On December 3, 2010, thirty-one people died when a bridge in Pittsburgh collapsed into the Ohio River. That same day, outside a small town in northwest Russia, two hundred and ten Siberian tigers were rounded up and slaughtered by poachers, depleting the total number of the existing species by sixty five percent.
Walter Rice, a recently unemployed busboy, was one of the victims to perish on the bridge. That afternoon he had driven to his ex-fiancé’s house to return a dish he had borrowed at her baby shower the night before. Walter had used the small porcelain plate to bring fudge-cake back to his apartment. Admittedly, he only returned the dish to see her again without the company of her husband, who was at work. An awful fight ensued regarding the intentions of his unwarranted presence, which ended with Walter declaring that he sincerely hoped her baby came out physically disfigured and brain-damaged, to which she retaliated with her own sincere hope that Walter die a horrible and unexpected death, after which he could burn in hell forever.
Terribly distraught, Walter fled the house in his 1999 Toyota Corolla and decided to take the aforementioned bridge instead of the usual side streets back to his apartment. Had he decided to leave her house only five minutes sooner…well, never mind. This story is not concerned with happenstances but rather with the fates of our protagonist Walter and a few hundred Siberian tigers.
As Walter felt the asphalt tremble underneath him, and glanced up to see the bridge’s suspension cables snap apart one by one, he had exactly four seconds to reflect on his unhappy life before his car teetered head-first into the icy water a hundred feet below. His first thought was of Mindy, the ex-fiancé, and not how she had forewarned him of this terrible demise, but instead how she had laughed while opening her baby’s presents the night before. His second thought was to curse his stupid self for even thinking of the bitch in the first place. And then he thought nothing at all.
When his soul came to, Walter was standing in a giant white room, larger than any room even the most imaginative of humans could possibly conceive, let alone architecturally construct. A white mist swirled around him, and the angelic voices of serenity and peace radiated from above and throughout the walls. He blinked tranquilly and was happy, although he knew not why.
However, when he focused his ethereal vision, he noticed that surrounding him were hundreds of tigers. Some were ten feet long and reached up to his chest. Others were much smaller, roughly the size of a St. Bernard. Some of the tigers had gorgeous white coats, others were orangey-white, the color of creamsicles. But all of them were flexing their long claws, snarling and showing their white fangs, and clearly growing restless in their confusion at the grandeur that subsumed them.
He was in Tiger Heaven.
Walter did not immediately recognize the celestial mistake of his soul being misplaced among tiger souls. Because he was raised during a particularly nihilistic epoch of human history, he simply rationed that the after-life, for him, was some sort of cosmic justice for his mistakes, consisting of a room full of giant, menacing felines. Walter screamed in horror upon realizing his eternal fate. The tigers only stared at him, uninterested. This went on for some time.
Meanwhile, in Human Heaven, one mangy female tiger, about two years old and missing an eye, paced back and forth in a similar room, where twenty human souls drifted around lazily in a daze. Occasionally, one departed soul would notice the tiger and shriek, startled. And then everyone would resume their normal sauntering. One man in a business suit kept checking the pockets of his slacks for his cell phone. An elderly woman was desperately trying to place her hearing aid back into her ear. One little girl only stared dumbly at the illuminated ceiling, her thumb stuck in mouth. Eventually, the poor tiger gave up on finding a feline companion or sorted tiger-task to complete, and laid down on the cool marble floor. It put its large head on its paws and purred.
Walter stopped screaming once he realized the tigers were incapable of causing him bodily harm. One giant male had leapt toward him, its five-foot long arms extended and jaws wide open, with the full intention of ripping Walter’s skinny throat clean out of his skinny body. But before the tiger could reach him, the heavenly mist collected into a magnificent twister, swarmed the tiger, and stopped it mid-air. The confused beast continued to circle Walter, frustrated.
Walter sat down in the middle of the room and began to cry. He felt himself crying, felt the tears rising in his eyes and his nose welling with snot globules, and yet, as he began to make crying noises, he found that the tears never actually came, because of the absence of his earthly, corporeal form. This only made him metaphysically cry harder.
It is impossible to say how long these Walter and tiger souls were in the room. Time had ceased entirely in this miraculous and incomprehensible place, so Walter and the tigers could have been trapped there for ten minutes, or three centuries. But in any case, at some point the cloudy mist cleared completely, and all was subsumed in utter darkness. And then a rumbling sound was heard in both human and tiger ears, the latter’s which were perked up in curiosity, and an enormous door rolled open to reveal a disorienting yet perceivable and nonetheless beautiful whiteness. One by one, the tigers trotted happily through the door and into the white light, their tails wagging to and fro as they followed one another through. Walter remained behind, staring stupidly. The apparent bliss that accompanied whatever was behind the door did not beckon him like it did the tigers. This made his soul very depressed and lonely feeling.
He felt a tap on the back of his shoulder. When he turned around, he saw himself.
“Hello, Walter Rice,” said the duplicate Walter Rice.
For the briefest of moments, Walter experienced the strange sensation of seeing the image of oneself unprecedented. The experience was similar to turning around, let’s say in a convenience store or gas station, and being struck by a video image of yourself on a security screen. At first, you are struck with recognition, as if you have seen this person before, and then, most spectacularly, a feeling of non-recognition, as if the physical features do not come together quite accurately. Lastly, you are struck with the stark realization that it is in fact you you are looking at. And all this occurs within the span of three seconds.
Because Walter was in a state of divine consciousness, this experience lasted much longer, and he was filled with happiness and comfort at being confronted with his bodily self, even if it only was an imitation. Which it was, of course, as duplicate Walter informed him, explaining how Duplicate Walter was an angel of God who assumed the figure of the departed soul, so as not to frighten him. He then explained that some great cosmic error had been made.
“A great cosmic error has been made,” said Angel Walter. “Sometimes this happens when the cosmos must deal with a large amount of deaths in one instant.”
“I remember the bridge,” said Walter, scratching his head.
“Yes, precisely, the bridge. Thirty dear souls.” The angel lowered his head in grief. He wiped an artificial tear from under his eyeglasses. “Thirty-one souls if we count you.”
“Doesn’t really seem like that many people…”
The angel held up his chin defensively. “You clearly know nothing of the departure process! Perhaps one day you will be offered a job as Angel assistant in heaven-placement, and you will see for yourself how difficult the job can be.”
“Speaking of heaven placement,” Walter gestured to the last remaining three tigers, each sniffing each other’s behinds as they lined up in front of the door.
“Ah yes. Well, as you have gathered, we are in the waiting room of Tiger Heaven.”
“Tiger Heaven,” Walter repeated.
“And there is one tiger lost among the humans in Human Heaven who accidentally took your place.”
Walter perked up. “Then send me over there!”
“I’m afraid it is not that easy.”
Walter stared at his duplicate.
“Souls can not be transferred from one heaven to another,” explained the Angel. “Only from earth to heaven.”
“Sounds like a pretty serious flaw in your system.”
Angel Walter stiffened. “If you continue in this insolent manner we will be forced to leave you here in this room, which will continue to fill up with tigers for all eternity.”
“Ok, sorry. I apologize. So what’s the plan?”
“The only possible solution is for us to go back in time to the moment of your death, return everyone to the bridge, all the tigers to the Siberian wilderness, and replay the deaths over again.”
Walter could barely contain his enthusiasm. “Sounds great to me! Let’s do it now. I’m ready. Let’s go.”
“Well hold on, I’m afraid—”
Walter sighed. “Let me guess. You are afraid it’s not that easy.”
“Correct. You first need to prove you are a desirable.”
“A desirable. Right now you are in purgatory, if you wish to call it that, and the council members have every intention of leaving you here because you were not exactly the most, well…hm, how should I put this?”
“More like, not their favorite of people.”
“Their favorite? What’s wrong with me? Why am I not their favorite?”
“You led an unsophisticated, unsuccessfully crude life. You also committed some pretty serious offenses.”
Walter was stunned. “Like what?”
“You sold drugs.”
“That was ages ago. What else?”
“You wished for an unborn baby to be born deformed and retarded. That is one of the top three gravest offenses a human can commit.”
Walter fumed. “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life!”
“It is the law. Simple as that.”
“If you had any idea what that woman put me through in the last three years—”
“Principally when the baby is yours.”
“The baby is yours.”
Walter was speechless. His soul felt very weak and toppled all of a sudden. He tried to bite his thumbnail but his lack of a real thumb and real teeth left him defeated. “How…how could you possibly know that?” he finally asked.
“Are you seriously asking me that?”
“Well I didn’t know that!” Walter’s soul began pacing back and forth, thinking. He reflected how throughout his life, he had always been a big, fat quitter. Whenever any ordeal or obstacle became too hard, he had given up. When his fiancé told him she was leaving him for her boss, he didn’t put up much of a fight, despite his sense of betrayal and urge to keep her with him. Quitting, he reflected, had always been fine by him. Quitting was the one thing he was good at. In fact, if he had quit by not returning to Mindy’s house when it was too late for reconciliation anyway, he wouldn’t have died and wouldn’t be in this Tiger Heaven mess in the first place. He had always thought death would be the easiest part of life. He had accepted his death almost immediately, and now even death made no sense. All of it was hard. Not fair, he thought.
He felt the angel’s divine hand on his shoulder. He ceased his manic strides.
“Look,” Angel Walter said sympathetically, looking into his eyes. “I think we can fix this. We are going to meet with the council. Tell them that you wish to repent for what you said about the baby. Tell them that as a future father, you wish to be placed in Human Heaven in hopes that one day you will be reunited with your unborn child. Also apologize for selling psychedelics to that poor kid who jumped off his apartment balcony. Now come, let us converse in a more comfortable environment.”
The angel led Walter toward another large door. It was fifty feet tall, black and gold, and had miraculously appeared across the room.
“Oh,” said Walter, “but I was so comfortable in this room, nearly mauled to death and eaten.”
The Angel snapped its head back. “It is in your best interest to refrain from indulging in your inane and petulant attitude. There are worse fates than Tiger Heaven.”
After entering through the black and gold door, the two Walters emerged in a beautiful garden with an enormous concrete swimming pool at the center. On both sides were fruit trees, and every branch was filled with perfectly ripe apples, peaches, and mangoes. Under every tree were wine-racks, well stocked and perched on top lush, billowy grass. The temperature, if detectable for humans, was something akin to seventy two degrees. The warmth of the sun felt spectacular on Walter’s heaven-skin, but when he looked up he found that there was no sun at all, only a clear, robin’s egg blue sky. Lounging by the sides of the pool, eating fruit and drinking wine, were about two dozen angels.
Walter nearly screamed. The angels were hideous. They were of an abominable height at six foot seven inches. Their giant, awkward wings were repulsively birdlike; dirty and frayed, they fluttered involuntarily and smelled like stale water. The angels’ skin was the color of whipped eggs, and their eyes were notably too far apart. They had no pupils or noses. Their eyes were gray-colored and milky. And even worse, they were all completely naked.
“Everyone!” announced Angel Walter. “Everyone!”
The angels stopped chatting and turned to the Walters. They each held chalices in their impossibly large hands. Angel Walter cleared his throat. “This is Walter. He is the one placed in Tiger Heaven.”
The angels looked at one another, seemingly perplexed. Their silence was deafening, and yet, a strange peace encircled them in their contemplation and stillness. Walter felt deep in his soul that the angels would take pity on him, and surely send him home. He began to relax. Finally, the silence was broken, and they all burst into laughter.
“This is Walter?” cried one from under a tree, munching on a peach.
“Look at you Heriminus!” cried another, gesturing to Angel Walter. “You look absolutely ridiculous.”
“Walter is probably the worst name ever conceived, too, by the way.”
“It is! It’s true. The records show it. Walters are never employed on earth, and they almost always die of obesity.”
“Is this the guy who once sold acid, and put acid on breath mints, but he was also a compulsive mint-chewer, so he accidentally ate all the mints while driving cross-state, and had to pull over and call an ambulance?”
They all roared with laughter. “It is that guy!” cried one.
“Ha! Who does that?”
“And he’s the one who couldn’t die correctly. Big surprise!”
Their laughter and berating continued in this way for quite some time. Walter was forced to hear verbatim the pithy details of his life. For instance, how in 1993 he had failed 4th grade math and how, a year later, his parents divorced due to the financial strain of raising young Walter; how in the fall of 1998, he had been overjoyed in making the junior high football team, but how he had quit on October 15 because the team ridiculed him for being short and ugly; how, on February 3, 2000 Walter accidentally ran over his father’s beloved cat, Carlyle, a week before his father committed suicide; how a month later the most beautiful girl he had ever met, a blond painter named Daisy, had made fun of him when he was unable to make love her; how in 2004 the kid who jumped off the balcony sued Walter’s family for damages; how Walter lived with his grandmother for three years without being able to repay her before her death; how in the summer of 2007 her estate was sold and Walter disinherited; how in early 2008, his fiancé Mindy had sexual relations with her boss for three consecutive months before moving out of Walter’s apartment, and how incredibly funny it was that Mindy’s new husband would raise Walter’s baby as his own, for the next eighteen years to be precise, until the child would graduate from high school before attending Harvard Law School, being elected state senator in the year 2031, instigating one act that would single-handedly save the entire North Atlantic fish population, and another that would quash the death penalty in the United States forever. Also how Mindy’s lecherous husband would provide the child with a better life than Walter ever could. Mindy’s husband was going straight to hell by the way, chimed the angels, due to an offense back in 2002 of kicking a dog, which made the entire situation even more hilarious for them.
Walter heard all of this for what seemed like eternity that in a most peculiar manner, his pathetic life flashed before his eyes as if it was a slideshow, and he was soon overcome with anguish. Had he been a bodily person he would have surely burst into tears. But instead, as the berating continued, Walter’s distress began to boil, until his soul could no longer take it, and he screamed out.
“What the hell is wrong with you people?” he bellowed. “I am a person! I have feelings. And I definitely accomplished more in my life than…than sitting around getting drunk all day!”
The laughter stopped abruptly. The angels’ wings fluttered outwards, stiffened. Their eyes turned black.
“Did he just call us ‘people’?”
“Did he just utter the ‘H’ word?”
“I’ll kick his bony ass straight to the underworld, if he likes that word so much!”
“Let’s turn him into a plankton!”
“Yeah! A plankton!” They roared in agreement.
“Silence! Everyone! Silence! Be quiet!” said Angel Walter. The angels hushed.
“It is not your position to cast judgment on his past. That has already been done, if you recall. This man is heaven-bound but stuck in purgatory. It is now your position, in light of the cosmic mistake, to hear his repentance.”
“But, Heriminus, he just called us people,” whined one angel by the pool. It tipped back its chalice and finished the wine. It then picked up another bottle, pulled out the cork with its mouth, and poured more.
“Oh, top me off too, Brutalius,” said the angel to its right, offering its chalice.
“Me too, me too!” said another eagerly.
“This is third B.C Greek pinot, you realize,” Brutalius explained happily.
Walter sat down on the grass and put his head in his hands. He felt the heavens could not care less about him. He was hopeless, he had completely given up. The angels were right; he had failed at life and was now failing in the afterworld. Better for them to send him back with the tigers.
He looked up. The angels had resumed their revelry and drinking and were back in good spirits. Angel Walter was consoling Brutalius and the peach-eating angel about the H-word. “This human is prone to mistakes,” argued Angel Walter. He began explaining his Walter ensemble. One angel did not understand the purpose of shirt collars.
Walter watched them curiously. And then he had a funny thought; the tiger, whose place he had taken, trying to argue its way into Tiger Heaven with a group of tiger angels, delving in whatever pleasures make tigers the happiest.
“Oh, don’t think that,” said one angel by the pool.
Walter jerked his heaven-head in its direction. This angel had its gargantuan feet in the water and was peeling a mango with nail-less fingers. It bit off half the mango, which was ostensibly pit-less. “Animals don’t have councils. They go straight to heaven.”
“So Carlyle the cat…”
“In Cat Heaven,” it slurred grotesquely, masticating the slimy fruit. “With your father, in fact. Humans and pets share a Heaven, If the owner is a desirable, that is.”
And just like that, Walter had an idea. It was an ill-conceived one, yes, but an idea worth trying anyway. If not for the sake of himself, then certainly for the sake of his unborn, successful future-Senator-child, who deserved a father not bound for hell, but a father who was a desirable.
Walter stood and waved his arms in attention. “Everyone! Everyone, please! I have something to say!”
The angels turned to him one by one.
“Look, I am sorry for saying the H-word. I am sorry for calling you ‘people’, you are very, very obviously not people. I apologize for wishing my baby was born deformed, and I apologize for selling drugs. I apologize for everything I have ever done that offended you um…majestic and heavenly beings. You don’t have to send me to Human Heaven. That would be far too generous of you. But think of that poor tiger trapped in purgatory. That poor animal is completely innocent. It deserves to be in a Heaven with its own kind. Please reverse our deaths so that it may go to its rightful Heaven. That is all.”
The angels took a moment, looked at one another.
“I do like tigers,” one said.
“They are quite awe-some.”
“Weren’t they created on the third day?”
“No, no it was the fourth.”
“Are you sure?”
“You’re thinking of the lion.”
Brutalius stood and silenced the angels with his hand. They all looked up at him. Slightly slurring and teetering on his feet, but with an official voice that boomed throughout the heavens, he announced:
“Due to an agreed upon consensus that we all think tigers are awe-some and sweet, we have agreed to send them back! Both deaths will be replayed. Let the turning back of time on earth begin. It is done!”
“Amen!” said the angels in unison, toasting their chalices.
And so the angels sent Walter and the tiger back to earth on December 3, 2010. But because they were so drunk, they got it wrong all over again.
This is the story of how Walter saved the entire Siberian tiger population from extinction.
Walter came to in a small cage in a remote area of Northwest Russia. He looked up and saw three Russian men staring down at him, their eyes wide and mouths agape in complete shock. The Russian men took the skinny man out of the cage, brought him to their tent, put warm blankets on him, and gave him a hefty dose of pepper-infused vodka. Outside the tent, several tigers growled and paced in similar cages. The poachers then took Walter to town where he used the phone at a gas station to contact the U.S embassy. A representative was flown in that very day, and they took Walter to Moscow where, by then, news had traveled of the strange American suffering from amnesia, who could not remember how he turned up in a poacher’s camp. The attention to Walter was so great that the poachers were not able to continue their mission of securing two hundred furs that week, the nice men who saved Walter were arrested, and the entire operation shut down.
Walter was welcomed back to Pennsylvania as a sort of celebrity, and the media attention on him was almost as ubiquitous as the thirty people who perished on the bridge that same week. Perhaps the tragedy was so disturbing that people opted to focus on an amnesiac’s story rather than the fact that meaningless deaths can occur any day, at any time. Meaningless deaths are, in fact, as easy to explain as an American man magically appearing inside a tiger cage in Siberia.
Walter never saw Mindy again, despite her many attempts to contact him during the media coverage. When he finally did take her call, she told him that he was the father of her baby, and that she wanted to reconcile, and start a family together. He hung up on her. Forever after that, Walter prided himself for having the gall to escape the confines of his aimless attraction to her. He eventually met a nice woman. She worked as a veterinary assistant in east Pittsburgh, and they were married and had two children.
There was one other news-bit that did not garner as much attention as Walter’s story or that of the collapsed bridge. But it was intriguing, nonetheless, and even made the national news, although it was quickly forgotten afterwards. When authorities recovered the bodies from the river, they found an empty 1999 Toyota Corolla with a drowned tiger inside. The female tiger was rather shabby and missing an eye. Authorities eventually concluded that someone must have brought an illicit pet tiger with them into the car. These things sometimes happen in American cities. After the accident, the driver must have swum out, and the body never found. It was the only logical explanation.