After what felt like hours of unearthly shrieks of anguish, I was finally overpowered by a wave of darkness. However, it lasted for only a moment before I found myself surrounded by bright light. I was standing in front of some kind of gate.
No! No, I couldn't die! John needed me! The baby…!
I turned to see my husband standing beside me.
"John!" I threw my arms around him. "I'm so glad you're here!" I pulled away. "No, I'm not! The baby needs us! We have to do something!"
My husband sighed in dismay. "It's my fault for not building a better lock. If I'd been better at…! I'm so sorry, Alice! I never meant for you to…! We should never have left England!"
"You built the best lock you could with what you had," I assured him. "No one could have asked you to do more. Besides, we agreed together to leave England. We had no way of knowing what would happen."
He shook his head. "But, Alice, if only the door had been more secure…!" John tried to hide the quaver in his voice as he reached up to dry my tears. "At least I don't have to live without you."
"But what about the baby?" I sank to my knees in a peal of sobs. "He's too young, John! It would have been better for him not to have been born at all than to meet such a cruel death!"
A man in a white robe opened the gate and approached us. He was carrying some sort of scroll, but I was too sorrowful to be curious.
My husband's face grew pale. "Are you an angel?"
"Why should it surprise you that you've entered the spiritual realm?" the other man asked. "You do realize what happened, do you not?"
"It's my fault," John replied. "Send me to eternal punishment."
"No!" I shrieked, rushing to my husband's side. "He risked being engulfed in flames so he could lower a lifeboat to keep us safe."
The angel nodded. "Yes, I noticed that. Now then, your names are John and Alice, yes? You're a bit early. We weren't expecting to see you for a few more decades."
"There was a leopard," I explained. "It managed to pry open the door somehow. We were awakened to our baby's cries just before dawn. The leopard had him by the foot and was dragging him away!"
John put his arms around me. "My Alice sprang into action like a madwoman. As soon as the leopard saw her running toward it, the creature dropped our baby and turned on my wife instead. I got my gun and tried to shoot it, but no matter where I aimed, the leopard was faster. It was chaos. I shot through a window, and the beast managed to knock over a shelf. Meanwhile, Alice hid our son under a blanket while she looked for something to hide him in, something the leopard couldn't open or overturn, but it…" His voice trailed off.
I took a deep breath to steady myself before finishing, "It caught me by the neck. The pain was unbearable, and I saw blood on the floor. I think the leopard walked through it a few times. I don't know if it was my own or if John managed to wound the animal."
My husband put his arm around me. "Alice fought until the end. She threw everything she could find at the leopard. I failed in my highest calling as a man: to provide for and protect my family. I tried to shoot the leopard when it had Alice by the neck, but it saw the gun and came for me. Just as I was squeezing the trigger, the leopard caught me by the throat, causing another misfire. I struggled for a few moments, but the animal was much stronger than I was. Just before everything went black, it dragged me over to where Alice was. She was completely motionless, and I knew she was dead and that I was dying too."
The angel said nothing. Perhaps he was simply too polite to remind us that there was no need to tell him how we had spent the morning or that he had merely been making a casual remark rather than looking for an explanation when he said John and I weren't expected in the afterlife yet.
"Where's our son?" I demanded. "Hasn't the leopard finished its gruesome execution yet? If he has to die, it should at least be quick! I don't want him to suffer!"
"Something scared away the leopard," the angel remarked. "Right after it sent you both here, the leopard heard the door open again, and it hid. See for yourself."
He waved his hand, and we were instantly transported back to the jungle. To my astonishment, a gorilla was carrying our infant!
"I'm here," she soothed. "That bad leopard isn't going to hurt you. What's wrong, little one? Are you hungry, or is it this thing around your waist?"
John's eyes widened. "How is the gorilla speaking?"
"We're in the afterlife now," I remarked. "Maybe that makes us able to understand all languages, even those of other species." I wiped away a tear of joy. "She's going to take care of him, John. She's going to give our boy all the love and care we would have. He's going to live!"
My husband squeezed my hand. "Yes, and perhaps we also can guard him in spirit."
"We didn't lose our lives in vain."
"No, Alice, we didn't, and what better cause to die for?"
Even though I wasn't sure whether or not he could still somehow feel my presence, I gave my son a final kiss on the forehead and stroked his face, gently squeezing his pudgy hand. He cooed, so perhaps he knew I was there.
"I'll always love you," I promised. "Always."
John tousled the baby's hair a final time. "I promise we'll never leave you. Even though you can no longer see us, we're still here. Just look over your shoulder. We'll be there for you always."
"I just wish there was a way to repay this gorilla for caring for our son," I remarked.
The angel smiled. "Actually, there is something you could do."
"Yes!" John readily agreed. "Anything!"
To my surprised, the angel handed me a baby gorilla.
"The leopard killed him a few hours after sundown," the angel explained. "When it started to get hungry again, it went to your treehouse."
I stared at the small ape. "Was its mother the gorilla who is caring for our son now?"
The angel nodded.
"We'll do our best," John promised. "We know it can never take the place of our own baby, but if it needs us, we'll do what we can."
The baby gorilla made happy noises from my arms. I remembered from one of my husband's books that gorillas groom each other, so I tentatively stroked the baby's fur. It seemed to like it.
Since the afterlife was so different than the real world, would this infant learn to speak English, or would I instantly know how to speak the language of gorillas?
I softly sang to it the lullaby I had made up for my own baby. John always said the song would be upbeat and exciting if I ever sang it at a fast tempo, but I always sang slowly to soothe my infant:
"All the power to be strong
And the wisdom to be wise,
Heaven shall bestow on you in time.
On this journey that you're making,
Let the answers that you seek
Guide you as you climb mountains
Until you reach the peak.
"With faith to guide your heart
And love to guide your soul,
Your world will brighten every day and grow.
With your mother here to guide you
And take you by the hand
As you journey to adulthood,
You will come to understand.
"What you learn, you will teach,
But what you teach, you shall learn,
And at your place beside the ones you love,
You'll find all the things you dreamed of
And visions that you saw.
The day will finally arrive
When you may claim it all."
Mother gorilla, if you can hear me, I have your son safely in my arms. Please don't cry for him. He's not gone forever, as you may imagine. He's so much closer than you could ever realize. I promise John and I will always look after him. I'm afraid we don't know what you named him, so I hope you don't mind that we're calling him Alfred.
Thank you for saving our son's life. Our boy will look to you now. Please take care of him. Always.