Ah, you are letting go of her, at last,” the first monk remarked. “It is taking longer than usual, I wonder why. But to answer your question: it doesn’t truly matter how long humans can live. Don’t forget tragedies happen. There are stillborn babies, children and teens passing away, death reaps all in spite of age, Camille Sobel. Now, let us hurry.”
The monk waved ahead, at yet another door hidden amidst the wooden walls, and treaded carefully behind Camille, who followed his order. Inside was another room exactly like the first one – one single, undecorated bed, a chair for the monk to sit in and mirrors all around. With one minor difference: on a table, sat three candles. The moment they opened the door, one of the candles blew out. But there was also something else, she noted. And it was her – her reflection was slowly fading away, giving way to a transparency that seemed to be replaced by a faint, shining light. Violet at the very core, white all around. It felt pure.
“Oh, wow,” she exclaimed, stepping closer to the mirror, raising one hand to touch the shiny, cold surface. She could see her own traits disappearing, her face, her eyes, her mouth, her legs and arms becoming see-through. Her fingers hovered above her heart, where the violent light shined brighter than before, and Camille found herself laughing in awe. “So this is my colour, huh?”
The monk sat on the chair and opened the book. “So you see why it was useless to tell you.”
Camille looked at the three candles and noticed the second one had blown out as well, only one remaining. She sat on the bed and admired the shining colours of her aura – she knew that wasn’t just the simple ethical balance of her soul, but her true aura, somehow. Something hers, not just her soul’s – something intricate to Camille. “So, were the Buddhists right?” She asked.
“Was Buddhism right?” She looked at the monk, who looked back her confused. “The afterlife, reincarnation… The way you two are dressed—”
“Oh!” The monk giggled, so amused they tapped their hand against their knee repeatedly. “Oh, no. We have this appearance because it is you, Camille Sobel, who sees us this way. The Christians, for example, tend to see us as angels. You simply associated the belief in reincarnation to Buddhism, and thus envision us this way. It isn’t always like this, of course. This is Camille Sobel’s vision. You have seen us in different forms. In a past life of yours, we were even archangels!”
“Oh,” Camille felt confused. The concepts of each and every word the monk pronounced seemed to be slowly fading away from her understanding. That must explain the candles, she thought, it must all be my own idea of the afterlife, for some weird reason. “So, no one’s really right.”
“Someone always is, Camille Sobel. It just doesn’t matter who.” Camille didn’t know what to answer. “Besides, you come from a western, Christian majority geographic region.”
“What does that mean?”
“It is incredibly common for atheists who lived in western, Christian majority geographic regions to see us as Buddhist monks. I still don’t understand why!”
“Wait, I was an atheist?” Camille asked, surprised.
The monk covered their mouth with a hand, giggling in shyness. “Oops. Good thing Camille has faded almost entirely.”
Camille looked at the mirrors around her and realized the monk was right. Almost nothing was left of her, and all she could see was the faint trait of her silhouette and the almond shape of her eyes, where a new violent light shimmered. She felt dazzled, so fascinated she wanted to touch the mirror again, immersed in awe at her own vision. It was a warm feeling, of belonging even, as if she felt she had never belonged anywhere else. And suddenly, she understood what the other monk had said – his every word was now ringing a bell of familiarity in her mind: she was born there.
“Lie down,” the monk ordered. “It seems Camille Sobel is almost entirely gone, and we must send you to your new life.”
A strangeness possessed Camille, yet she remained still and quiet. Her body remained relaxed, as if she laid in the bottom of the ocean. The last candle finally blew out. Although she could finally sense herself as her true soul, the reality was she still felt as Camille Sobel. So much that something inside of her whispered it wasn’t supposed to be so, but felt unable to warn the monk about it, like a malfunction. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The warm light embraced her as Camille’s confusing thoughts ran her mind – as if they were caged.
One more journey, she thought to herself.