The Other Side of the Gate
by Chelsea Thornton
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Shards of glass rained like colorful gemstones over the crimson carpet of the private library. They had once composed the stunning stained-glass shade of the table lamp that had been knocked over and now lay shattered on the floor. Ignoring the devastating loss of the antique, two men continued their struggle.
The oversized collar of the younger man’s jacket provided ample leverage for his father to gain a firm grasp and force him backward. The impact of his back colliding with the bookshelf knocked the wind out of him. A couple of books slid from the top shelf, falling open on the floor at their feet. Gazing up into his father’s furious eyes, he could see terror in them as well.
“I warned you, Jeremy!” His father’s voice boomed, spittle flying from his mouth and his face red with rage. “You didn’t listen, and now you have to face the consequences! You’ve doomed yourself as well as me!”
Jeremy’s face was set, equally indignant as his father. “I don’t care. I’d do it again. Don’t pretend my punishment is your punishment, too.”
“You honestly believe what hurts you doesn’t hurt me? But that’s not the point. You have a responsibility to the dead, Jerr. You don’t get a pass when you neglect your duty!”
“I didn’t ask for this, Dad!”
Releasing Jeremy, his father turned his back on him. He swung his arm around vehemently, knocking over a vintage globe. The sphere split from its frame and went rolling across the floor, bumping into the mahogany desk on the other side of the room with a quiet thud. “That doesn’t matter! You were born into this!”
“Again, I didn’t ask for it!”
The father faced his son once more. They both stared at each other with narrowed eyes and set jaws, the tension between them palpable. And then, without warning, it broke with a scream. Jeremy doubled over, collapsing onto the carpet and grasping his head. He rolled over onto his side, nearly pulling out his hair. The library was filled with his cries of agony.
“Jeremy!” His father flew to his side, falling to his knees next to him.
“Wh-what’s happening?” Jeremy’s voice came out breathless and strained. The effort it cost to expel the two words caused him even greater pain. He could feel himself slipping away.
“It’s starting.” His father’s anger and disappointment instantly vanished without a trace. In its place was concern and sympathy. His words sounded far away now. “I won’t leave you, Jerr. I promise.”
* * *
Everything was white. Feathers by the thousands floated down all around, soft and white as snow. Jeremy stood before a towering gate made entirely of alabaster. He turned his face upwards, mesmerized by the way the feathers drifted gracefully down from a white sky as if they had been a part of the heavens themselves.
He set his sights back to the gate and attempted to move closer. However, there was a weight against his legs holding him back. He looked down to see clouds surrounding him up to his knees. He leaned over, formed his hands into a makeshift bowl, and proceeded to scoop up a cloud. Instead of a cotton ball of mist, Jeremy held a handful of feathers.
A flash of gold caught his eye as he searched for the owner of the voice that called him. At first, he thought it might be the sun with the way the unknown source of light reflected off platinum hair, turning it gold and blinding him. He mustered his strength to approach the gate, but it was like trying to trudge through three feet of snow. Each step was slow and heavy until the figure eventually came into view. She was wearing a pastel blue sundress. Her skin was pale, her complexion soft. She smiled at him from the other side of the gate, her fingers wrapped delicately around the alabaster bars.
“It’s okay, Jeremy.” Her voice was mellifluous, sweet music to his ears. “Everything is all right now.”
He wished to believe her, but there was a tempest brewing in his heart. Its erratic thumping shook his entire body like thunder. He had no idea who the girl was. All he knew was that he had to save her from whatever was on the other side of the gate.
The feathers around him stirred, but his movements remained sluggish. The girl’s eyes were pools of sapphires, drawing him nearer. It felt as though it took ages to reach her. He could almost reach out and touch the gate when her eyes dimmed. Her brows furrowed, and the corners of her mouth turned downward.
“You can’t cross the gate, Jeremy. You have to let me go.”
Despite her words, she didn’t move away when he was lured in toward her. White feathers danced around them as their faces grew closer, only inches apart. The bars were the only thing separating them. Raising his hand, he placed it over hers. Their skin touched, and a pleasant warmth radiated through his fingers and up his arm. He smiled.
What comfort he had gained by the simple act was quickly stolen from him. Beneath his fingers, he could feel hers turn to stone. Her flesh dried out and hardened. The effect took hold as cracks grew from her fingertips up her arm, her skin beginning to break and chip like a fragile rock. His eyes widened with panic. The tempest within him returned.
She smiled sadly at him, her once soft, pink lips resembling cracked porcelain. “You should have let me go.” Her voice sounded like an echo. Her golden hair turned to gray and fused together like a statue’s. Her morose smile was fixed permanently on her face as her features froze. If it wasn’t for the cracks that continued to branch across her cheeks, it would have felt as if time had stopped.
She crumbled, descending onto a bed of feathers in broken pieces. White turned to black.
* * *
Jeremy stared at the inside of his eyelids until he finally forced them to flutter open. He was given an entirely different perspective from that of his dream. His dorm room was dark, and he was surrounded by four off-white walls that were completely bare.
A thick, blue curtain was draped over the single window, shielding him from the rays of the afternoon sun. Books were stacked precariously beside his open laptop on the desk in the corner. At some point during his slumber, he had kicked the plaid blue covers off his bed.
Rolling onto his side, Jeremy looked at the time flashing at him from the alarm clock on his nightstand. Cursing to himself, he bolted out of bed. He should have known better than to take a nap between classes.
Grabbing his things, he headed through the door and out of the dorms. As he made his way to the academic building across the street, he attempted to shake the dream. It wasn’t the first time he’d had one like it, and he assumed it wouldn’t be the last. He only wished he knew what it meant and who the girl was.
Arriving late to class, Jeremy opened the door and quietly stepped inside, wishing to remain unseen. However, as soon as he let the door go, it swung back and slammed shut, the sound of it reverberating throughout the room.
“Did you misplace your campus map again, Mr. Reid?”
All the students looked up at him from the stadium-style seating, some of them laughing or shaking their heads. Jeremy quickly slid into a spot in the top row with a heat rising in his cheeks. He immediately pulled out a notebook from his bag and slouched in his seat.
Still grinning with amusement from the bottom of the room, the professor clicked a button on the small remote in his hand. The projector switched over to an image depicting an illustration from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It glowed against the whiteboard at the front of the room, and he continued his lecture.
“In the weighing of the heart ceremony, the soul of the deceased is brought before Osiris in the Hall of Two Truths. The heart is then weighed by Anubis against the feather of the goddess Maat, the personification of the universe’s ultimate truth and moral order. Can anyone tell us the significance of the weighing ceremony?”
Jeremy was already doodling on a page in his notebook, not paying attention. His dream was still nagging at him. But it didn’t really matter; the Western Civilization course was just an elective. It wasn’t like he needed high marks. Still, he knew his anonymous benefactor probably wouldn’t like to hear about his slacking.
Bolting upright in his seat, Jeremy met his professor’s expectant gaze with instant regret. “Sorry, can you repeat the question?”
Several students giggled, but the professor obliged. “The weighing of the heart ceremony from The Book of the Dead. Can you explain it to us?”
Jeremy’s face was now on fire. Reluctant, he came up with the best answer he could with a spotlight shining on him. “The Egyptians believed that their heart was weighed after death, right? If it was lighter than a feather, then they would be granted entrance to the afterlife.”
“Looks like someone is awake after all.” The students laughed again at the professor’s jest. “What exactly did the Egyptians believe they had to do in order to pass this test, Mr. Reid?”
“They uh...” Jeremy stumbled over his first few words. Half of his concentration was dedicated to avoiding the other students’ gazes that had drifted to him out of amusement. “In order for their heart to be lighter than the feather, it couldn’t be weighed down by sin.”
“Precisely. And if it were, then their soul would be given a one-way ticket down Ammut’s gullet instead of permitted a peaceful afterlife. Now, there’s a reason we call this mythology. However, the symbolism still stands. For those of you who believe in a hereafter, you may ask yourself by what means your soul will be judged when it comes time. Here’s something interesting that I came across recently.”
The professor clicked a button on his remote again, and the projector switched to another image. This one was of a photocopy of a page from an aged leather journal. The paper was browned and the ink written on it faded by time. The leather tie had gotten caught in the image and snaked outward from the book. At the end of it was a small, bronze charm: a feather.
The professor proceeded to read aloud what was written on the page:
And why should the heart be weighed against a feather? Who is the judge here? Not Osiris, not Anubis, not Maat. But a feather. The gods trusted a feather to judge the souls of the dead. Are we simply feathers of a god?
Jeremy leaned forward in his seat, the words resonating within him and producing a strange sense of déjà vu. The entry was familiar, even if he did not understand the meaning of it. However, even more peculiar was the handwriting itself. Beside the projector’s image on the whiteboard were handwritten notes from the professor. While the handwriting was not quite the same, there were striking similarities — like the way the t’s crossed a bit too high and the y’s descender was a straight line instead of curled. He couldn’t have been the only one to notice, right?
When he turned his attention back to the professor, he caught the professor’s gaze on him. “I cannot tell you the author of this quote or what exactly he meant by this. But the journal is rather ancient, so take from it what you will. He does go on to question what method of morality a soul should be judged by and whether morality is objective or subjective. But that’s getting into philosophy, and that’s not the class you paid for.”
The students laughed again as the professor turned off the projector. Speaking above the noise as everyone scrambled to leave, he added, “Don’t forget there’s an opportunity for extra credit. My house this evening. Benefit for the university’s museum. Hope to see most of you there!”
Jeremy gathered his things and proceeded out of the classroom with the rest of the students. He could feel Professor Gates’s penetrating stare on his back. Perhaps it was just paranoia. When Jeremy returned to his dorm, he searched the Internet for the quote. There were no results.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Chelsea Thornton