• James Tam

Heaven

Updated: Sep 8




Heaven》 is anthologised in Hong Kong Stories - As We See It

After death, Rev. Lee goes to Heaven as expected, received by officious Archangels

Upon learning of the discord between Jesus and His Father

and that Christians and Muslims share the same Paradise

He starts to worry about his Everlasting Life ahead

Nonetheless, he finds himself involuntarily blissful



AFTER Gabriel fades out of sight, I let out a muffled mental murmur, a subdued nasty thought: ‘So long you prissy feathery prig, watch out for planes…’ The juvenile remark, so unlike me, feels great.


So, this is my Day Number One of Eternal Life…

My death is so fresh I can still smell the sanitised odour of the urine bag that hung from my deathbed, and feel the warmth of a soiled diaper creeping under the prickly hospital blanket. Elena’s squeaky weep, and the droning prayers of our son Rev. Kelvin Lee (II), still ring in my ears. In the background is the unstoppable phantom pulses of the equipments I was connected to, like a car being checked at the garage. I have no idea what their functions are, but had long realised their futility. They were just a waste of electricity. But they persisted.


I had been lying there, technically in a coma, perceiving things around me with tormenting clarity for months, years, perhaps longer. I couldn’t tell then; I only knew it had been a long time. The coma was taking me farther and farther away from the mundane world, but no nearer the Kingdom of God. Take me now God. Please make them pull the plugs, I had prayed, entreated, begged repeatedly with all the mental energy I could summon. But they wouldn’t. Alas, not on me. I had been a powerful voice against abortion and euthanasia before the car accident. They wouldn’t dare to cut the drips for as long as my body displayed the faintest sign of technical life, and against my will it did, on and on.


For years, I had argued that life’s something only God can give or take. But in my case, God neither took nor gave back. He kept me dangling in a poorly defined state for eight years four months sixteen days two hours and twenty minutes before sending Archangel Michael.


Finally, Heaven. Thank God!

_____

Well, I always knew I would go to Heaven. I had been a good man: dutiful husband, loving father, devout Christian. Heaven’s for dead people like me, isn’t it? Well, there had been a few minor transgressions, but in the interminable time that I idled comatose, I must have repented thousands of times for each of the five occasions I cheated on Elena. There wasn’t much else to do in a coma.


All five incidents happened while I was on church business in Hong Kong. I don’t know what possessed me but I do concede I was no match for Satan’s cunning device. Look, with due respect, even God has trouble obliterating this supreme evil so…


Anyway, when I was driven past Wanchai in the church limo, I was attacked by an irrepressible erection, a carnal function that I had nearly forgotten. Honest to God, I didn’t even give so much as a glance at the scantily clad girls outside the sleazy bars. But when we drove past, my penis would swell involuntarily, as if pumped with blood collected from the gutters of Hell. After the chauffeur dropped me off at the hotel, I dashed to a cold shower, and prayed. But the hellish tumescence crept right back. I struggled fiercely, then succumbed, and sneaked out. That was the first time.


Similar relapses during four subsequent trips were in a way more disturbing because of the shameful anticipation. The plane wasn’t even airborne yet. My cheeks were still be damp with Elena’s good-bye kisses, and I would start praying for advance forgiveness, gripping the seatbelt with both hands. My heart would race ahead of the flight. My mouth would feel dry for the entire journey, no matter how much water I drank. I was evidently overwhelmed by evil, helplessly possessed. But God wouldn’t come to my rescue, or give me a guiding hand. He let me stand my own test. So I bravely did, but badly failed, every single time.


Well, all that was in the past. Though not totally forgotten, these trespasses had evidently been forgiven. Otherwise, I would be somewhere much warmer right now, wouldn’t I?

_____

It happened abruptly.


From one second to the next, my time was up. One of the machines tolled my knell: ding… ding… ding


Elena and Junior arrived. She sobbed, a bit too loud and ceremonious I thought. Junior prayed to thank God on my behalf, also too loud in my opinion, but I joined him. I kind of suspected that I had died, but wasn’t positive. Everything felt the same as before — cold. Perhaps a touch colder than usual, but that was all. The temperature difference between life and death turned out to be rather subtle at first.


Then a firm and even cooler hand gripped mine.


‘Let’s go!’


I recognised him right away because of the iconic sword. It was clamped under the armpit to free his hand for mine. In his other hand was a scale, the one he weighs souls with. He had a stern expression, almost fierce. I didn’t take it personally. The Archangel never smiles. That’s his reputation. I know these things.


‘I know who you are — The Archangel Michael!’ I exclaimed, perhaps a bit overexcited. I was proud of myself for having identified him immediately. All my Bible studies had not been in vain.


The Archangel didn’t seem impressed at all. I suddenly felt unsure, and worried that I had mixed up my Biblical characters. It had been years since I read the Bible.


‘Let’s go!’ he repeated dryly.


‘Can I have a few minutes more with my family? Just to wait till they’re gone?’ My voice choked. Michael stared at me, expression unchanged, then repeated his favourite phrase: ‘Let’s go.’


‘Okay, then.’ I could tell he wasn’t going to change his mind.


I tried to sound light-hearted instead: ‘I know I know, I’m not the only one dying today right?’


He ignored me, maintained a forceful grip, and pulled me towards Heaven.

_____

With considerable excitement, I anticipated my personal introduction to God at the Gate of Heaven. That’s one of Michael’s many angelic duties, besides battling his indestructible foe Satan who’s also destined never to win. After my comatose experience, I could now see the pointlessness of the struggle with a touch of philosophy. No wonder Michael seemed crabby. At the instant of that unseemly thought, he shot me a glance. I then remembered that I was now dead, and in the good hands of an angelic being — God’s celestial messenger. He could no doubt tune in to my thoughts, of course. What was I thinking? To hide them from God?


I was embarrassed by my impertinence. Smarten up! I reprimanded myself. Get ready to meet God Himself momentarily. Should I shake His hands? Bow? Genuflect? Or prostrate? The Bible mentions nothing in this regard. I decided to prostrate, to be on the safe side.


If Michael was still listening to my mental mumble, he didn’t volunteer any advice. I followed mutely, weaving from one patch of whiteness into another. So far, since leaving my deathbed, everything had been featureless. There was a constant wind hissing through his prominent pinions. The feathers were white with a beautiful golden sheen; perhaps a little tired though, kind of limp…


He turned to look at me again.


Oh shoot! I abruptly took my thought off his personal appearance, and replaced it with a rapturous mental praise: Oh beautiful Archangel! Oh what a perfect being! Beautiful Michael!

_____

At the Gate of Heaven, Michael handed me over to Gabriel —-here! — then turned to leave. To the best of my knowledge, he hadn’t even bothered to weigh my soul. Gabriel mumbled ‘Thanks’ to his back. That was it. I couldn’t help feeling a little dejected.


Gabriel was more pleasant. I nearly mistook him for God.


‘Welcome to Heaven, Reverend Lee. I’m Gabriel, Archangel in charge, Chief Worthless Servant to Our Lord God the Almighty and Everlasting,’ he recited in a flat and detached tone, sounding more like an English butler than a Jewish angel.


‘Please call me Kelvin, Archangel Gabriel. You have no idea how honoured I am to meet you.’


‘Is that so…’ he said, followed by an unnervingly long pause. I waited with my mouth open, uncertain whether to interrupt. ‘Marvellous,’ he finally resumed. ‘You’ll be most welcome to see me whenever you wish, assuming you have a valid reason, naturally, or whenever I summon your presence, which I sincerely hope will not happen. We normally leave all Sinners alone to enjoy their everlasting lives in peace, unless they cause trouble.’


‘Sinners?’


‘Against God’s Perfection, are we not but dismal transgressors Reverend Lee?’ Gabriel sniggered. I wasn’t sure what the joke was, but instinctually chuckled along, agreeing enthusiastically: ‘Sinners. Yes. Of course. Transgressors. Ha, haha!’


Sharing a joke with an Archangel. How ‘bout that?

The Gate of Heaven is a virtual gate. Similar to everything else, it has no distinguishable feature, but one knows intuitively that it is the main entrance to Paradise. Not far away squatted two plum toddler angels, staring emptily ahead, cute little wings spread wide open, as if posing for a Christmas card. Their trumpets were laid on the cloud in front. They didn’t pay us any attention. One of them rolled his heavily lidded eyes towards Michael for a second when we arrived, then resumed his listless goggle at the haziness ahead. They didn’t seem to take note of Gabriel at all.


Gabriel noticed me staring, and said: ‘Infant Mortality.’


‘Pardon me?’


‘There used to be lots of these things around when my Lord God the Sparkling Wisdom enjoyed having a cloud of them singing and trumpeting above his head. Thank God He eventually got tired of them so we strictly enforce Divine Admission Rules now to curb these pests.’


‘I see… Don’t they play music anymore? Like, a welcome tune or something?’


Gabriel gave me a disdainful glance. ‘Not to you anyway, no offence.’ He then regarded the baby angels contemptuously and added: ‘If I were you, I’d keep my distance. Original Sin, you know.’


‘Thanks for the advice, Angel Gabriel,’ I tried to sound grateful.


ARCH…angel,’ he corrected me, cocking his head disapprovingly, raising his frosty brows.

‘Sorry, Archangel Gabriel.’


I tried shifting my weight, as was my tic when feeling uneasy. But I had become weightless. There was no physical feedback from my weight transfer. I had noticed that empty feeling of being part of a vacuum the moment I died, but was not yet used to it.

The soft diffused light, moderately cool temperature and mildly humid air all stayed constant. Without a clock anywhere in sight, it was hard to mark the passage of time in Heaven. Gabriel spent what seemed like an afternoon to give me a quick intro of my new home forever. Instead of the orientation I expected, he mostly babbled about personal achievements while taking me for a guided aimless tour of the homogeneous place.


He bragged about breaking the news of pregnancy to Mary. Apparently, her initial response was hysterical: ‘No one will believe that, for God’s sake!’ she screamed. ‘They’ll stone me to death. Joseph will cast a boulder the size of a bread-box.’


Gabriel had to calm her with authority: ‘Hold thy tongue, woman! Have faith! The Lord hath chosen thee to bear the Son as a Virgin. No one shalt harm thee.’ Then he added with a shrug: ‘You have no choice anyway.’


So, that was the Annunciation.


Gabriel admitted with the ostentatious nonchalance of a professional insider that he wasn’t sure how the event might have unfolded. But if Mary’s savage world decided to stone her to death, it would have been Michael, not him, who had to retrieve the embryo of the Son, he explained as a matter of fact. As it turned out, believe it or not, everyone just said ‘Wow!’ Even Joseph didn’t ask any difficult question. Now, that was a miracle.

_____

As the afternoon wore on, I was acclimatised to Gabriel’s discouraging countenance, and ventured a few questions. He gave me some indications which mostly confirmed my understanding of Heaven. However, instead of gratification, I felt a strange sense of foreboding. Something seemed amiss in my clerical knowledge of the eternal rest home. Perhaps it was my lack of consideration to everyday details.


My first question was how I might acquire a pair of wings. Everyone I’d met so far was winged, I felt naked and deformed.


‘In due course. Normally after you’ve had an audience with His Eternal Grace, provided there are yellow ones in stock.’


I couldn’t hide my shock and indignation. I was American, and thoroughly Christian. He was saying I had to install — or grow? — yellow wings, presumably because of my ethnicity? This is blatantly racist! I was about to protest when it suddenly dawned on me the Bible never promised anything like racial equality in God’s Kingdom. Even Jesus was reluctant to help the Canaanite woman because of her tribal background, right there in Matthew 15:21-28. I know my Bible.


I sensibly let my grumble flash past, and covered its track with a loud mental Hallelujah! In only a few hours, I had become much better in controlling the big mouth of my mind. I was quite pleased with myself about the progress.


‘Would I look like a chicken?’ I decided to demonstrate good humour rather than grouchiness. Acceptance is a virtue of all great men when they have no choice.


‘Probably. But you’ll have plenty of time to get used to it,’ Gabriel agreed, upper lip twitching between a faint smirk and disdain.


‘When will I meet God?’ I asked, straightforward, decided to leave the disturbing issue of chicken wings behind.


‘In due course.’


I wondered exactly how long is one due course, but enquired instead how I might find my dead relatives. On the way up, the hypnotic sibilance of a steady wind going through Michael’s feathers had lulled me into a reverie. I had visualised an emotional reunion with my parents and uncle Joe, all exemplary Christians. They would be up here somewhere, no doubt about it.


‘Feel free to look around,’ Gabriel said. He explained Heaven’s not a fascist state. There’s almost absolute freedom of movement. Sinners may wander from one end of infinity to the other without being regularly monitored.


I tried not to let my frustration show. After a brief pause, I changed the subject once more: ‘What about Jesus?’


‘What about Him?’


‘I’d been His devout follower all my life. Can I meet Him?’ I could hear my pious and reverent voice hardening, but was hopeful that the situation might improve if I could meet Christ in person.


Gabriel sat down sombrely in an invisible armchair, and signalled me to do the same. I lowered myself cautiously into a sitting position, but couldn’t feel any supporting furniture, or the strain of hunkering down. I finally let go completely — what the hell — and came to rest in a sitting position. There are some neat things in Heaven after all.


‘You have a son, right?’


‘He’s also a preacher.’ I could hear the pride in my own voice.


‘Have you ever, say, disagreed?’


‘Of course. But by the Grace of God, I always managed to find the weakness in him, and helped him to come around. I’m his father, you see.’


‘The Son and My Lord the Infinite Mercy have similar divergences every now and then.’

‘Archangel Gabriel, I’m not sure I understand. Junior and I are faulty mortals. God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are three Perfect Beings in one. How can they have squabbles?’


‘Well, they do,’ Gabriel said blandly, raising the frosty eyebrows again to elevate his vexation to the surface. ‘Being bound in trinity with one’s father, or son, kind of gets to one after a few aeons, as you might well imagine. Closeness tends to breed contempt, if you know what I mean.’


‘No I don’t,’ I said curtly, surprising myself.


I desperately needed to sigh, so I took a deep breath. But the inhalation vanished. I drew in a bigger one. That vanished too. This must have been a No Sigh Zone. For the first time, I felt dead.


The Archangel watched me baffled by my transmogrified respiratory mechanism with a supercilious sneer, then said in a deliberate tone, meaning to shock: ‘The Son’s in Hell.’


‘What?’ I jumped from the non-existent chair.


‘Calm!’ he ordered softly. ‘It’s not what you think.’ He crossed his fingers and rested his palms against the back of his head. ‘He went there voluntarily. Tired of life in Heaven, said it’s sterile, and that he was sick of praising His Father the Lord God of Shining Truth non-stop. A young man in relative term after all. He wanted to go where He’s most needed, where condemned souls are. He went to Earth for exactly the same reason, so it wasn’t the first time.’


‘Bu-bu —’ I had suddenly developed a stutter.


Gabriel ignored me. ‘It was good for everyone in the end. Those two were at each other’s throat ever since the great Egyptian plague. The Son never forgave His Father for massacring the firstborns. Since then, He had bugged our Lord of Limitless Magnanimity over every single massacre in the Bible. The Son was a softie, had always been, but was becoming irksome to His Father.’


‘Bu-buh-but-but —’ On the tenth but, I overcame the roadblock in my larynx. ‘But damnation’s eternal! Hell’s eternal punishment! What’s the point? Who’s soul is He going to save?’


Gabriel raised his eyebrows again, then pulled the lids down without relaxing his forehead. I was beginning to find the diversity of his contemptuous facial remarks amusing rather than disturbing. He then asked dulcetly, keeping his eyes closed: ‘Surely, Reverend Kelvin Lee, you must know that in the soul saving business, it’s the effort, not result, that counts. Did you not take that missionary position when you went to Hong Kong five times?’


He knows! God da-da-da…dit, he knows!


But I had thoroughly repented — sincerely, repeatedly, superfluously…


NOT FAIR! Fu-fu-fu… fullelujah!


I felt my cheeks burning for the first time since rigor mortis.


Gabriel waited for my mental shrieks to die down, then lifted his lids halfway. A smug satisfaction radiated through. He tossed his wings out a little — fluff — and adjusted himself in the imaginary chair.


‘Keep an open mind Kelvin,’ he said in a kinder tone, using my first name. ‘Heaven is just how you had pictured, isn’t it? Shouldn’t you be happy instead? Well, you had obviously failed to contemplate the details, hence the impertinent shock. Calm down and give your admirable situation a good thought. There’s no better place to spend eternity once you’ve come to terms with the mysterious ways Our Lord God the Ultimate Magic and Indescribable Kindness moves.’


The way he spoke and praised God, I could not tell whether he was being wickedly sardonic, or just quaint and officious. I pray that God knows.


‘Will He be back?’ I asked, barely audible.


‘You mean Jesus? Of course. He comes home to spend the occasional Christmas with his Mum. It’s His birthday too, as you well know.’


‘May I ask what has happened to the Trinity then?’


‘Nothing,’ Gabriel said, then nodded thoughtfully, and elaborated. ‘If you’ve bought a box of cereal, and it comes shrink-wrapped with a tube of toothpaste and a Hello Kitty sticker, the three have become one, right?’


My mind kept drifting back to the incredible fact that he knew about my Hong Kong trips, and the inequitable fact that my repeated repentance for years had not been… Hallelujah!


‘You listening?’


‘Yes. Sorry. Yes, Archangel Gabriel.’


‘But it doesn’t mean they’re equally important and inseparable.’ He appeared pleased with his cleverly human analogy with a contemporary twist, and didn’t seem to mind my mental digression. ‘The box of corn flakes will always assume the utmost priority. Fine, some might find the toothpaste useful, but nevertheless secondary in the Divine order of things. As for the cute little sticker? Yes it’s in an odd way part and parcel of the Trinity, but if you chuck it out —’ he threw his hand over the shoulder ‘— nobody would even notice.’


I couldn’t believe I was listening to the Archangel comparing Christ to a tube of giveaway toothpaste.


‘There’s no point asking the Holy Spirit’s whereabouts then.’


‘That’d be most insightful of you, Reverend.’


Gabriel flexed his wings with manifest boredom, then collected them around his body the way women in big flared dresses do before sitting down. ‘So, any more question?’

‘No, Archangel, you’ve been most kind.’


‘Very well then. In that case, I wish you a good stay.’


Gabriel was turning to go when I remembered my neighbour Peter who died before my accident. He was a Buddhist. An okay guy, actually a good guy in many ways, but stubbornly heathenish, and morally indolent. Kind of weird, the vegetarian kind, you know. Now that there really is heaven, and God does exist, I feel vindicated yet sorry for him, and was curious if his sceptical soul was crackling in Hell or being purified in purgatory. If I could put in a good word for him, which I knew would be totally pointless, yet… it could give me some satisfaction.


‘Buddhist? Then he’s probably neither here nor there. Might have reincarnated, or gone to Nirvana. God knows.’


I couldn’t believe my ears. ‘You’re kidding me right?’


‘I kid you not, Sir. Buddhists don’t come here. They don’t even believe in God. You don’t want a bunch of chanting atheists loitering about do you? Only good Christians and Muslims come here.’


Muslims?!


I wished I could faint to take a break from all that nonsense. Muslims and Christians in the same Heaven while Buddhists reincarnate. Great. I took another deep breath, and felt nothing.


Gabriel explained with uncanny sincerity, looking almost sage like. ‘Mystery is infinite, Reverend Lee. Up here, we know many things that they don’t down there,’ he gestured downward, presumably in the direction of Earth. ‘But we don’t know all. Otherwise the mystery wouldn’t be infinite, would it? It seems that after death, you end up somewhere which resembles whatever you believed when alive. You believed in God the Everlasting Truth so bless your soul, here you are. I know some are surprised by the Heavenly experience, mostly because they had not bothered to envision with reason and clarity when alive. Contrary to what you might think, our Lord of Infinite Wisdom had given up on fixing human stupidity eons ago.’


He paused to stretch his wings again, and crane his neck at the same time like a swan. ‘Muslims and Christians believe in the one same true Him: God, Allah, Yahweh are the One. You are people of the same Book. You share holy stories, Archangels like my humble Self, an assortment of prophets, and a passionately entwined history. So, all ye faithful come here — this very Heaven — if you had been provisionally good. Where else, huh?’


He then added as an after-thought: ‘Mind you, the verdict’s still out. Michael is supposed to work on the logic and logistics of the Last Judgement, but he seems to be taking his time… What if you’ve been provisionally assigned to Heaven, but subsequently found guilty at the Big Trial, or vice versa? The resettlement of millions of souls would be chaotic.’


‘But Muslims are fundamental extremists! Terrorists!’ I interrupted, shrieking. I’d forgotten to breath while he talked. Luckily, asphyxiation no longer harmed me.


‘See? You even have the same epithets for each other. Brothers are brothers.’


‘And Buddhists end up somewhere else?’


‘To the best of my knowledge.’


‘How’s that possible!’


‘Kelvin,’ Gabriel let off a loud sigh, showing off there are things only the Archangels can still do in Heaven. ‘With your kind permission, I shall repeat myself this one final time for your benefit. We don’t exist in the mind of atheists, so how in Heaven’s name do you expect them to come here? They get recycled down there, then, one day, enlightenment! and off they go to Nirvana.’


‘And where’s that?’


‘How do I know?’ he raised his voice a few ominous decibels. ‘Listen, Reverend Lee. If you’re sitting in an Italian Restaurant, being patiently introduced to Chef’s Special by the Manager, don’t you think it’s kind of rude to enquire persistently what the Chinese Restaurant down the road might be serving?’


‘I suppose —’


‘Excellent! You should be happy and proud that what you’ve believed in all your life is true.’


My words, like the air I breath, had also vanished.


Gabriel turned to leave without another farewell, mumbling audibly to himself: ‘All the same. The more you tell, the less they know, and the more they ask, on and on, as if there’s nothing else to do in eternity…’

_____

After Gabriel fades out of sight, I let out a muffled mental murmur, a subdued nasty thought: ‘So long you prissy feathery prig, watch out for planes…’ The juvenile remark, so unlike me, feels great.


For the first time since arrival, I’m alone in my final resting place. Ironically, now that I’m here, I find Heaven unbelievable.


I look around. There’s nothing to see.


I think about my life, my recent death. Was it this morning? The pieces refuse to fit. I contemplate my surreal situation and the meaning of perpetuity, and feel emptily nauseous.


In the distance, an angelic zombie drifts by, like a lone sea-horse in a bare aquarium with murky water. I haven’t yet seen anyone fly. Perhaps the wings are for decoration rather than aviation. In that case, there really isn’t any hurry to get mine affixed. I don’t feel hungry, thirsty, or tired. These sensations have ceased. Good, there’ll be no need to find a bed when night falls. Doesn’t look like it will though. That’s right: there’s no darkness in Heaven. How many times had I said that in sermons? I was right!


About thirty yards away, a man with scruffy wings moonwalks by. He’s rapturous, as if high on something.


I don’t s’pose they have bars around here? Boy, for once, I need a drink.


That man’s in bliss. He’s in Heaven, no question about that. I wonder what his secret is. Excuse me…? The rest of my question just wouldn’t come out. Oh well, I’ll ask later. Perhaps in a million years or two. What’s the hurry?


‘Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!’ He yells on happily, waving and smiling, blowing kisses in my direction. What an idiot.


I smile back out of politeness. Then, involuntarily, I holler: ‘God is Great! Brother!’ My voice has returned, with a deep resonance which I didn’t have before. The words echo on powerfully. Perhaps only praising and respectful words can come out? It makes sense doesn’t it? There’s no end to everlasting life. If we’re allowed to speak freely, a slip of the tongue might happen once in a billion years. What if we slip into something unforgivably blasphemous? Eternal fire will no longer be an option, especially post Final Judgement! Our words must therefore be purified before leaving the tongue. How clever of our Father Who Lives a Thousand Eternities with Wisdom Shining Through a Billion Universes!

The man twists away merrily without registering my response, waving his hands above head as if belly dancing, clapping his wings and wriggling his bum to a celestial rhythm.

Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Huhuhuhu Akbabar!

Suddenly, my smile explodes into an unstoppable guffaw. I’m roaring, shrieking, bellowing rapturously to sum up my first day of Eternal Life.

YES! There are no tears in Heaven.


- end -



链接中文版 “天堂”

#ShortStories #Heaven

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