The first thing that happens, after you die, is waking again — as though for the first time — and finding that you hold a box in both hands. It is made of plain dark wood, worn smooth at the corners, and inlaid with a simple brass keyplate. You might shake it. You might put an ear to it, or smell it, or even try to peer into the keyhole — but it will not open.
The second thing that happens, after you die, is realising — as though for the first time — that you are standing on a thin path in a forest. You are surrounded by vast trees that you don’t recognise, and they throw out a canopy that towers overhead, leaving the carr in constant gloaming. Every branch is hung with threads, in places draped as dense as a bead curtain, and from every thread hangs a key. Some are bright and almost new, others tarnished, chipped and bent. They have different cuts, different teeth, and you remember the thing you learned at school — that no two snowflakes are the same. Should you brush a hand through the threads, the keys will fall together and chime, click, jangle.
You reach for the nearest key, of course, and try it in the box — but it will not turn, because you are not ready. And so the third thing that happens, after you die, is that you walk — as though for the first time — on the paths that meet and cross between the trees, setting the keys to pendulum in your wake. You will walk for many miles. The path is yours to choose. Turn as you wish, and go where you want, because it will make no difference. There is no need to rest. You will not feel hungry or thirsty or tired, after you die. There is no night and no day to measure the weft of your walk. There is no way to know how long you’ll walk for. Others may pass around you, carrying their own boxes, trying their own keys, but they are shades, shapes of mist between the branches.
You will walk and
you will walk and
you will walk and then,
some day, some time, at last, your path will end, and you will stop — because there, hanging from the tree ahead, is a single bright key. It is short, snub-nosed, a simple crook of brass, scuffed and dinged from the decades of waiting. It is the key your father used to wind his clock. Somehow, you’d forgotten. You reach for the key with a shaking hand. It is cool, smooth, old. Now that you hold it, you know it entirely, as though you’d never lost it, as though you’d never let it go. You fit it into the keyhole and the fourth thing that happens, after you die, is turning the key — as though for the first time — and opening the box.
Short story by Simon Sylvester who is a writer, teacher and occasional filmmaker. His short stories have been published in a host of magazines, anthologies and journals, performed by Liars’ League, and read on BBC 6Music.