“I HAVEN’T WRITTEN anything since last year.”
“Why do you think that is?”
I’m sitting in the office of Dr. Gregory Prah, Ph.D., assigned to hold me during my 5250 hold.
That’s not what I’m supposed to tell him. At least not right away during my 14-day vacation, all expenses paid by the state, including the soma to let me drift away to faraway places whenever I can. Not now, though. Now it’s time for my first session.
“I don’t know.”
Dr. Prah waits. He knows not only how to endure silence, but listen to it.
“Is that why I tried to – Maybe. For the third time. You’d think I’d get better at it, but I haven’t.”
“Perhaps you don’t want to.”
Better at hanging. Suffocation. Overdosing on sleeping pills. This last method hurt the least.
After five more ticks of the timepiece on the wall – it’s a grandmother clock with a typical hypnotic pendulum – he leans forward. “Let me ask you something. Do you think you’re here because you tried to do yourself in, or because there’s something you can’t do without?”
“I see.” Tick-tock. Tick-tock. “What might that be?”
“I wish I knew.”
We’re at an impasse: the psychiatrist and the patient, the lightbearer and the lunatic.
What’s he going to try? Meds? I’m on them, but they’re not working as well as they used to. Cognitive behavioral therapy? I can only turn my bad thoughts into good thoughts for so long before darkness takes over. A combination of drugs and whatever the latest trend is in treatment for people like me?
“What would you like me to call you?”
“Tenet. That’s my pseudonym and the name I like best.”
“I’m glad you’re here, Tenet. You may call me Gregory or Greg if you like.”
“Dr. Prah for now.”
“Where does your last name come from? Prah. Backwards, it spells ‘harp.’ It sounds Russian.”
“Czech.” He smiles. “And my first name’s much harder to pronounce than the English version.”
“What is it?”
I can’t get it out. It sounds like “RZHE-horzh,” but the “zh” is softer than the one in “measure” or “treasure.” And the R isn’t harsh. After fumbling three more times, I tell him I’ll stick with his formal title.
His office is what I expect a shrink’s lair to look like. White walls with diplomas. Drawn blinds with the cloud-glare of an overcast day trying to break through. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves featuring volumes by Freud and Jung, all the way up to their 21st-century contemporaries. Even though I probably wouldn’t be able to understand their content, their scent, a blend of dusty age and crisp novelty, makes me take three deep breaths. That’s helped me so far, but I’m sitting before a big desk with a big man behind it.
Actually, he’s not so big as he is intense. He’s a dead ringer for another Gregory – Gregory Peck, one of my favorite actors. I’ve seen him as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” at least four times. Maybe five. As for (Řehoř) Dr. Prah? I think that if he weren’t here in this sterile godforsaken hospital downstate, he’d be in another one just the same. He’s got that vibe about him. I can’t look him straight in the eye.
“Are you all right?”
“Try to relax. Sit back in the chair and let your mind and body un-clench. You have nothing to fear here.”
“Except fear itself.”
“Not even that. I assure you.”
That voice, combined with that face and frame, makes me believe the promise might be true.
I watch Dr. Prah as I let my shoulders go slack. He makes no sudden moves to set me off, but rises from his chair slowly and deliberately. From a side table I haven’t really noticed, he takes an ornate glass lantern and sets it on his desk.
“Wow. Where did you get that?”
“An antique passed down from my father and grandfather, all the way to my great-great-great-great-great grandfather. Who was also Řehoř, and who crafted it. In the year 1885, he sought the answer to some age-old questions: Is there life after death? What are the realms to which you go? How do you travel from one to the other if Limbo is your first destination? Et cetera.”
I swallow and find my mouth dry.
“Did he discover anything?”
Dr. Prah smiles. “I shouldn’t be discussing such things with someone in your mental state. However, since I’m the one who opened this can of worms, I must close it. The lantern is priceless to me, and I want to show it to you because the only thing more priceless is trust. You don’t trust me – not fully, not yet – and I want to prove myself a worthy mentor.”
“I’m not here to scare you. Everything else in life does.”
Boy, does he have me pegged.
He flips the lantern upside-down, unscrews the base, and lights a match. Fire: Another trigger and dangerous thing in my life. Yet somehow the effect of him lighting his artifact doesn’t give me a panic attack. I can’t handle birthday candles, but Dr. Prah lights his prop quickly and safely. One flame, controlled with care. He then screws the base back on with professional efficiency.
“What do you first notice about my relic?”
The flame glows white, light blue, yellow, green, amber, violet, and finally red. The glass panes shift.
“The…the lantern clicks and turns.”
“Indeed. It’s mesmeric, meant to hypnotize.”
I feel nothing for a moment. My head falls limp.
“Open your eyes.”
I obey Dr. Prah immediately.
“Life is a wheel, infinite in its rotation. White for the innocence of birth and infancy. Light blue for awakening in childhood. Yellow for the passion of youth, which morphs to green maturation. Amber for your autumn years. Violet for the approach of the grave, and red for its finality.”
“Yes. But beauty is not its only purpose. Let yourself sink ever deeper into relaxation.”
No fear. No pain. No suffering. Just peace.
“You want to rush through your stages and colors at breakneck speed, even to end all hues and light. You wish you were dead, and honestly, I’ve felt the same about myself. Yet this rotating lantern teaches us that all things must happen in their due course, their season. Do you want me to blow it out? I will if you say so.”
“Good.” He pauses. “What color is it on now?”
“I thought so. You’re still young.”
“In my native tongue, that’s ‘čtyřicet tři.’ I’m 57. ‘Padesát sedm.’ You’ve proven my point.”
I let the device make another full round.
The scene around me darkens while the lantern’s inner fire flares high. I tense up.
“I’m here. In the place where I truly reside.”
His face glows a reassuring amber. I fix my gaze on it. “The lantern has stopped. Look around.”
Swirls of mist stretching upward toward the (sky) ceiling. Distant (towers) bookshelves. Rivers of liquid light, like lava without its lethal heat. Shadows I can see, with faces. They surround me and pass me by in a state of eternal change. “This is what you call Limbo. I know it as the Threshold. Hence my namesake and that of my ancestors. That is what ‘prah’ means in Czech.”
For the second time, I swallow nothing.
“Does living on the Threshold hurt?”
“Yes and no. The pain I feel is for these souls who have not yet transitioned, not for myself. I have chosen this fate.”
That revelation almost awakens me.
“How? You’re not dead. Not that I want –”
“I understand. Come out of your trance, Tenet.”
“Good. It doesn’t do to tarry in Limbo too long. The spirits here are restless and will want you to render a verdict, send them further on their path towards eternal innocence or guilt. That’s not why we’re here. I’m a confessor, not a judge.”
I hear Prah’s voice and behold his face through a blurry haze of tears. What have I seen? “And I?”
“You are one of a kind. When you said I was not dead, you were half-right. Like the famous cat of Schrodinger, I linger in a quantum state between life and death. Take my hand. Squeeze it.”
When I obey, my flesh and bones meld with his.
It doesn’t hurt a bit. When I retract my hand, the muscle memory of his fifty-seven years lingers like an unplaceable aftertaste. I know what he’s been through and why. With every patient, Dr. Prah has become more in tune with the spirit world, because he has seen their spirits. Spoken to their souls and eased their passage onward.
“Whether towards snow-white or scarlet, the end result is – well, an ending. Reconciliation. A restoration of balance, if you will, for eternity.”
“Even in Hell?”
“Counterintuitively, Hell offers a certain peace via punishment. It consumes no one except life’s worst offenders – murderers, child molesters, rapists and the like. I’ve helped them come to terms with suffering, though they enter into the Scarlet Flame kicking and screaming. Silently.”
I shudder. “Is that where I’m going after I die?”
“Hardly. In fact, you’re in a unique position.”
“I’m half-alive and half-dead? Like you?”
“Yes. That’s why they’ve sent you here, to get all of your life back. To restore your happiness.”
“But I don’t know what will make me happy.”
“Come with me one more time. Those in Limbo need not only a mentor, but a friend. Someone who’s seen plenty of pain on Planet Earth, but who needs to be released from it in a safe way. You’ve tried three times, to end it all. Behold your spirit, and those who wish to meet it.”
He grasps my hand and brings me to the Threshold again. The same melding and parting of flesh. Same amber light. Same restless spirits. The difference is that a soul floats toward me. With a frame of curling wisps and a face only discernible through haunting eyes, it floats toward me and seems to find me satisfactory.
“Say your chosen name.”
A ghostly echo in my fleshly ears: “Tennnet.”
“Ask it something – to come back with you, or to straddle the Threshold as one of its servants. You’ll get to meet countless people, both alive and dead in the singular sense. You’ll help save souls. Salvation is different for different people, but you will hold the Scales steady for them.”
I ask myself, “What is it that you want?”
“Home. To…go home…and help others to.”
“Home to this body?”
“Or home in the realm where you are now?”
“Do you wish to serve? Find others like you?”
“Yes. I thought…no one like me. I was wrong.”
The lantern’s rotation slows. It’ll stop soon.
“Take hold!” Dr. Prah says. “Retain your spirit.”
I reach out physically. It pauses and shrugs itself.
“Here,” it says. “I want to live here…and there.”
A drop of sweat – or is it a tear? – finds its wet way down my cheek. “Come with me. Please.”
“I…beg of you…the same thing.”
Closing my fingers around my soul’s hand, I feel myself being pulled fast across the Threshold.
It only takes a fraction of a second, but in it I see lifetimes of cyclical occurrences. My progress on the Wheel, heretofore unilluminated. Now I behold my mistakes and successes, defeats and victories, as they were meant to be: countless wonders. Life and Death going round and round.
I’ve been here before – maybe not in this office, but with someone who told me this ancient truth – and I’ll be here again.
For the first time in my physical and spiritual life, I have nothing to be afraid of. I’m safe at last.
As a Thresholder, the first soul you save is your own.
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