a short story originally written for the NYC Midnight contest
It had happened again. This she was certain of, because she could remember everything and before she hadn’t been able to remember the “before.” What she wasn’t certain of was whether she had succeeded this time; but to know she would have to open her eyes. Eyes still closed, Miriam took a deep breath and felt some relief at the comforting scent of greenery after a spring rain. The previous times there had been a cold crispness, like a winter day in the Nevada high desert. She took it as a good sign that at least she was someplace different. Something had changed this time.
Encouraged, she cracked one eye open and disappointment washed over her. There he was, arms crossed and resting on his stomach, head tilted to one side as he watched her. He looked curious and amused, which irked her. She closed her eye again and took another breath. Maybe if she tried again…
“Miriam, I have all the time in the universe, but don’t be meshugenah.”
She reluctantly opened her eyes and glared at him like a taciturn child. “I don’t understand. What did I do this time? I was so good! I was good. I know I was good.”
He stood, tall and imposing, but more grandfatherly than ominous. He was wearing the same robes she had seen him in before. Not exactly what she had expected the first time she had met him. Instead of shiny black, like one would see in a courtroom, the fabric was a matte grayish black and looked like it was made from hemp. The only thing that alerted you to the otherness of the garment was that in its folds there appeared to be movement independent of his movements. It was as if it were a curtain, behind which figures were passing close enough to ripple its contours. She had been too afraid to come near him at first. However, having seen it so many times before, she was now merely wary and tried to ignore the flutters as they wandered the circumference of his form. She was concerned that if she came in contact with the fabric, she would find herself absorbed into the folds with the others.
He stood on a dais that appeared to be ancient and made of tiles inlaid with lapis lazuli, opal, and gold. The beauty and opulence of it was in contrast with his comparatively bland-looking attire and the plain wood table next to him. On the table was a dull bronze scale, a medium canvas sack, and a large record book. She snorted in irritation when she saw the record book and scale.
“Fine.” She sighed and stepped forward onto the dais, careful to avoid the proximity of his robes. She wasn’t entirely sure what she thought was going to happen if her plan from the last time had worked, but she had ardently hoped it would mean not facing those objects again.
“Miriam,” he said her name and she understood that what he was saying was her true name, but not the word “Miriam” which had just been her most recent name. “So nu, you made it, you have advanced and are here.”
“Advanced?” A glimmer of hope perked up, but confusion kept it in check.
“Did you not notice your surroundings?” He made an expansive motion with his arm, causing her to swerve her shoulders to avoid his arm brushing against her. But she looked around for the first time, realizing she had been so focused on the dais and her frustration she hadn’t noticed her surroundings.
When last she had seen the dais and gone through the dreaded weighing, and all the times before that, she had been in a simple clearing, surrounded by fir trees on her left and behind her, the dais positioned in front of a winding path that disappeared around an outcropping of rocks on a hilly embankment that rose to her right. In contrast, where she was now was a large valley with vibrant tall green grasses stretching to the south toward what looked like a city glimmering in the distance. To the north the fields faded into a line of trees that appeared to be the start of a dark forest, but mist hung low in the trees and she could not see far.
“This is when we find out if your destiny lies to the south and all its promise of contentment and cherished loved ones or to the north and just and righteous repercussions and the lessons they impart.” He presented both as if they were equally wonderful options. She didn’t know what the former was for sure, but the latter sounded like some bureaucratic euphemism for hell. Both options made her uneasy. She suspected though that if she went to the sparkling city it might mean she would be done, and she desperately wanted to be done. She wasn’t sure how many lives it had been, but surely it was enough.
The first time she had lived, she had not been the best person. Not evil but her sins had been so clearly more than her virtues that the Judge had been tempted to not even weigh them out and calculate the balance. When he had finished, the Judge had quietly closed the balance book, poured the sins and virtues back into the canvas sack and shook his head sadly as he said, “Do better next time. Du farshteyst?” And then he, table, and dais had vanished, leaving her alone in the clearing. Feeling lost and unsure what would happen next.
“No, I do not understand.” She had grumbled at the space he’d previously occupied. At that point the Attendant stepped forward from where they had waited; ethereal and so soft and kind and gentle that she had wanted to simply melt into them and be forever a part of that wonderful energy. The Attendant took her by the hand and led her up the embankment. They spoke softly to her the entire time, reassuring and kind words of comfort. And as the two of them walked she became less and less aware of herself, until she felt that she had simply disbursed into the crisp cool air and was no more.
The second life and the next and the next had been much the same, though she felt there had been some improvement. The sins and virtues eking closer together in size and shape and weight. The maddening part, the completely unfair part of it all, was that while living the life you never remembered what you needed to fix or that you needed to fix anything or that you were you! Well, she admitted to herself, you can know, not exactly remember, but feel or sense that you have some pattern of behavior or moment of truth that you need to get right.
She realized after the fifth or fiftieth life (it was so hard to know how long she had been doing this) that she must have been a severely slow learner. But that most recent life had been as an efficiency expert and she now knew about root causes and prioritization and was certain that she just needed to overcome her tendency to pettiness and fear of the unknown and that would allow her to move on. So, while the Attendant murmured their kindness walking her up the hill, she had repeated her lessons in her mind like weaving a prayer into the Attendant’s lulling words. The fading had felt different, thicker. It had taken longer too; she had managed to glimpse the view from the top of the hill before she had dissipated.
Now, standing before the Judge, watching him take items out of the canvas bag and place them on either the virtue-side or the sin-side of the scales and mark his notes in the book, she watched the scale tip a bit to one side and a bit back to the other. Over and over again, the difference was a mere fraction of a weight either way or the other. The suspense was starting to fray her nerves. She became aware that the Attendant had stepped forward from wherever they had been waiting as well; edging closer to the dais, too curious to observe custom.
She thought back on this last life, trying to understand how it was so close. She had been generous and kind, but not so saccharine as to be blinded by hubris. She had managed to be gracious too. There had been that whole incident with the roommate burning down their apartment building and she barely mentioned it. And when her sister had eaten all the Halloween candy, had she ratted her sister out or taken revenge? Well, maybe that wasn’t a good example. She had embraced change though and looked forward to the unknown, sought it out even. That’s what scientists do, right? Look fearlessly into the unknown? Although that was really just building upon proven factors in a controlled and methodical manner.
The Judge put the last item on the virtue side and stared at the result, “Hunh,” is all he said.
Miriam looked at the little marker at the top to see which side it was pointing to, because it was too close to tell from looking at the scales. It was exactly centered. Was that even possible? Her good and bad deeds completely balanced each other out.
“What does that mean?” She asked the Judge with an edge of anxiety. She turned back to the Attendant, who was now standing at the edge of the dais. “What does this mean?” They looked at her; mirroring her confusion.
The Judge suddenly started to laugh, a chuckle that built to a mirthful belly laugh.
“This is good, then? Does that mean this is good? Did I win… I mean did I … do I get to go there?” She pointed south.
“Nu?” He said once he could speak again, he shrugged his shoulders and indicated the scales with both hands. “Who knows? I’ve never seen the likes of it!” And he chuckled some more, shaking his head and double-checking the numbers in his record book.
Miriam did not see the humor, “So what happens now? Do I have to go back again? Do I go there or there?!” She frantically pointed north and south.
The Judge finally looked at her and realizing how distressed she was pulled himself together. “In three thousand years I have never had a soul that has lived a life this balanced. Your virtues do not outweigh the sins and therefore you cannot move on to your rewards, but in good conscience, because your sins do not outweigh your virtues, you can’t be sent to suffer.”
“So what do I do? Where do I go?”
“You will have to remain as you are until a solution presents itself.” He closed the record book but paused before he started putting the deeds back into the canvas sack as if he were waiting for her to stop him.
“Wait. Is there something I can do to tip the balance?”
He shook his head, “Gornisht. I’ve got nothing. I know nothing that could tip the balance.”
She latched onto something he had said as an idea took hold and asked, “Have you ever lived a life? I don’t mean to be impertinent; I have a reason for asking”
The Judge answered warily, “Yes. But it was so long ago I barely remember it.”
“I imagine the scales are infallible, but do you know what they measure the weight by? The rules? Because I noticed that not everything weighed the same amount. Some larger items appeared to weigh less than some smaller ones.”
The Judge again, more warily than before, “It is a complicated measurement to be sure.”
With just the tiniest bit of hesitancy Miriam continued, “Well, what if you were to live the life I just lived, kind of like a visitor, you know? And experienced the moments and events as they happened, maybe that would give you a little more insight and could be used to … I don’t know, make a decision.” The Attendant gasped in surprise. Miriam turned to them and said, “Is it possible? I mean I would think it would be possible. And if it were possible, then perhaps, this being such a very very unusual circumstance…”
She turned back to the Judge, “Don’t you see, things have probably changed from what you remember and maybe it would be good for everyone after me, and yourself as well, to … to … to …” She trailed off, not sure what it would be good to do.
“It would not matter even if I did relive your life to experience it myself.” The Judge looked kindly at Miriam and indulgently said, “My child, I think you do not understand a fundamental part of this sacred weighing. It is not me you need to sell your ideas to, I am not the one who determines the weight of the scales or the outcome of your fate.”
“Then who? Is there some kind of committee I can appeal to? A group of angels or something like that?” She reached into her memory, all those lives, wasn’t she a merchant in one of them, what had she learned about making a deal? “Maybe I could trade something. Or work it off. I’ve been so many professions, one of them might be of service.” She also remembered that she had been a lousy merchant.
“The only person who knows how the deeds are weighted is the person who lived the life that did them.
“Me?” She asked incredulously, though she felt it was true. As she realized that in all her lives the one thing that had always been true was a constant state of balancing the scales. Every good thing she ever did she felt guilt about the thing she had not done that would have been better. Every bad thing, she mitigated with good intentions. And then she chuckled and then she laughed, understanding now why the Judge had reacted with so much good-natured humor before.
“Am I the judge? Then who are you?”
“Me, I’m just a bookkeeper. And they’re,” indicating the Attendant, “kind of like an usher.” And then they all three laughed.
“Is the weighing, even necessary?”
“No. Each person sets their own judgment and this was yours. So, nu?” He said, “what do you want to do?”
She bit her lip and pointed south. “Can I…?” The Judge nodded and as she took the hand the Attendant offered her, she could see loved ones emerging from the judge’s robes to greet her and as they all walked toward the city in the distance, her entire being became joy and light and peace.