The staircase wound around the inside of the Tree, climbing ever higher. It sloped gently, at an angle seemingly designed for steady, comfortable progress. As the family climbed, they passed other souls and were passed in turn. None of the souls appeared to be rushing, but each soul or group of souls moved at a pace that suited them. Now that the Human’s family had been reunited, there was no reason to worry about reaching a destination in a hurry. No pressure to avoid falling behind. Instead, the group traveled easily. The children were able, in this form, to travel as quickly as the adults, and nobody tired. Time slipped past.
As the family climbed higher, the light from above grew brighter. The glimmering green of the Tree’s great leaves became a steady green glow that illuminated the inside of the Tree. After what could have been hours, or days, or even years, the family reached the lowest branches of the tree. Like the roots below, these were hollow. Ledges ran around the circumference of the trunk, allowing those on the staircases to reach the branches if they wished. For some branches, the hollows ran out of sight, with the destination obscured by a soft green light. Some others, however opened onto platforms made of overlapping enormous leaves. These areas took on a multitude of forms. Some were great feasting halls where souls rejoiced in the presence of their fellows while radiant beings oversaw the festivities. Others were beautiful gardens, where souls could rest eternally in dappled shade near pools of brilliant blue water. One stood out from the others by being decidedly not a place of rest or celebration. This one was a battlefield. Masses of souls, wearing gleaming armor of gold and silver, clashed against one another. Their cries were not screams of terror or rage, however, but of joy. Here, they could strive against a worthy enemy without ever losing comrades or suffering injury.
At each ledge, some souls would peel off from those climbing and seek one of these openings. They seemed drawn to their proper place just as had the souls below. None of these places attracted the Human’s family, however. The Human began to worry. Would a living soul be welcome in one of these places, or would this just be another separation?
The family continued to climb, past places where souls joined their departed kin, past worlds which resembled one another yet each higher one was more beautiful and restful, eventually reaching the top of the Tree. The staircases reached a broad canopy, and the souls who climbed this high stepped out onto broad, springy foliage. The overlapping leaves were each the size of the Human’s old house, and there was no fear of falling through, as they only gave slightly beneath the Human’s feet, and did not move at all at the passage of the souls.
Here, more beings could be seen. These were different from those below, however. They shone with brilliant light of many colors. Each was different in appearance, but all radiated a sense of benevolence and welcome. Some resembled human form, but with immense wings. Others were masses of many wings and eyes. One varied from male to female each time the Human looked, both forms beautiful to behold. Some had no defined shapes, while others took the forms of animals, or had a mixture of human and animal traits. Some embodied aspects of nature, light and fire and water and the stars in the sky. The air was full of sound. The whispers of the leaves provided a backdrop for the sounds of joyous song that came from many directions.
Many of the remaining souls moved off towards one of these beings. In some cases, they were warmly welcomed, and moved past onto spreading branches beyond. Some of these areas seemed to contain still more glorious beings, while others shown with brilliant light. The souls who entered these latter seemed to join with the light, becoming one with the divine they sought.
The Human’s family did not seek any of these areas. In life, they had not followed any particular faith. Coming, as they did, from traditions that rejected them, the Human and the Human’s love had not felt part of the faiths of their people. The Human wondered what became of those who did not have a spiritual home in the Present. They had escaped Oblivion, but the City of which so many had spoken was nowhere to be seen. The Human’s family, however, seemed to know where to go, as they started off, pulling the Human along.
Here, between two grand branches, was a smaller limb. It was still broader across than the path the Human had followed for so long, but it was far smaller than the branches around it. It bent up ahead, and the Human could not see where it led. The Human’s family did not hesitate, though, and they proceeded into the glowing foliage.
The branch twisted and turned, rose and fell, and the Human marveled that they could travel so far out from the great trunk and the branch was still broad enough to hold them. Turning one final corner, the branch cleared the canopy, and the family stepped out into the open.
Ahead, the leaves of the branch made a clearing like those the Human had seen before. On the far side, a great silver arch overhead. It was covered in writing from many tongues. They all read the same thing, “The World To Come”. Beyond the arch, the surface of the leaves took on a silvered hue, and the leaves merged together to form a broad boulevard. Ahead, buildings of the same material glinted in a light that came from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The family approached the arch and stepped through.
Among the buildings, souls drifted about, and other, more solid beings went about what appeared to be normal daily business. Seeing the Human’s family standing in the street, one of these beings stopped and came nearer.
It was a bit taller than the Human, and was as solid as the Tree had been. It did not waver or shift in any way. Its face was smooth except for great dark eyes. Its head was smooth and grew no hair, but always seemed to emit a faint aura of warm light instead. It wore a robe that shifted colors gently from one to the next. When it spoke, no mouth was evident, but the Human heard the words nonetheless. Its voice was warm and kind.
“Welcome. You have come far. Be joyful that your journey is both at an end and yet just beginning,” it said, bowing slightly.
“Thank you,” replied the Human. “What is this place?”
“This is the end and the beginning. Where the Past meets that which is to come. Here, souls who have ended their journey rest until they are ready to venture out anew. You are not a soul, however. How did you come to be here?”
The Human told the being the tale of loss, grief, despair, hope, and perseverance that bridged the death of the Human’s family and their arrival here.
“It seems you HAVE come far,” chuckled the being. “Do not worry. You will not be separated from your loved ones. As they spend time here, they will remember their lives and you. Souls here remember their lives and contemplate what they have learned and what they have yet to know. Those that desire to return to life can be reborn and live anew. Some choose to do so together, in fact. Those who have reached the end of their journey, who feel no pull to return to the Present, remain here until the end of all things.”
“What happens then?” asked the Human. “Does all of this disappear?”
“Oh no!” laughed the being. “Time does not ever truly end. Once all souls have reached their chosen rests, they will return to the divine. All souls came from the Infinite and to the Infinite they will return, bringing with them all they have learned and experienced. For some, the path will be very long and painful. Some throw themselves into Oblivion, so great is the burden they carry. There, they will forget their pain, hate, and suffering. This will allow them to rejoin the rest of us as whole beings. Once we are all reunited, we will begin the World anew. Thus it has always been, and thus it shall always be.”
The Human stood silent for a moment. “How long have you been here?” the Human asked.
“Long enough that I am nearly ready to return to the Present for my next life,” said the being with joy. “I’ve started taking on a form already. I wonder what life I shall live this time? In the past I have learned so much, and I wish to learn even more. But that is for another time. For now, let us find you all a place to stay. And you, my friend, you have a decision to make.” The being gestured to the family and led them further into the city. They passed beautiful fountains and plazas, tall spires, houses of worship of many types, each ringing with song. Eventually, they came to a street lined with houses. Each had a small garden where jeweled flowers grew. Many had children, some still insubstantial, and others nearly as solid as the family’s guide, playing out front. The being brought the family to a house that bore a resemblance to the home they had once shared. It even had a bench out front. Behind the house, trees stretched into the distance, shining with the same light as the World Tree.
“This seems like it will suit you!” exclaimed the being. The Human’s family moved towards the door of the house and the Human tried to follow, but the being interfered, reaching out a hand.
“I said before you had a choice to make. You already have your memories. But you do not remember any prior lives, correct?” The Human nodded. “I thought so. Since you came here without dying, the memories of your past life have not been cleared away. The grief that brought you here is keeping you in this form.” The being gestured to the Human’s body, dark and solid and heavy. “What you must decide is this: will you release your grief and pain and, with them, your present form? You will need to let go of your desires, fears, even your memories. Know that they will return with time, but the process of releasing your attachments will be difficult. In a way, you will be letting yourself die. So that you may be reborn.”
The Human was stunned. To come so far to lose everything again? To forget the very people who meant so much? The being stepped close, and put a gentle hand on the Human’s shoulder.
“Remember, though, that your family will still be with you. You will remember them in time, as they will you. If you cling to what you have now, you will lose them nonetheless when they are ready to be reborn and you cannot follow. Their cycle will continue. You must decide if you can release your bonds and join them.” The being stepped away, and, bowing low, turned and left the Human. The Human turned back towards the house. Through the window, the forms of the Human’s family could now be seen just a bit better than a few moments before. The children were following one another around the house, and the Humans’ love had taken a seat by the window, just as in life.
The Human sat on the bench outside of the house that now held the promise of joy, considering what to do. There was nothing to be lost but sadness and reminders of what had gone before. The Human’s eyes closed.
When the Human woke, the world had become very strange.
It seemed a long night had passed leaving the Human somewhere new.
There was no grief for what was lost.
The Human turned and saw a house made of silver, with gleaming green trees behind it. From inside the house, movement and laughter could be heard. The Human rose and went inside.
Once there was a Human who lived at the edge of the forest.