Susan Dowling

by Saige Severin

Susan Dowling passes into the next life in much the same way that she passed time in the first. Stalwart, in her leather upholstery chair, behind her heavy oak desk, back straight and eyes fixed forward. 

Cold feet rest softly on the thick rugs beneath her. Cold hands fall onto her lap. Poised, even in death. These hands once turned the pages of every book that now lines the shelves around her. Every spine caressed, every cover opened, every story witnessed, understood, and slowly forgotten. Dark curls lie still against her glacial shoulders. Dark lips are held apart as the cold strips them of their colour and leaves them stiff. Her arms and legs, her old tired joints, and her chest that can no longer rise nor fall, sit firmly in that old leather chair—unmoving. A beam of afternoon sunlight tumbles down her shoulders from the windows at her back, lighting up the particles of dust that dance on the air of her final breath. 

The rest of her is elsewhere. 

The parts of her that cannot remain tethered to the cooling corpse in the leather chair float upwards, buoyed by the last wind of her own lungs. Up through the vaulted roof of her family home, past pristine brickwork and the last traces of smoke from the slowly fading fire in her office grate. Up until she breaks apart, ripped asunder and cast aside by the pull of air and the hot, burning glare of sunlight. 

She drifts. Falls. Converges. Diverges. 

Susan Dowling stands at the gates of Heaven. 

They are exactly as Father Fuoto described them to her more than six decades ago. Herself, a child with little knowledge of the world, watching his fingers trail as he drew shapes in the air and breathed colour into them with his words. “The house of God,” he called it. “Where all things Good may live in jubilation.” 

She looks upon the gates and thinks of those fingers. Taut skin over round knuckles, spotted with age and calloused with use. Interlocked, twisting lines and fingernails, tiny hairs like curls of iron on an ancient fire grate, like the sculptures and holy symbols carved into the stone of the church walls. She sees those hands beneath the sickening grace of what waits before her. 

Great, vaulting gates wrought in gold, the light of the heavens behind them. Bars that rise to the sky and ascend further, further until her mind can no longer comprehend the glory that her eyes can see. Fog roils behind the gates, reflecting holy brightness back at her like sunlight off a pool of shattered glass. Each piece suspended, shimmering, magnifying every droplet of light that hits it and sending that droplet forth as a terrible wave. It crashes over Susan Dowling’s semblance of a body and sends her gasping to her knees. 

Earth sits beneath her grasping hands. Soft, rich soil, wet with morning dew but still dry enough to slip neatly through her fingers as she clings to what little certainty is left in her. She brings a fistful to her forehead and presses into it, a gentle tremor in her hands. It grounds her. Re-centers her. Breath flows into lungs brought low by righteous terror and allows them to fill once more. She lets the soil fall from her palm, steadier now, and sits back on crossed ankles to stare at the gates. 

They are just as golden as before. Just as great. But now there is dirt beneath her fingernails and air returned to her lungs. She breathes until the gates are smaller, until it seems she could approach and push them open with one smooth, gentle swing. The holy light dims into something beautiful and soft. It begs her to come forth. It offers its embrace and she thinks, finally, that she is ready. So many long years spent holding together her family. Her crumbling legacy. So much effort poured into keeping her back straight, her head up, her mind focused. 

She remembers her father’s forefinger trailing along the edges of that old oak desk. Lifting to rub against his thumb, a look of displeasure on his face at imperfections she could not see. Always searching for dust that was not there. 

Her mother’s hands on the back of her suit after graduation, smoothing away wrinkles only she could see. Turning her to smile for the camera. Gripping her sleeve so tight that Susan feared the fabric would tear from the strain on it. 

Her elder sister’s useless fury. Her younger brother’s hollow eyes. Her mother’s turned back. The stench of whiskey-sour breath. Empty boardrooms. Echoing hallways. 

Susan learns to wear heels because the sound of unknown footsteps on hardwood makes her mother flinch. She learns to sit, and watch, and listen. 

There is no need for all that here. The holy light of heaven burns her memory to ash. After all this time, she is ready. 

Her knees take the weight of her body as she rocks forward and lays a palm against the ground. She pushes, bringing one leg up to crouch, then the other. Her toes dig deep into familiar earth that holds her up with ease. She stands. 

Susan Dowling stands at the gates of Hades. 

A ragged scream trips on its way out of her mouth and falls free as a wounded noise of shock. The soft earth beneath her feet is changed to water and gritty sand. Heaven’s light is gone, dimmed to the gentle flicker of candles and the cool, eerie glow that ripples from flowering fields before the gates. Rivulets of water flow over her ankles and she turns— too late—to see the dark end of an ancient ferry slip soundlessly into the fog, carried away from shore by unmanned oars. 

These new gates are made from dark stone, shot through with whips of glinting iron. Three figures stand at the foot of them, across a long field of wilting flowers and coiling twists of whispered memory. She shrinks from the field on instinct. Cool waves lap against her calf, higher than before, and she knows. With the clarity of the dead she knows that if she does not step forward she will be pulled beneath the gentle waves, her body floating softly in the wake of a passing ferry, on and on, until the water pulls apart her very being and she disappears into mist. 

Fear drives her forward and uncertainty keeps her on her feet, balanced with the memories of skills long lost. She was fast in college. Before her father’s expectations locked her in her dorm room; before the heavy stare of disapproval shaped her into something flinty and cold, Susan used to run. Over the rocks and uneven paths of the lake, perched on the balls of her feet, limbs tense but mind rocked to peace by the easy slap of old sneakers against packed earth. She did not run in law school. Family overtook pleasure and she stood still for many, many years. 

She runs now. Away from the figures at the dark stone gates. Along the shore of the river of fog, feet pounding against the border of black water and ominous fields. She runs faster in death than she ever did in life, but even here her body tires. Breaths come shorter. A dull ache builds in her legs and blazes into sharp pain that forces her to pause. She stops, one foot in the river, one foot in the flowers beyond, and hunches over with her hands on her knees. Restful minutes pass as she unclenches her jaw and allows her muscles to soften. She stands. 

Susan Dowling stands at the gates of Valhalla. 

Wide, oak doors fill her field of vision. Brass rivets and carvings of monsters whirl across the breadth of them, with two huge knockers at the centre in the shape of boar’s heads. The low beat of drums echoes from inside. Gone is the river; gone are the flowering fields and lilting light. The air here is thinner and Susan’s quick, panicked breaths do nothing to ease the pressure burning in her chest. 

This is nothing like what Father Fuoto described to her. There are no wise old hands behind these doors. No angel’s choir in this heavy drum beat. 

Her father told her to keep her head down. His calloused palm on the back of her neck, keeping her gaze forward. Her mother told her to listen quietly and obey the words of God as strictly as she obeyed her country’s laws. And she did. She planted her feet on the ground, looked straight ahead, and obeyed. 

This land on which she stands is lawless. The words of God have no meaning here. She turns from the great oak doors and steps down the rocky path, eyes fixed on the horizon line. Down cobbled roads and winding lanes, she walks until the drum beat fades behind her and the thin mountain air is still in silence. She walks until the path drops off into nothingness, and there she stands. 

Susan Dowling stands at the gates of Gehenna. 

She falls to her knees and screams. 

It echoes off the walls of a space that cannot be enclosed. It bounces from surface to surface, off souls and the edges of mountains, disassembling and reassembling as it tumbles past gate after gate after gate. The sound tapers off and collapses into quiet before it can reach living ears. 

Jonathan Dowling stands at the threshold of his mother’s office. 

In all the years since he last set foot in this room, little has changed. Old family portraits still hang on solemn walls. A half-empty bottle of ink sits on a table, its sides carefully wiped clean so as not to stain the wood beneath it. His mother’s desk is sharp and clear, just like in all his memories; every paper, pen, and notebook tucked neatly into its proper drawer. 

The stately space is emptier without her. They told him she died here, in the office, one foot in the grave, but still with her eyes turned down on her work. Her shelves have collected dust in the weeks it took for him to arrive from his flat in Sussex. A burgeoning cobweb connects two corners of an alcove in the wall and Jonathan casually brushes it away. Someone must have expected him though, because a small fire crackles in the grate and any traces of unpleasantness have been cleared from the air with a hefty dose of freshener. The floral tinges of it cling to his jacket as he makes his way towards her desk. 

He had waited to face the office until all the other work was done. There was a will to execute and calls to be made. Jonathan saw to her body and arranged a rather unremarkable funeral. A plain wooden casket, a small service, and a body lowered into the ground with few words and fewer theatrics. 

Jonathan stops at that old oak desk and runs his fingers along the edge of it. They trail on, down the smooth lines that his mother must have traced a thousand times, his feet moving softly on the carpet as his hand turns a corner and he follows it around. Jonathan sits where his mother once sat, nestled in the creases of her old leather chair. Back straight, eyes trained down at where his own shaking hands hold the edge of her desk like a lifeline. The windows at his back vault high and wide and golden as the gates of heaven as Jonathan sits and breathes, a gentle sunbeam tumbling down his shoulders.

SAIGE SEVERIN studies English and sexual diversity at the University of Toronto. She is a lover of fiction, fantasy, and anything that glitters. Like all good supervillains, her name alliterates, but to date her greatest crime is telling her waiter to enjoy his meal, too.