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The Third Door


Harry Buschman

Is this the way it's supposed to be? I don't know -- I'm a stranger here. Maybe something's gone wrong. I never died before. To make it worse, there's no one I can talk to -- I'm alone.

I remember being wheeled down a long hospital corridor, looking at the lights in the ceiling as they passed overhead. I remember the prep room .... there were two nurses and an anesthesiologist. I remember the shop talk and then one of them did something. I remember nothing after that. I don't know how long ago it was -- all I know is there's been nothing in between, it could have been a moment ago, or an eternity.

It's confusing, that's all I can say. I thought death would be a little better organized. People die every day, don't they? It's not like it never happened before -- I mean I'm not the first.

Then suddenly I found myself wide awake again -- being trundled along on a gurney down a stone walled passage by a little dwarf of a man.  He looked like a gargoyle from off one the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral. Lizard skinned, hoofs for feet and two bat-like wings that hung down his back like wet leather. He rolled me off the gurney and left me alone on the floor of this cell.

He came back a moment ago with three buckets, one of them empty, one filled with water and one half filled with what looks like what the butcher pulls out of the belly of a chicken. He left hurriedly through a rusty iron door over in the corner. I tried to open it after he left but it wouldn't budge.

On the other side of the room there are three more doors -- two of which I think I recognize. I can feel the heat from the first door, the knob is almost too hot to touch, and if I listen carefully I can hear faint but unmistakable cries of agony from the other side. It doesn't take much imagination to predict what lies in store for me should I open this door. The second door is the center of the three. It has a small window through which I can see a cold blue sky, fleecy clouds and an occasional bird. Try as I might, I cannot see land of any shape or form. It leads me to think that if I should choose to leave through this doorway I would step into a bottomless abyss and fall forever. I placed my hand on the doorknob to this door and it is cold, a numbing coldness that chills me to the bone.

Then there is a third door. Why should there be a third door? I was led to believe in Heaven and Hell, no one ever told me there would be a third door.

There is a keyhole in this door -- but no knob. I search in vain all night in my tiny cell for the key to this door, between the cold damp stones, around the frame, and even in and around the buckets the gargoyle left behind. I hold my breath and listen for a sound coming from behind this door -- there is none.  I knock timidly on it to see if someone might respond. There is no answer.

Time drags by, and now, just when I think I am forgotten, the gargoyle returns. He looks at me questioningly with his heavy-lidded eyes -- as though waiting for a statement from me. Perhaps he thinks I've made up my mind about the doors. But how can I? ... I have called him "he" but I have no reason to think such a creature is either male or female. With a queer, lurching bird-like walk he turns his scaly back on me and looks into the buckets in the corner of my cell and speaks ....

"You have taken no water and your swill pail is empty --- and look at this! You have taken no food!" He picks up the bucket with the entrails. "Look at this -- you've eaten nothing. How can you make a decision without eating? An empty stomach is a bad shepherd."

"I'm dead," I answer bluntly, "what decisions can a dead man make?"

My attitude seems to anger the little ghoul. He shakes the bucket violently and runs to each of the three doors, banging on each of them in turn. "Eternity, you fool! Eternity! Beyond each of these doors lies eternity. It's an important decision for you -- do you know how long eternity is?"

"I can't eat that," I shudder when I remember what's in the bucket. "It isn't even cooked -- it's raw!"

"Of course it's raw. Would you have it burned? This is the same food we eat." He holds the bucket in his left hand, fishes around in it with his right. "Here are kidneys. Would you burn kidneys? Of course not! The flavor of urine would be lost. The same with livers," he picks out a grayish red liver and sniffs at it delicately, "the taste of bile in liver is exquisite -- it would be completely lost if it were burned." He puts the liver back reluctantly and picks out a heart. "The flavor of blood in a fresh heart," he looks at it with almost religious awe, "it is indescribably delicious. You would burn these things? You are mad! It does not surprise me that you are here in the first place!"

Enough's enough -- I've had my fill of this little monster's preference in cuisine.  My stomach begins to churn and I tell him to put the bucket down. I walk to the first door, the one I'm sure leads to Hell and turn to face him. "Why would I choose to spend eternity in here? What man in his right mind would choose to burn in Hell forever?"

He puts the bucket down and shuffles his way over to me. "You want no part of Hell then? Without looking, eh? How do you know Hell is as bad as you think it is?"

"Everyone knows. The Bible tells us so."

His face breaks into an almost bird-like grin. "A question of semantics," he says quietly. "Hell is not one thing, it is many. There are places in Hell where a man can live like a king." He reaches for the knob and flings the door open wide. The smell of brimstone fills the room, fire boils through the open door and reaches almost to the opposite wall. The horrible cries of the damned are deafening. "It's not like that down there.  This is your idea of Hell -- not mine."

He closes the door reluctantly. He looks at me and sniffs. "Love the smell of  brimstone," he says. He moves to the second door and turns to me. "Heaven?  Paradise? Valhalla? Elysium? Emerald City perhaps? Is this your choice?"

"I'm not sure. I haven't made up my mind -- there's another door you know."

"Why wait? Here is Paradise, just as it was told to you -- just as you always imagined it." He points to the little window. "Have you checked it out?"

"I looked in, yes -- there wasn't much to see."

He throws the door to Heaven open wide. "Here," he exclaims, "come closer --
quite a view."

I hold on to the door jamb tightly and look out. Just sky -- blue sky up and down, puffy cotton clouds and an occasional bird .... or an angel perhaps, it is difficult to tell.

He closes the door again. "You seem confused ...."

"It's not what I thought it would be. I've always been told ...."

"You can't believe everything you're told, you know."

"It looks terribly lonely .... what's behind the third door?"

I didn't think this little monster could laugh, but he begins a long, steady, almost mechanical chuckle, a laugh without humor or human feeling. "Curious -- all your life it was Heaven or Hell. White or black. Heaven for the good, the pure of heart, for the pitiful few who walked the path of righteousness -- Hell for the bad, for the guilty, for most of us." He withdraws a key from his leather belt. "There are no free samples behind this door, my friend. If I open it you go in and I close it behind you."

"How can I choose if I don't know what's out there?"

He stops laughing to say, "You have seen Hell and Heaven -- you've turned them both down. There is nothing for you to choose. Come, let's get it over with."

"I'm afraid."

"Why? A little thing like eternity? It'll be over before you know it." He turns the key in the third door and slowly swings the door open.

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