They were in a wide field, a tree or two visible in the far distance. From some angles Osiris was yellow and blue, his feathers thickly ridged as in a painting by Van Gogh. With a tilt of the head the yellow shone golden; with the blink of an eye it flickered into straw. His eyes were beads, and gems, and pebbles, and planets, and it was looking at these and trying to name them that made Daniel Wish’s head fill up with water.
“Where did you come from?” he asked. A large wave crashed against the back of his skull, lingering and dripping down his spine.
“It doesn’t matter.” Osiris cocked his head to the side, but remained expressionless. “I’m here to weigh your heart.”
The water sloshed up and down in Daniel’s head, back and forth, until the rhythm was really quite soothing. It distracted him though, the waves working on his memory like an eraser. Something about this situation rang a bell—the yellow feathers or the way he calmed himself by counting down from ten—but he couldn’t recall how he got to the field or what he’d been doing just before. Daniel looked around himself at the long grass and the grey sky, all as blankly textured as his mind. It hit him: his heart. The weight of his heart.
“Like in Sesame Street?”
Osiris blinked. “That is a very informative program.”
“Oh,” said Daniel. “I’m dead.”
He had watched Sesame Street with someone once—who?—and in a special episode the puppets or Muppets or whosits had all gone to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they’d run into the ghost of an Egyptian boy trying to lighten the weight of his soul in order to attain his eternal reward. Could that be right? Daniel wondered. It seemed like heavy material for a children’s show.
But here was Osiris, the same god who’d weighed the boy’s eventually sinless heart in the Met and turned the boy into the pinpoint of a star. Daniel wasn’t sure how he knew the god’s name, how it had arrived in his mind—whether from a faint memory or somewhere else. When he tried to grasp the information the water in his head washed it away. The feathered creature in front of him didn’t look like an Egyptian cave drawing. He looked like a bird. And a man.
And Daniel sat down, dizzy.
In front of Osiris lay a flat rock, and upon it was balanced a gleaming brass scale. Osiris piled small black stones into one of the dishes, and slowly poured sand into the other until they sat perfectly even with one another. Then, with finger and thumb, he pinched a yellow feather from his own neck. The other feathers settled around the space until there was no space at all—just a smooth sheen of bright soft yellow golden blue. Osiris set the feather down on the flat rock, beside the scale, and pinned it into place with one of the black stones. The scale keeled under its new imbalance, and Osiris cleaned out both dishes, stacking the remaining stones into the shape of a pyramid on the ground and siphoning the sand into a small bag. The apparatus, apparently, was tested. Ready.
Daniel held his head in his hands. The way a child would, he thought, pinching too hard. Hurting himself out of curiosity. The thought made him shiver, without knowing why.
“Soul or heart?” he asked.
“They are the same.” Osiris tightened the mouth of the bag with a string. “It is like…”
Osiris nipped at the scale, adjusting. His beak looked like scissors made out of obsidian.
“If you wish,” he said. “But no.”
Slowly the water in Daniel’s head calmed. It pooled in his forehead and stayed there, a comforting weight. Any small twitch he made caused ripples, but these were not so disorienting or upsetting as had been the tides and gales. Little by little, Daniel straightened his spine so he could see Osiris and the scale directly. Below him was that long dry grass and dirt. The field smelled like hot hay.
Osiris spoke and his voice was soft.
“If you’re ready.”
He placed his hand on Daniel’s chest, the palm and fingertips flat. When he drew back he was holding Daniel’s own red heart, a ball of flesh. It didn’t hurt, Daniel marveled. Didn’t feel like anything.
Osiris maneuvered the heart onto the left dish of the scale and it sat there, seeming to shiver in the wind. He stared at the heart, his eyes impassive.
“Each of the actions you’ve taken in your life affects the weight of your heart. Your soul. Too many ill acts and, when weighed against a feather, the heart will cause the scale to dip. Enough good acts to balance against the ill, and the feather will cause the dip instead. Do you understand?”
“No,” Daniel said. Then he considered. “Yes.”
Osiris flicked away the pebble that had been holding the feather in place. He set the feather into the empty brass dish and withdrew his fingers.
The scale wobbled on its axis; it looked like a teeter toy. Water drips into the bird’s head and the bird leans down to take a drink. Water drips out of the bird’s head and the bird stands back up, its painted eyes astonished. Daniel tried to accept the severity of his situation, but his chest was as empty as the field where he sat—nothing to grip at, nowhere for the blood to rush. It seemed amazing that the line between life and death could be so pure, could be crossed so suddenly. And yet, it also seemed familiar.
In Daniel’s head, waves drifted against bone and then drifted away back into the center. Soon you could be a star, he told himself. Flicker among the righteous. Or you won’t.
The scale came to a rest. The feather and the heart were perfectly level.
“What does it mean?” Daniel asked.
“It is not unique.” Osiris held his hands around the scale, as if testing its aura. “The scale weighs your deeds. But intention also matters. There is something you have not decided about yourself. Something you haven’t chosen to forgive, or not forgive. This decision in itself has weight: will you choose correctly? Will the choice be enough?”
They sat quietly together and Daniel felt air rushing around his cheeks, rasping by his ears. Osiris scooped the heart out of the brass scale and said to Daniel:
“Close your eyes.”
Daniel felt Osiris’s hand once again rest against his breastbone. When he opened his eyes the heart was gone, but not gone. It beat, familiar, in his chest.
“What am I supposed to do next?” Daniel asked. His eyes felt hot, tears threatening to spill out onto his cheeks. It was unfair. In his daily existence he had worried constantly about what to do, about whether he was succeeding. He thought that in the afterlife, at least, he would be released from this pressure of choosing. He thought that when he died he would simply be judged, and then know if he had done well.
The sound came of silk moving against felt. Breath condensing on glass. Daniel felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to see Osiris beside him. The face still revealed nothing, but Daniel now saw that it was beautiful. The feathers were like armor. And Osiris’s hand rested on his shoulder. So warm.
“You may take as much time as you need. It is not easy, to find what is unsettled and settle it. I will wait, and come back when you are ready. Until that time, you may travel where you will.”
“But what am I?” Daniel asked. “Can anyone see me?”
“Your task is only to think and remember. If anyone sees you, you will not know it. If the world feels you, you will not know it. You will attend to your own questions, as all the elements of the world do to theirs.”
Osiris stood up, the removal of his hand leaving a new vulnerable place on Daniel’s shoulder. The wind felt specially cool there for a moment, like a limb finding unwarmed sheets in the depths of sleep. Osiris picked up the scale and the small black stones and the bag of sand and with a last blank look at Daniel he was gone.
A dark shape lurked through the waves in Daniel’s head, stirring wake. A shadow. A shudder. Something small. He surprised himself by wanting to call out to it: hello again! But the shape was also, without question, disconcerting. Like a fish brushing his ankles in a shallow pond. If I could catch you, he thought, I could eat you. Then shook his head, revised. I could keep you?
He sat down in the field and released a puff of dust. Lay his palm in the ashy soil and left a perfect imprint of his hand.
Try to remember, Daniel told himself. Every bad thing you’ve done in your life.
At age six he stole five dollars from his mother’s purse, a crumpled bill pulled from a dirty wallet. The purse was full of crumbs and hard candy, congealing together. When his mother later admonished him for taking the money, Daniel lied about it. He never told the truth.
In middle school a group of boys decided that one of their friends was not their friend anymore. Daniel was a member of this group, and found it thrilling to look at the new not-friend on the first day after the collective decision. The boy walked up to them in the hall and started to say something about a TV show he’d watched the night before. He did not get through his second sentence, because the boys—Daniel and the other boys—looked at him with such coldness that the words stopped up in his mouth. The boys snuck after him walking home from school and threw small rocks at his backpack, his arms. They laughed at him for no reason whenever he spoke in class, and Daniel still remembered the glee of it—that pointless laughter consuming him, overwhelming him, just encouraged by the reddening of the boy’s face, the tears pinching out at the corners of his eyes.
It was only later that Daniel realized that what he and his friends had done was real. At the time they all thought of it as a game, and the boy they singled out as a player. Daniel tried to apologize to the skinny boy who had been his friend. The boy shrugged. Years had gone by.
When he was in his twenties, Daniel hit a cat with his car. He was driving at night, and the cat was black. It darted out in front of him and though there was no one else on the road he felt a momentary hesitation about whether to slam on the brakes. In a long ago driver’s ed course Daniel had learned that you can’t save every animal that runs in front of your car. You must respect the sanctity of human life and keep driving instead of endangering yourself with a swerve.
By the time he decided to brake it was too late—it all happened much faster on the road than in his head. The cat looked like a grim plaything on the concrete, and Daniel rushed back into his car, speeding away without checking for a collar or tag that might bear a phone number.
There were too many possibilities. Daniel’s heart quivered. What about the year when he had vivid dreams about being reunited with a lost love? He, in the dream, heard rapping on the windowpane beside him in a restaurant and looked up to see her there, her mouth slightly open. He held her inside his grey charcoal coat, she gripping his shirtfront and pulling him closer. It was always a different woman, but the same feeling of sudden and complete protection. She wore a headband, or chipped nail polish, or carried a book bag spilling over with papers. He pulled her onto his lap in an armchair in an unfamiliar living room, the only light a thin metal lamp beside them, each of them whispering inconsequential secrets—whispering so as not to wake up the faceless sleepers in the other rooms.
His wife didn’t know about the dreams. When he bought a charcoal coat she admired it, and remarked in passing that it wasn’t his usual taste. Her nail polish was impeccable, her hair in a short bob secured behind the ears with pins. All that year he slept in very long, because the dreams came most often in the deep and almost painful sleep of late morning. He’d wake up drunk with them and wander into the kitchen to see his wife’s breakfast dishes already in the sink. He felt hollow in waking, and so he slept.
What did he need to forgive himself for? Osiris had seemed certain, as though it would be obvious and excruciating. A heavy shadow, a tiny gnawing mouth. But he also said it would be difficult, this decision Daniel needed to make. Maybe the real question was: what kind of a man wouldn’t know? Wouldn’t let himself regret? Daniel lay down in the long grass and pulled his knees close to his chest. He closed his eyes and tried to steady his breathing, and after a long time he fell asleep and lay there unmoving while the wind shuffled the field around him.
From time to time Daniel opened his eyes and saw that he was no longer in the field. But he stayed still and let the world change, himself unchanging. Or perhaps the both of them changed, together, like any dead animal and the newly fertile piece of soil in which it rests.
The field became an orchard, full of bees. Daniel lay in the shade of a blossoming tree, his body curled up like an ear. Each flower in each tree bore the possibility of becoming fruit. The bees hung around the trees in a thick layer, so heavy with pollen that they dropped the stems of flowers by landing on them. Sometimes a bee fell off a flower and tumbled some distance before regaining its bearings and flying in the direction of a new perfume.
Some of the flowers remained neglected, though they were plush pink like all the rest and if pinched free by nimble fingers would have pinwheeled nicely, smelled sweet. Bees hovered above Daniel’s still form and sometimes even landed on him, their soft bodies brushing against his skin or crawling into his pockets without drawing the slightest twitch. Between the orchard trees the ground was mostly dirt, pock-marked with footprints and a few apple corpses from previous seasons, rotting into puddles of apple wine and seeping down into the soil.
Daniel inhaled the heady reek of blossoms and fermenting cores, and he frowned. When Osiris disappeared, Daniel had worried about his own ability to keep apart from the world. Isn’t that how ghosts are born? By too close a proximity to the ground they walked in life?
But now the bees loomed with their maddening fraternity and the branches of the trees rubbed together in the wind, and Daniel thought with longing about the quiet white light of the distant stars.
When he opened his eyes next the orchard had become a seaside pounded by a storm. Daniel’s body carved a nook in the sand while the needles of rain pricked holes all along the beach and the ocean subdued from blue to slate. The tide rushed in, one wave at a time. First a piece of driftwood was taken up and then a pile of rotting kelp turned into soup and then the waves ran up along Daniel’s thighs like eager fingers, flitting away only to return with fuller force. Wind blew a dried branch in somersaults along the tideline. For some time nothing was visible but a thin lip of ocean being pulverized to foam by the rain.
Going out again, the tide’s progress was more difficult to mark. It made small moves: waves continued to rush in, but they came from farther away and didn’t reach as high. Remnants of land began to poke their noses out, including a shoe and a wide sheet of rusted metal. One wave dragged back a sodden log and left a pool full of tiny blue crabs. The sand in some places was smooth and muddy, in other places big with unground shell and stone.
The tide receded enough to reveal Daniel. His eyes were shut tight again and his fingers still gripped his shins. Rain fell against him less heavily now, but enough that it kept his hair from drying into salty locks and washed the sea away from his mouth.
Next Daniel found himself on a forest floor, reclined on pine needles. Insects crawled through the needles and made them crackle; moss grew over the decaying splinters of a cedar log. The wind that blew here was surprisingly cold, and Daniel’s lips blued, unseen. A deer picked its way past his body, stepping lightly in the curve of his elbow and springing away when a bird flew off a nearby tree branch.
After this Daniel opened his eyes in a garden, felt his spine abutting a stone wall. The garden was in disrepair: tomato vines turned black on thin wooden pikes and the air was thick with the green acrid smell of weeds. There were no footprints in the earth, no clothes on the line strung across the yard. In the near silence a beetle chewed on a tomato leaf, its black jaws clicking as they ground the leaf fiber into mulch.
Your job, Daniel thought, is to think and remember.
There was one thing. A thought that Daniel pushed away. Though it sidled close to him. Tugged his arm.
A memory, he told himself. Not a regret. Once, Daniel had a child.
He was a small boy who piled onto Daniel’s lap to watch television or listen to his father read stories. A boy with dark hair that his mother brushed until it stood up in the terrified attitudes of static. He gripped Daniel’s fingers with hands like pinchers, kissed his cheeks with wet lips.
They liked to trade facts. It was a game. Daniel told his son that the human body is seventy percent water, and the boy doubled over laughing as if this was the funniest thing he had ever heard. He knocked against the ribs on Daniel’s chest and asked: where is the water? Is it in there? He knocked on his father’s head. In there?
Daniel tickled him until he cried, streams and streams of jubilant tears. There you go, Daniel said to the boy. I found it.
But it did seem somewhat impossible, that statistic. After all, if a body was so fluid, so liquid, how could it ever hold together? Or hold anything inside? If you dropped a marble into a puddle of water it sank right through. When Daniel’s son put a marble in his mouth, however, it stuck in the back of his throat and stayed there.
In the garden, Daniel gripped his knees so tightly that bruises formed beneath his pants, and he willed himself into the orchard, the forest, the sea: anyplace that was far away and large enough to swallow him whole. He wanted to be punished, stung. Washed clean by the cold burn of salt water.
The boy had been in kindergarten. He drew pictures of neatly raked plots of land, planted with rhubarb and red roses. Afterwards, Daniel and his wife visited counselors, who told them that no one was at fault. Their son’s classroom was stocked with buckets of toys, bins full of beads and beans and sand. It was good for children to feel the different sensations of nature, get accustomed to new materials. Try to build. They had piles of blocks and dolls and plastic fruit.
Daniel pictured each of these objects, and tried to imagine putting them in his mouth. The head of a doll would be a challenge. A handful of beans would go down easy. Everywhere now, he saw how things were dangerous: a cherry tomato, a piece of honeycomb broken off and chewed down into a gummy ball. Just put it on your tongue and inhale. His wife came into the living room once while he sat there sucking on a marble of his own—the big kind, a masher, as large as a lychee nut. They started at each other, and she walked back out the way she came.
His beautiful wife with her pinned-back hair. After a year she asked him, gently, couldn’t they have another child? She was lonely, she told him. Very. And he seemed to want one, seemed to be missing that portion of his life. But who, Daniel wondered, could bring something so delicate, so small, into such an enormous world? One with waves, and teeth, and rain?
You’re not to blame, she said. It wasn’t your fault.
And he repeated: It wasn’t my fault. Trying out the sentiment. But then he went into the kitchen and took an egg out of the refrigerator. Held it to his lips, in a soft kiss. Stuck it in between his teeth until the rough shell shattered and his mouth dripped with buttery yolk. Once started, the habit of trying to fill himself up, weigh himself down, was a difficult one to break.
Of course in truth, his wife and the counselor were right. The kindergarten teacher was right. His parents were right. His friends were right. Daniel wasn’t to blame for the boy’s death. So what could he blame himself for instead? What could he possibly choose to forgive?
“You have decided?”
Osiris sat on his heels beside Daniel, hands clasped on his lap. It took Daniel’s breath away for a moment, the cold shock of recognition. Of words spoken aloud. He blinked. When the wind blew just so, the feathers on Osiris’s scalp lifted and made him look almost surprised.
They were in the field, and the brass scale was laid out before them as if no time had passed. The bag of sand casually tossed on the ground, and slouching.
Daniel sat up and every nerve in his body pinched him. He rolled his shoulders, ran a hand through his hair. In his chest, the heartbeats were steady, as the heartbeats of a sleeper are. He breathed, to remember air.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m ready.”
Osiris lifted a hand to Daniel’s chest.
“Good,” he said. “Then let us begin.”