I didn’t realise where I was at the time, heck, I don’t think I really have any idea now either. Some things are just not made to be comprehended at any point in time. Yet there I was anyway, somewhere between Heaven and Hell, but absolutely not on Earth. At least I was not alone. That’s the really great thing about imaginary friends, that unique ability to come with you at all times and to all places. However, I guess in this situation, it was more so that I had come with him rather than the other way around.
Truth was, that I didn’t really know what to expect regarding imaginary friendship. I’d never had an imaginary friend before, so I had nothing to compare it to. But the first time it approached me it was both shapeless and nameless. It was equal part a monster under the bed clawing at my feet, and equal part, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, a genie in a bottle and a really reliable accountant. I called him Beerak after one of my old pets. The original Beerak had been a fat, warty toad in a disturbing colour somewhere between brown and green, but I’d loved him none the less. Sometime after he ate his roommate, my salamander, my mom took us to the pond in the park to, as she put it, release him into his natural habitat to be with his friends. I remember crying in my mother’s arms as we watch him jump towards the pond and an exile he probably wanted. It was my first experience with crime and punishment and it did not take long until I started to suspect that Beerak eating the salamander had less to do with his punishment than my mother growing increasingly bothered with the amphibian invasion. Returning to me in a new form, Beerak the Imaginary Friend most commonly took the form of a purple teddybear with four arms and bunny ears. On rare occasions, Beerak looked more like it probably felt like but I made an effort not to pay attention to those moments. In our childish mind’s, the world is largely what we make it to be, so to make things easier for both of us Beerak was mostly a soft stuffed animal.
After the current situation had played its course, I would tell the whole ordeal of both Beerak in the past and Beerak just a moment ago to my therapist, who was an adult. She would end up telling me, with that tone of arrogance adults don’t realise children can comprehend, that I was perpetuating a fantasy to postpone the inevitable increase of responsibility that defined growing up. Internally, I would retort mockingly with “what makes you believe that?” Or, if I felt really brave, “and how does that make you feel?” It would not be a very mature response, but that was really the whole point in the first place. Externally, it appeared most of the time as though I simply sat there, big-eyed and silent. I swear, sometimes I would be wondering why I was the one in therapy and not her. Disregarding that most of her words would be delivered as a reprimand, she did eventually have one point that I could agree with, albeit from the wrong reasoning. She would tell me that a child should remain a child and let the adults deal with the important problems. That time would be the only time I did not remain silent but instead ended up responding that I would be more than thrilled if the adults could deal with the important problems so I could deal with the real ones. My therapist would sigh and write something down in her notebook and eventually let me go play outside.
As a fully functioning member of society, albeit a very young one, it had been clear to me long before I went to therapy, long before Beerak went away, or even showed up, that being a child had lots of real advantages. First, children saw the world in a different light. The world was not money nor work nor right and wrong and it was not limited by bus-schedules or bedtimes or microwave oven beeps. Instead, the world was opportunities, excitement and mystery. It was a magic forest kingdom next to a spaceship on the way to Jupiter. Children could see it for what it was. Second, adults ignore their limitations to be able to change anything by self-imposing a sense of responsibility of things remaining within those limits. Children had no responsibility and could therefore freely change whatever they wanted about the world. A tree could become a space rocket, a tub a submarine and a shadow on the wall could be a friend or a fiend dependent on whether you had gotten dessert after dinner. Third, and most importantly for the current situation, being a child rendered you invincible in ways that are forgone in adulthood. As long as you still had your innocence, you could scratch a knee or bruise an elbow but your soul remained untouchable.
Right about now, standing next to my imaginary friend Beerak, in a world not quite human, that third advantage was really working to my favour.
The two of us were on a whole new adventure level than we’d ever previously been. We had been summoned to a divine court. I had been made aware that like his predecessor Beerak the Toad, Beerak the Imaginary Friend was not as innocent as he often appeared. As my imaginary friend’s probation officer, I was held accountable for his past transgressions and it was I that was to be called as both witness and the accused’s defence. The question to be evaluated was whether he had been a good imaginary friend or not. In the role of the defence lawyer, I’d put on my best t-shirt for the occasion: an orange one with a banana printed in light blue. Crazy, I know.
Next to me Beerak was shaking.
“It’ll be super alright,” I told him reassuringly. “You’re a great imaginary friend.”
In front, a high pillar rose to the sky with an impenetrable light shining atop it. I assumed it was God, but I was more than a little disappointed that God would materialise in such an obviously abstract way. Even in the world view of a child, could God not enrich the room with a more hands-on apparition? I contemplated what I had expected God to look like, thinking it might work as it had done with Beerak, but before the shape had taken form in my mind a looming voice echoed “absolutely not!” So I rested my case and let the light shine on me as it saw fit.
Beerak, on the other hand, struggled in the light. Being neither a child with an invincible soul nor an adult with an ignorant mind, he experienced the situation at full strength. The light burnt at his synthetic fur replica and behind him, the shadow of a gangly creature emerged with pointy teeth, protruding horns and sharp claws. We both turned to look at the shadow creature and despite the bright light, I realised with a surprise that I didn’t have a shadow at all.
“Does my reflection frighten you?” Beerak asked me.
I took a long hard look at it. It was the monster under the bed. It was the shadow on the wall. It was the creeper in the attic and the streaker behind the trees. “We have met,” I told him as though this would explain everything. It sort of both did and didn’t. I guess that’s the nature of honesty. Beerak seemed content with the reply and so did God.
“Order in the court!” the voice beaconed at the murmurs that flooded the room without any entities in concrete manifestation.”To the spirit now known as Beerak, a cast out from Heaven for misconduct and consorting with evil. I am informed that you have participated in the re-acclimatization program and have requested your case be trialled again in the light of your recent good behaviour. Is this the case?” God’s voice echoed.
“Yes, your honour,” Beerak responded humbly and I think both myself and my demon companion was quite excited and honoured to have the almighty as the judge.
“And what evidence have you to present? What does the defence say?”
I wished that I had thought to prepare a more structured defence or any defence at all. Still being a child my planning skills were largely limited to spontaneous outbursts, reckless behaviour and designing the blueprint for intergalactic space submarines made out of plastic buckets. Well. Here goes nothing, I thought and continued the only way I knew: honestly.
“Beerak is my best friend. He might not be a real friend, but he is real to me. When I needed him, he was there to help me. Like, when I am lonely he keeps me company. And when I’m afraid he chases the darkness away. He offers me protection. Like when I have broken something or eaten the last piece of cake he takes the fall for it.”
God called me by name and as though leaning out over the edge of the high podium the light pierced through my soul. “You vouch for your friend with honour and dedication, but you must know that no one can enter Heaven without innocence. Your friend lost his innocence through his evil crimes. How could I arrange for a passway back to Heaven under such circumstances?”
There was a pause long enough to give me a chance to grasp the situation. I didn’t need the time to understand. I knew how this would go down and God must have known that too. I did, however, need the moment to consider my options. It appeared to be the unavoidable trade. My innocence for my friend’s liberation. I would lose the innocence of youth and slowly start down the path of adulthood where the world was different, less colourful and magical and instead cruder under the vail of responsibility. My friend would be free from his imprisonment and would forever leave me. Partly because of his freedom and partly because I would be halfway to adulthood and would no longer be able to see him. It was a big sacrifice on my part. I would give up not only our friendship but my whole world. But the protection my friend had offered me was a priceless gift which was also precisely why my innocence was a price I had to pay.
In the suspense between divine light and the shady shadow next to me, I nodded in silent agreement.
“Beerak can have my innocence,” I said with the confidence of all children prior standing in the same spot. Like them, just as ready to forgo the protection offered from a fallen spirit making amends and to claim responsibility for my own life.
Beerak turned to me with a look of both sorrow and joy. “You understand this means goodbye? That I will no longer be able to protect you from your own mischiefs?”
“And that I will never return?”
“I do.” There was a moment’s silence and I turned to look at his shadow. Children have a unique skill to prioritise things so my thoughts went back to the shadow behind him. “What will you look like?” I asked puzzled. Feeling like the demonic shadow did not really fit into the heavenly picture.
“I will keep this body you gave me,” Beerak said with a proud smile while poking his belly with three of his arms. “And the name as well, unless you need it for another toad, huh?”
“I don’t think mom would be too happy about getting a new toad,” I said contemplatively. “I guess it’s best you keep it.” I smiled and for a brief moment, my childish mind created a picture-perfect image of Heaven as the fluffy materialisation of all the world’s imaginary friends that passed their trials. “I love you, Beerak,” I said and hugged my friend one final time and just like Beerak the Toad had been released into the park, Beerak the Imaginary Friend was released from my embrace into his much-desired exile.
“I love you too,” Beerak replied as his many arms let go of me.
“The defendant is freed of all charges! This court is adjourned.” A wooden hammer hit a surface and that was that.
Following the light towards a horizon I knew I could not reach, Beerak walked away from me. Despite the strong light, no longer did a shadow fall behind him. In contrast, my body was now darkly reflected in the ground behind me. While elongated, it was the perfect replica of my form and I wondered how many sins it would take for mine to take the same distorted reflection that Beerak’s had shown itself as. A million? A hundred? Or just one?
In loving memory to Beerak,
may you have all the salamanders you could possibly desire in Frog-Heaven.
(Story is based on the writing.promt.s@Instagram published 21 April 2020: Many kids have imaginary friends. Little do we know, those “imaginary friends” are not only real they are actually demons undergoing a rehabilitation program to cleanse their sins and get into Heaven.)