It was two weeks since Harold Warsh had come back to life. His rejoining the human race had been something of an accident, owing to the extreme cold, the stillness of the lake he fell into, and the dexterity of a team of doctors at Sutter General. He had been dead for three days.
“Daddy, were you really dead or just pretending?” His son, Harold Warsh Jr., asked him one day.
“We’ll talk about it later,” he lied. Harold didn’t want to talk about it at all, least of all with Junior. Harold stared straight ahead. The game was on, and he forced his mind to focus on it. The 49ers vs. the Patriots. He used to root for the Patriots.
Junior started tugging on his sleeve. “Ow,” Harold said. “Don’t do that.” The boy sat at his feet, playing with a wind-up man. Harold’s mind would not focus, even when the tv deafened him. The bell of the hallway clock rang out five times. He gave up the game and watched his son.
His son. Fear jolted through him like an electric current. Sweat poured out of him in waves. He tried to get up, forgetting that he couldn’t walk. He sunk into his chair, helpless.
“Junior, go see your mother,” Harold tried to say, but the words came out wrong. He tried again, but his tongue lolled in his mouth. It didn’t matter; something of this message passed between them. Junior got up and ran into the other room.
“Be careful!” Harold called out after him.
In the first, delirious week of new life, before he remembered who he was, Harold Warsh had asked for a priest. A priest had come. He had no memory of their meeting, and only learned about it when Diane asked him about it one night, after Junior went to bed.
“I can’t imagine what we talked about,” Harold said. “Maybe I wanted some perspective, or had a message to convey. I don’t remember now.”
“What did happen, Harold? Did you…where did you go? Or was it just like going to sleep?”
He tried to tell her with his eyes, don’t talk about this. Don’t ask. It didn’t work. She stared at him, imploring, uncomprehending. He took his eyes away from hers.
“Do you want to go to church?” she asked him. He hadn’t responded. That Sunday, he sat in his wheelchair, trying to pay attention through the first reading, the second reading, the sermon. The priest was a South Asian man; between his accent and the reverb of the church’s sound system, Harold couldn’t understand a single word the man was saying. After the sermon was over, dozens of lookie-loos and well-wishers came up to him, smiling too brightly, speaking to him like a child, gawking and whispering while he talked. A child asked him what it was like to die. Everyone turned their faces to Harold, even the mother shushing her child. He smiled and ruffled the boy’s hair.
“Very, very painful,” Harold said.
The priest escorted the Warshes into his office. The priest spoke first.
“Thank you for coming this morning,” he said, “I am delighted to meet you both. My name is Father Giridharan––Gih-rid-ha-ran. This is my first week in this diocese after two decades in England.” Without the reverb, his voice was intelligible again. “How are you both doing this morning?”
“Well enough, I suppose,” Harold said. The priest’s face fell when Harold began to speak.
“It’s a consequence of the surgery,” Diane explained. “He has some difficulty––”
“Let me talk, Diane,” Harold snapped. He turned his eyes to the priest. “Father––”
Diane talked over her husband. Father Giridharan sat back in his chair and listened, giving them both a pained smile. They trailed off, first Diane, then Harold.
“I understand you are returning to the church after some time,” Father Giridharan said when they stopped talking. “How long has it been since you last came to church?”
Harold and Diane looked at each other.
“Years,” said Diane. “We’ve never been––we’re not really religious.”
“Am I right in thinking that Mr. Warsh’s recent experiences have led to a renewal of your faith?”
Diane implored her husband with her eyes.
“He hasn’t said anything,” Diane said to Father Giridharan. “When he was…when he first came back, he was screaming, like a wild animal, he––”
Diane bit her knuckle. Sobs coursed through her body. Harold tried to wheel his chair closer to her, to reach out to her, to reassure her somehow. His wheel caught on something he could not see. Father Giridharan was now at his wife’s side, putting his hand on her shoulder. Harold worked frantically but his wheelchair would not budge.
Father Giridharan walked Diane out of the office; for what seemed like hours, Harold was alone, listening to the mingled murmuring of their two voices, hers plaintive and his reassuring. He tried to see what was holding him in place, but his neck would not move the way he wanted it to. He stared at a crucifix hanging on the wall between two bookshelves. Jesus’ head was turned down and his face was shrouded in shadow; Harold could not read its expression.
Feel something, he told himself. Feel something else.
Father Giridharan came back into the office, alone. He looked down at Harold, moving slowly into his line of sight.
“Shall we talk?” he asked.
The priest moved Harold’s wheelchair to face an armchair at the side of his desk. He then sat in this armchair and fixed Harold with a curious, inquisitive stare.
“Mister Warsh, I find myself at a loss in addressing you,” Father Giridharan said. “I think that for every question you have for me, I must have three for you.”
Mr. Warsh’s eyes wandered over the room. Father Giridharan tried to meet his eyes, to look open and understanding.
“Your wife tells me that, shortly after your recovery, you asked to see a priest.”
“She tells me the same thing,” Harold said. “But I don’t remember it. I remember very little about those early weeks.”
“And how is it going?”
“How’s what going?”
“Your recovery,” the priest said, and gestured to Harold’s wheelchair. “Pardon my intrusion, but are the doctors confident that you can walk again?”
“It isn’t impossible,” Harold said.
There was an awkward pause while Father Giridharan considered how to ask the question. Harold girded himself for it, and for the inevitable evasions.
“Mister Warsh…can you tell me what brought you to church today?”
“Yes,” Harold said, surprising himself. The words poured out of his mouth before he could stop them.
“Father,” he began. “I haven’t told anyone what I saw when I was dead. That was because I couldn’t. I couldn’t let the world laugh at me. Even as it was happening, I was convinced that I would wake up at any moment. And yet it felt so real, it felt more real than reality. The things I saw were clearer than you are now, sitting in front of me.
“I can remember the water surrounding me and pulling me deep below its surface. I remember my fists banging against the ice. I never wanted anything more than I wanted to breathe. But I couldn’t breathe. And then I was falling.
“I fell through a lightless tunnel, with snarling faces breathing on mine, voices whispering and laughing. There were voices everywhere, even inside my own thoughts, snickering at me, echoing my darkest thoughts and fears, mocking my love for my wife and my son, pulling up memories of past indignities and pains. I knew that there would be no end to it, to the pain and the voices and the violation of my mind.
“The darkness slowly lifted, or my eyes adjusted to what little light there was. I looked down, and I saw I was falling towards an enormous machine, extending throughout the length and breadth of the visible universe. The machine was churning through great masses of material, which came away from it in tiny clumps. It took just seconds to reach it, and every second was a century. I fell into it headfirst. I felt myself ripped apart by enormous, cold, metal teeth. Every part of me was still alive–if you’ll pardon the expression–and each piece felt keenly its own separation from the whole.
“I saw nothing after this. I felt every atom of my soul divided from itself, whirling through a boundless space…and then I felt myself re-constituted as a gear somewhere deep in the belly of the machine. The noise was tremendous. My new body spun and churned through an endless mass of souls. I tasted their fear and horror, I felt them break apart underneath me. Every atom of my soul wished to stop moving, and I couldn’t stop moving. All of my strength was powerless against the combined pressure of all the gears and levers and pumps pushing and whirring and pressing around me. And they, too, I realized, wished to stop it, but could not.
“There was a desperate kind of hope. Surely this would stop; yet it didn’t stop. Someone would come and shut it off; nobody came. This machine had been so expertly designed that no soul could escape it, not even, I believed, the righteous ones. And I felt such horror at this, such unbounded pity, that I became numb; I did not accept this horror into my heart, but in my actions I accepted it. And I ceased to wish for it to stop.
“I came to in the hospital, and for a moment I thought the light of the hospital was the final, merciful torture, that my agony at long last was complete; and then I saw a human face, and knew I was not dead, and woke up a week later in my own bed. I have no other memory of that first week. God knows what I told the other priest.”
Father Giridharan had turned quite motionless and pale during Mr. Warsh’s narrative. His hands hovered unmoving above his chair’s armrests. For a moment there was silence, a silence so deep that even Mrs. Warsh, who had tried to interpret her husband’s mutterings from the other side of the door, did not even dare to breathe.
The priest cleared his throat.
“You have just experienced a great shock,” Father Giridharan said. “I am referring, of course, to your death and revival. I can tell you, Mr. Warsh, that Satan is a liar, and many of your perceptions–your conviction that even the righteous could not escape this machine you describe–were based on distorted and false information presented by him. That said, we can’t rule out physiological explanations––”
“––Don’t tell me about physiological explanations!” Harold interjected. “Didn’t you read about me in the papers? No brain activity, they said. No brain activity for three days under the ice. I should be dead right now, I should be under the ice still, I should be one more cog in that enormous machine, churning through soul after soul…
“Maybe I still am there,” Harold said in a quiet voice, so quiet that Father Giridharan and Mrs. Warsh both leaned forward to hear him. “Every time I sleep, it comes back to me. Maybe this is my sleep…perhaps there’s sleep everywhere, even in hell. After all, God is merciful.”
Father Giridharan paused before he spoke. “Mister Warsh,” he said, making his voice as gentle as possible, “I do not know if what you experienced was a vision, a hallucination or a genuine glimpse of life after death. But I do know that God has saved you from it for a reason. And I believe that you only have to ask God to be saved and salvation will be given you. If you are willing, I will take your confession and offer you absolution.
“To the unsaved, the pure light of God’s love causes unbearable pain. ‘Light shines in darkness, and darkness could not overpower it.’ And there is no way to overpower God, to be free of Him. It is only in perfect obedience to God that man finds freedom.
“The fate of all mankind is to do God’s will. No man can escape from that; even the most sinful men serve His ends in ways we do not understand. Your experience of being torn apart, rebuilt, and compelled to move by an inescapable force––this all may reflect how the unsaved perceive the will of God, which they can neither halt nor change. Like the light of God, the workings of His will are torture to the disobedient. Think of this nightmare as a warning from God, as a call to return to the truth. If you do, you may never have to endure such tortures again.”
Harold looked at Father Giridharan a long time before speaking.
“It’s possible,” Harold said, “That you’re right. I don’t believe it, but it’s as good an explanation as any.” His voice had become thick-tongued again, and he struggled to speak.”I’ll take conf––confession. It couldn’t hurt. And there is so much to confess.”
Father Giridharan concealed a smile as he turned his face away.
Mrs. Warsh helped her husband into the car. He said nothing as they drove back, even when she asked if he wanted to stop at Burger Palace on the way home.
“I just wish you’d let me in, Harold,” she said. “Just tell me something, anything, about what you went through. I can’t help you if you won’t even talk to me.”
The world outside was covered in gray slush. A few trees housed banks of snow in their branches. The rains would come soon, and then it would be spring.
“Did it help you, at least? Talking to the priest. You can at least tell me that.”
They drove past Greenwood Park. Two boys shrieked with delight as they ran through the slush. Harold followed their movements until the car turned on River Street and the boys ran out of sight.
That night, the whole family ate macaroni and cheese for dinner. Harold barely touched his. At 7:00 sharp, the night nurse arrived to take Harold’s vitals, draw his blood, and give him his medication.
“Don’t worry, Diane,” the nurse said in the hallway. “You are doing a fantastic job of looking after your husband. It may not seem like it at the moment, but things will get better. In a few years, you’ll look back at this time and see how far you’ve come. And you’ll be so grateful that he’s alive.”
Mrs. Warsh stayed up late that night, looking out the window at the trees in the backyard. Occasionally a wind would blow through them, sending fine powdery snow cascading through the air. She could hear the hum of the freeway over the hill, and the soft clink of the neighbor’s wind chimes in the breeze. Inside, the refrigerator rumbled to a halt, and she could hear the slow, deliberate turning of the gears inside the hallway clock. Any minute now the bell would ring.