Excerpted from the full version that appeared in The Aleph Review, Vol. 2 (2018). The piece was solicited by Ilona Yusuf.
My ending is on a summer Sunday. The gamey taste of my wife’s lamb chops still furs my tongue as I plod after the dog through the sleeping streets. The sun is like a laser. The sun is like my death. I wish for a cigarette. Mad dogs and Englishmen, I think. I am neither, but the mutt, well, that’s still open to contest. It is an ordinary day on an ordinary street in my ordinary town and all at once existence ruptures. One moment the dog is walking me and the next there is an ending.
There is a bright light and I’m floating over the Earth with a giant talking octopus. When I look at it directly I can’t quite tell where its phantasmagorical tentacles end. When I look at it out of the corner of my eye I see it is eternal.
Am I dead?
Dark matter. The other side.
Is this heaven? Is this hell?
This is heaven and this is hell. This is what you make of it. Those who have lived good lives see themselves in heaven and those who have lived miserable ones find themselves in hell.
Where is God?
God is in heaven. God is ether. God is in the dust of all the universe. God is dead. God is in the most private portion of your heart. He’s where he always was.
I flap my arms and hit my head on the silver disk of the moon. The dome of my skull against the curve of the crescent makes the pealing sound of a child’s xylophone, badly played. My poor daughter never did develop any gift for song. I picture her face, ugly with grief, raw and swollen as it was when the last dog died. I will never see her again.
There is no noise in space, I say accusingly.
The octopus floats serenely by my side. Nor air, it says mildly.
I cannot breathe. I claw at my throat. Then I remember I am dead. Though I claim no expertise in the facial expressions of cephalopods, I could swear it looks amused.
Go ahead, it says, ask.
You have a thousand questions. They’re whirling through your mind.
I see myself as a young boy, knee socks, shorts, picking a number from a Lucite box.
Lucky draw, it says. No ice cream this time for you.
How did you know?
I know everything in this universe.
Are you god?
It laughs. I am an octopus. Are you?
For a moment, I wonder and then I remember, no, I am a man who had a name. I had a family once that loved me and now… now there is only black. I blink twice and the earth resolves hazily below, like something seen through tears.
I’ve been welcoming new arrivals for millennia, says the octopus gently. The greatest souls are delighted by infinity before them. The small-minded are terrified.
Why are you telling me? I ask, wondering which I am. So far I feel nothing beyond a vague regret.
Why not? I cannot change the life you live. I’ve met the population of this little planet squared and squared again, and I can tell you this: you always do what you were always going to do.
Our souls are eternal, you mean?
It sighs. Ah, language. So confining. Soon you shall transcend it. Look closely at an infant and you’ll see it knows the breadth and depth of the universe. You adults know nothing beyond your noses.
At once I’m uncomfortably aware of my proboscis occluding the view of the blurred planet below.
Most souls remake themselves seven times, explains the octopus. Then they endure. It pauses, then answers my unasked question: if that is heaven to you, then it is so.
The terminator creeps over the Earth. Electric lighting twinkles on. I wonder if I can see them one last time. I wonder if they cry for me.
Come, it says, and wraps me in a tentacle. You haven’t yet the dexterity for this. Come and see what’s left.
We breeze over the planet, peering into every window, slipping under every door. We spend centuries investigating. We see everything at once. They aren’t here. We are in the haze, not on the Earth, and I see I cannot touch it now. I may see it from a distance, but I can only enter into its echo.
What is this? I finally ask my companion, when we pass the eight thousandth little girl with the wings of a butterfly and the horn of a unicorn.
Did you find your profession satisfying? It asks. Did you love your body and the soul within? Did you wake up each morning eager to live the day ahead?
Did you have a happy childhood? Did you fulfil your familial duties across the generations? Were you tormented, ever, by regret?
I led an ordinary life.
Did you travel freely? Did you see the world? Did you embrace the beauty of your planet and see all you wished to see?
I led a privileged life.
Did you love your wife?
Yes, I reply, indignant.
Ah! There it is. The not-quite. Was the moment you first saw her the moment you knew there were aspects of existence more poignant and all-consuming than anything you’d hitherto imagined?
For an instant, I smell lilies. I feel that shivery thrill in my stomach, that untold emotion I’d thought died so long ago trickling down my aged spine. If I had married anyone else, my daughter would not have existed, I persist.
That, says the octopus, is the lie people without options tell themselves so they can sleep at night. Go. Find your one true love.
And so I go and I marry the lily-scented girl with laughter in her eyes. We have a son and he doesn’t nearly measure up. We have a daughter and she’s perfect, but the laughter in my lover’s soul runs dry. I am a writer and I’m very rarely rich and before long the sparkle dies. I am a billionaire but money was never enough. I marry my wife again and love her more and better, but in all the years I love her, she never sets my soul aquiver. With the infinite possibilities of the universe ever unfurling before me I see that unhappy families are ordinary and happiness is the rarest of gems. I see that it is what we make of it. We inhabit meat bodies of our choosing. We live lives, however large or small. Sometimes we scour the universe for materials to make a shell. Sometimes we buy them off the shelf. I begin to see that with no time and no body there is no shortage and anything can exist. Sometimes we soar and sometimes we swim and sometimes the dross of daily being falls away and all is utterly in concert. Many incarnations in I finally get it right. I live again and again.
Sophia Khan is a writer based in Islamabad, Pakistan. She studied English at Haverford College and received an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her first novel, Dear Yasmeen, was published by Periscope UK in 2016 and also by HarperCollins India and Diana Verlag/Random House, Germany. It was shortlisted for the Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and the Karachi Literature Festival Getz Pharma Fiction Prize. Her short story, ‘Aabirah’, was shortlisted for the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Her second novel, The Flight of the Arconaut, has been published Red Panda (2020).
Note on the Artwork: Hassnain Awais is a graduate of NCA, Lahore. He has done major studies in printmaking, two minors in textile design and one in sculpture and painting. He is currently associate professor at Punjab University, Lahore, but also finds time to run his own interior design company, Gadrang Designs, along with a studio, where he has hosted printmaking workshops and a residency for young emerging artists. He has exhibited widely in Pakistan and abroad.
Artwork courtesy of: Ejaz Art Gallery