The only child of a pair of park rangers, Forest grew up in the wilderness of California when it was still unspoiled. To this day, it retains its pull on him, imparting to his surroundings a certain drama of inanimate things. He is a technical writer by trade, so the vast bulk of what he writes isn’t credited to him. In general, he writes fiction and poetry because he wants to read something but can’t find it. His latest pieces are mostly myths for people in the distant future.
Like the sound of soft snow falling on snow, the distant echoes of shuffling feet in the dark grotto of your mind wake you. As you return to consciousness, the indistinct edges of your senses become sharp, and each is adumbrated by the searing cold that rakes at your cheeks and extremities.
You sit up and gasp, taking a deep breath of the numbing cold into your body. Then, you exhale a cloud of fine hoar that glimmers pale in the night-cast air.
You gaze into the vast nothing around you and wonder what has happened. Standing and walking, you follow a vague sense of the muttering and shuffling in the brunette space beyond your reach, but encounter nothing. The cold mercifully anesthetizes your flesh as you wander. In this abyss, you lose track of yourself, your footsteps and time, before the gentle awareness that you do not feel the need to breath halts your aimless progress.
"I must be dead," you say to yourself.
Someone stifles a cough behind you, and you turn. There, in a dim mote of golden light, sits an elderly man at a dark wooden desk. His skin is like wet leather stretching over his skull and deep shadows obscure his eyes and lips. The light glints off of his glasses and a small polished brass balance on the desk in front of him. At his left hand, a white bird with a slender yellow beak perches over a small notebook of yellowing leaves, each decorated in a thin inky calligraphy. The bird regards you intently and dips one stained claw into the inkwell upon which it stands and proceeds to scratch a few glyphs onto the page.
"You are mostly right," the elderly man says, his voice chiming like silver cymbals and laughter. "Your body has expired, but here you are." The shadow over his mouth widens as he smiles. "Please," he says, motioning with one large veiny hand, "sit."
You step back and find a chair awaiting you. It creaks like a leaning ship as you settle onto it.
"Now," the man begins, opening a drawer in the desk.
"How?" you interrupt him.
His smile disappears. "An accident," he sighs. "You won’t remember it; it was swift. But trust me when I tell you the manner of your demise is not important now, just that you have made the journey."
You nod numbly. The bird folds its bill under a wing and mumbles, "Nevermore."
You and the man glare at the bird.
"Please excuse my friend; authors seem unable to resist irony," the man says.
"What," you croak, and take a breath to fill your lungs again. "What do I do now?"
"You are to be judged," the man says, pulling a thick black feather from the open desk drawer and placing it on one scalepan of the balance. "We weigh your heart against this feather," he says, smiling with satisfaction.
"Oh," you say. "Why?"
"Should your heart be lighter than the feather, you shall ascend to the heavens to be united with your ancestors and the stars. Should it be heavier, you shall be devoured by the beast."
From the oppressive darkness, an inhuman howl fills your ears. You look around startled, peering into the gloom but cannot see anything beyond the small circle of light that surrounds the desk. As quickly as the scream began, it is silent, and the inky void slowly fills once again with soft shuffling and whispers.
"Why my heart?" you ask, placing your hand on your chest.
"Because your heart is where your soul resides," the man replies. "Surely you knew your mind was not the only motivating force of your existence?"
You pause and wonder, "What do I do?"
"Reach back and pluck your heart from behind you. Here it is your heart that follows you, not you who follow your heart. Then place it on the scales."
You feel your way from the nape of your neck down the knobs of your spine. It is a strange sensation reaching into your body, but for the first time since arriving, you feel some warmth there. Gripping it firmly, you draw that warmth out and hold it out in front of you. It gleams, ominous and red, like a hot ember in a fire, but feels light enough in your outstretched hand.
"Now place it on the scale," the man says. The bird lifts its dyed talon, poising to record whatever might happen.
As you lean to place your heart on the scale you are suddenly afraid. In your mind, you begin listing the good and evil, light and heavy events of your life. Trembling, you ponder whether your heart is light enough. The doubt expands in your chest like frigid water.
"I don’t want to do this," you blurt out, and pull your hand and heart back.
The man and the bird exchange looks.
"It is your heart," the man says, facing you again. "No one can force you to accept judgment."
You nod. "And?"
The man’s smile returns, but it is smaller now. "And you must remain here until you do."
You stand up and shuffle away from the desk and the scales, lost in your thoughts. You clutch your heart tightly in your hand, letting no light or warmth escape, and begin enumerating the many events of your life, considering how much each of them might weigh.
The shuffling of your feet sounds like soft snow falling on snow and you brush against others, cold bodies in the dark. They whisper about their pasts, the things they’ve done and why. You begin to whisper with them, and cannot decide if you’d rather stay here, free from judgment, or leave your heart and past behind you upon the scales.