The Office of Heavenly Restitution
by Russell Hasan
People are gathered from the valley where they herd sheep, and are led along a rough, rocky path into the Crystal Mountain. There, in tunnels lined with glowing crystals, they are spoken to by the Whisperers. They are told to pick up the crystal knives and to cut their arms and legs, and to slice off their fingers, their toes, their feet, and their hands, and to cut their faces. At the end, they are told to cut off their genitals, and then to open a black door at the center of the mountain and to enter.
If they resist, they are told: “Do it! Don’t worry, it will be okay. Trust us. We know what we’re talking about. This is the only way to get what you want. Eternal life waits for you. Your dreams will be realized. You will live in a palace surrounded by feasts of meat on plates of gold, and beautiful women will attend to you. Only you must do as we say. We insist.” “But I don’t want to! It hurts!” “The body is evil and the mind must be freed from the foul, rotting prison of the flesh. Look around you. Everyone else is doing it. Won’t you be embarrassed if you don’t?” “Well, but….” “You have no time in which to decide! This is urgent. You must choose now!” “Well… okay…. Ouch!”
“This doesn’t feel right, are you sure that this is necessary?” “Yes, very sure. This is what will save you. Don’t you want to get what you want? If you really want your dreams then you must do as we tell you. You will be given everything and you won’t need to do any work at all to get it, but you must be willing to make sacrifices to get what you want. Don’t worry, we are experts, we know what’s best for you.” “I guess if it’s really necessary then I have no choice. Okay.”
“No, this is making me nervous, this doesn’t feel, right, no! No! No! Let me out of here! Help, let me out of here!” “There is no going back once you enter the Crystal Mountain. The only tunnel back leads down, into the bowels of Hell. There you will be cold, so very, very cold. Go forward and you will be warm, and it will be safe, and you will always have the comforting sound of our voices to make you feel better. Do it. Do it. Do it.” “I don’t know, I can’t make up my mind! Help!” “Here is all the help that you need: do it.” “Yes, okay. I’ll do it, but I… I don’t… well, I’ll do it.”
“This really hurts. This cannot be good for me.” “You sliced off your little finger and you were fine. You cut your cheek. Nothing bad happened. Trust us, it will be okay. Cutting off your foot will feel good, it will be strangely satisfying. You’ll see.” “I don’t understand what’s going on or why I have to do this.” “You don’t need to understand. Just pick up the knife. We could explain it all to you, but that would be a waste of time. Just do as we say.” “If you say so.”
“Cut yourself. Slice the skin on your leg.” “No.” “You must. Make the cut! Pick up the knife! It is the only way.” “I’m sorry, I don’t believe that you were listening to me. I wasn’t asking you a question. I was giving you my answer. No.” “Oh, stop it!” someone else says. The resisting man has a curiously smooth face; this bothers those around him. “You’ll make them mad, you’ll get us all in trouble! They’ll hurt us if they get angry. Don’t you see that giving in is the only way to please them?” “But I don’t want to please them.” “You’ll bring ruin down upon all of us!” “I’m not afraid of them. The opposite is true. They fear us. This whole place is built around their fear of us, it is their oozing wound, their flagrant vulnerability. Their insecurity is the foundation of this mountain. They can’t touch me. I’m sure of it.” The Whisperers crowd around the man. He can smell the rot in their breath, feel the burning in their shiny red eyes. “Yes we can! You don’t want to make us mad! We’re warning you, we tried to be nice but we won’t put up with an attitude from a little nothing like you! Make the cut! Do it now! RIGHT NOW!!!” “No.” A light appears, illuminating the path back in the direction from which he had come. “Then you mean nothing to us, and you cannot remain here. Go back from whence you came.” He leaves.
He walks alone in silence winding his way back down through the crystal tunnels. At the end of the light is not the green fields, but a white door. He enters. “Where am I?” “Don’t you know? This is Heaven.” “But wasn’t this supposed to be Hell?” “What is Heaven for one man is Hell for another.” “Don’t I get to return to my sheep?” “We hope you won’t. We have a job for you.” “A job? What kind of job?” “To handle complaints and to staff the complaints desk in the Office of Heavenly Restitution. When the ghosts feel that the demons have broken the rules, they are allowed to file a complaint. We help them if we can, if the contract between us and the Whisperers allows it. We do all we’re allowed to do, which is far too little, sadly.” “It sounds like an interesting job.”
He sits at the desk and a ghost floats in. “Your complaint?” “They tricked me. They tricked me into going through the black door. My death was on the other side. I fell onto the sharp crystal rocks below. My body was crushed.” “Did they push you?” “No. I stepped through.” “Did they force you to go?” “No.” “Did they threaten you?” “Not exactly, but they made me feel really pressured, they made me feel very uncomfortable.” “But they never actually touched you?” “No, no, but they were very insistent. I could not resist. I had no choice.” “They didn’t force you. Then why did you do it?” “I… I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I was not strong enough to fight back.” “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do for you. You were given the gift of life, the gift of free will. You had the power of the magic word, which is ‘no.’ You were given the freedom to choose on the condition that you be bound by your choices. You chose to kill yourself. If they had forced you to do it, if they had laid a finger on you, we could help you. But you did this to yourself, according to the rules. You cannot blame the demons for your giving in so easily.” “You don’t understand. You don’t know what I’m subjected to down there, the agony! Help! No! No! NO!!!” “I’m sorry, I can’t help you,” the man who is alive says. “Next!” The ghost disappears and another ghost floats through the door.
“What is your complaint?” “They lied to me. They promised me that I would get everything that I wanted if I did what they told me to do. I trusted them.” “But they didn’t force you to do anything?” “No. But they lied to me! I never would have done it if I had known what was going to happen. I only stepped through the black door because of their promises, because of their lies. They took advantage of me. It isn’t fair that I should have to suffer because I was misled. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and you should help me.” “The Whisperers told you lies. What did your heart tell you?” “Well… my heart told me to take what was offered while it was still available.” “It’s all in your file, which I have right here. Your heart told you that it was too good to be true. Your heart told you that pain is bad and there is no reason for you to suffer. Your heart told you to fear the crystal knives. You listened to the Whisperers instead of your own heart. You didn’t need to be warned. You knew the warning.” “But they lied to me! They lied!” “Nobody forced you to believe them. If you don’t trust yourself, someone else telling you the truth isn’t going to do anything.” “That’s not true! It’s their fault, not mine! You should do something to help me!” “Please leave. I can do nothing for you. Next!”
A new ghost wafts into the room. “What is your complaint?” “I have no excuses to make. The demons painted a pretty picture and I wanted it, and I wanted it so badly that I thought it made sense to get it the easy way, the fast way, instead of taking my time and working hard to get it. I am to blame for slicing myself up with a crystal knife. I chose to go through the black door.” “You have no complaint? Then why are you here?” “I am not happy with death. I do not want to be a ghost. I miss being alive. I am furiously angry about what has happened. I demand that you help me restore myself to a living body. I insist that you undo the work of the demons and pull me out of the pit of the volcano! And if you can’t help me then I demand to see your supervisor! And I assure you that I will complain about you to him and let him know that I am very upset with your service!”
The man laughs at the ghost. “Trust me, if the demons scare you now, you would be far more terrified if you had to meet my supervisor. But even though there is nothing in the rules that would allow me to help you, you have something that I admire. I probably shouldn’t like you, but I do. So I am going to tell you a secret. A loophole.” “What secret? What loophole?” “You are a ghost, yes? You can float through walls?” “Yes.” “Do the demons keep you chained to the fire, or do you merely sit there and burn?” “I stay and burn. I can see no way out. I am surrounded by fire.” “The demons cannot keep you there. They trick you to get you there and they trick you to keep you there. Ghosts do not have life, but they can move about. You can float through the crystal walls and leave that place whenever you wish. You are tied only because we are not allowed to illuminate the path that leads out, so you would have to go blind in the dark to go that way. If you try to leave and you lose your way you will end up back where you started, but if you listen very carefully you may hear the sounds of wind crashing along the ocean or the echoes of distant wolf howls to guide you. I cannot give you back your body, but there are vast worlds out there, and you may find something interesting on your journey. It is rumored that there is a hermit sage in the Cragged Reaches who can resurrect the flesh and give life back to the dead. Leave the Crystal Mountain, if you wish, and seek him. Be warned that your journey may not be easy, but at least it will be different from what you have. If fear holds you then you would do best to remain where you are. If you have courage then brave the world outside.” “Thank you. This is far more than I expected from you. I will leave, I am not afraid. And hopefully I will not make the same mistake twice.” “Good day to you. Next!”