by McCamy Taylor
The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.
...nineteen of us crowded into the elevator, standing room only, arms pinned to our sides, barely enough space to take a deep breath even if I wanted to inhale the stale air and body stench. Sweat breaks out on my brow and then evaporates as an intense wave of heat washes over us. My skin cracks. Blood trickles from my nose and boils on my upper lip. Everything burns red...
Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.
How long has the elevator been going down? Hours? Days? No food or water. No toilet. The air is stifling, but the priest still mumbles his prayers. The little old white haired lady has fainted on her feet. Heart attack? We all should be so lucky.
How long can one elevator ride go on?
Bile rises in my parched throat. I force it down. What if we are not going anywhere? What if this sardine tin is our final destination? What have we done to earn such a death?
I study my companions. Eleven men, most working class, though three are dressed in neatly tailored business suits like me. Seven women, one at least ninety, the rest young to middle aged. Two of them are Gypsies. The Church courts have been cracking down on Roma, especially women. They probably sold love charms to an undercover priest. Or maybe they were rounded up simply for being an eyesore.
The blonde girl with pigtails should be in a convent school, not on her way to Hell. What did she do to deserve Final Judgment? The only one of us whose face screams guiltyis the American in the corner, big, bulky, his angry black eyes almost bursting from his dark face. No need to ask why heis here. Those meaty fists could strike a man down with one blow. He could probably snap the blonde girl's neck between his thumb and index finger. He is staring at me. Will I be his next target? No, those angry dark eyes are not focused on me. Probably planning his revenge against the tribunal that sentenced him. Didn't anyone tell him it's a one way ride?
Sweet Jesus and Mary! What am I doing here? I'm innocent!
An unseen voice mocks me. Someone has to take the fall. A lot of very important people lost a lot of money. If you want to blame someone, blame your parents for giving birth to you in a second rate neighborhood and sending you to a second rate school, where you learned how to be a rich man's flunky.
Hours. Days. Everyone has gone quiet. We all look dazed, except the priest who is still mouthing his prayer. They must be piping drugs in through the ventilation system, chemicals to make us docile. The stench does not bother me anymore. I try to keep track of time by counting my pulse, but I cannot feel my heartbeat. My legs are numb. Only my mind still functions. Silently, I recite bits of Bible verse which I memorized at school, until I reach Revelations"... the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days..."
Ten days? Has it been ten days since they herded us into the elevator, ten days since the bored foreman of the tribunal recited the words "You have been found guilty of the crime of which you have been accused. The sentence of this court is eternal damnation. May God have mercy on your soul"? Ten days since my attorney declared "My client pleads guilty and throws himself on the mercy of the court." Ten days since I ate my last meal of sardines and pasta. Ten days since I slept. Ten days since Bianca wished me luck with a smile that did not reach her eyes.
There was a mark on her neck, small, red. The kind of love bite we would flaunt in school, to prove that we were men. She caught me staring at it. Her hand went to her neck. Flushing, she murmured "I have to get on with my life -- "
The elevator crashes to a halt. We are shaken, stunned, but no one falls, not until the door slides open, and then we pour out, a river tumbling over a burst damn. After ten days, I should be too weak to move. My legs should be too stiff. But I am swept forward.
Everything is red and black, like a forest fire at night, except the air does not smell of smoke and ash. No sulfur, either. In school, they described infernal forges pouring hot molten lead over the damned, but it isn't hot at all, and no one is screaming. We are all very orderly, like people disembarking from a train.
"The Jews were herded into closed train cars and shipped to Poland. The journey often took days. During that time, no food or water was given to the prisoners. Many died before reaching their destination -- ".
Footsteps on the pavement. Quickly, I covered the book, an old history text that had somehow escaped the cleansing. In 2030, Mussolini was Il Duce, again, our national hero. And the Holocaust was all a lie spread by the enemies of our ancient allies in Deutschland. Who would believe that good Christian men and women would condone the mass murder of our friends, the Jews? The Muslims were our enemies. The Muslims and the Gypsies.
Momentum carries us forward towards a semicircle of doors, each with a roman numeral. One, two, three...eight, nine. Dear God, Dante was right. There are nine separate hells for the nine classes of sinners.
We shuffle around the platform, waiting for someone -- or something -- to assign us to our proper hell. We wait. And we wait some more. Finally, the priest stops praying. He steps forward. Towards the sixth door, not the second. Heresy, not lust.
The girl with the blonde pigtails goes next. Now that we are out of the elevator, I see the bandages on her wrists. A failed suicide. Automatic death penalty. She should be headed towards door seven, but instead she stops before the third portal. Gluttony? But she is skin and bones, practically anorexic. Something is wrong here. Maybe I have forgotten the order of the hells.
One by one, the condemned shuffle forward, choosing doors as if at random. Was that little old woman really convicted of a sex crime? Maybe she does not realize that the second circle of Hell is for those guilty of lust.
The businessmen have almost certainly been caught scamming their corporations. Or, like me, they have been sacrificed to protect the VIP who was actually doing the scamming. But one picks violence, one wrath and one...heresy? When does a corporate executive have time to worry about how he should worship the deity?
Finally, there are just two of us, the big, angry American whom I have pegged as a killer, and me, innocent though a tribunal convicted me of theft. I know that I am destined for the eighth circle with its crocodiles and snakes -- God, I hate snakes! -- even though I never stole a euro. But I'll be damned if I walk through that door voluntarily! Where are the devils with pitchforks? I need someone I can shake my fist at. Someone whom I can call a bastard and a fool for treating an innocent man this way. Someone to hate besides my unfaithful wife and my thieving boss --
Suddenly, I understand why the big man is so angry.
"Innocente?" I ask him.
"Hell yeah!" he exclaims.
Like all businessmen, I studied English in school. "Me, too."
"What is this place? Where are we? How do we get out of here?"
"I think...it is the Inferno. Hell."
He gives me a look as if to say I am crazy. "There's no such place. Must be some kind of prison camp. Fucking fascists. Look, bud. I'm not waiting around to get caught again. If you want to stay here, that's your business, but I'm outta here." He takes off running. Because I do not want to be left alone, I follow. The platform beneath our feet gives way to a carpet of stars. The American stops short. I collide with his back.
"What the hell?!" he exclaims. He peers down at his feet. He looks back over his shoulder. My eyes follow his. The platform and the nine hell gates have vanished. We are standing in outer space, with stars surrounding us on all sides. A distant sun, small and red casts shadows over my companion's face. His pupils reflect the fiery red light.
From the way he stares at me, I know that my face must look as sinister as his.
"This is not a prison camp," I say. Wasted words, but the sound of my voice gives me courage. It proves that I am real, even if the real world seems to have vanished.
For the first time, I notice how young the American is. I am old enough to be his father. No surprise, then, when he asks me. "What should we do? Should we try to go back to where we started?" His eyes are wide with fear.
Back to the Inferno? Is he mad? "No," I reply, trying to make my voice calm and authoritative. "We go forward."
Now I am responsible for two lives, his as well as my own. "My name is Gino." I offer my hand.
His palm is reassuringly warm and solid. "Luc. Spelled L-U-C."
"No, Creole. My family was from New Orleans, before it sank."
"Ah. My grandfather was a glassblower in Venice, before it sank."
"Fucking global warming," he says without any real conviction. We are making conversation, trying to convince ourselves that no matter how mad the world around us seems we have retained our sanity. "What did they get you for?"
'Scusi, I don't understand?"
"What was your crime?"
"Theft of company funds, but I didn't do it. My superior -- "
"I know. I know. Innocente." He speaks the Italian word with a French accent.
"Rape and murder." He glares at me, daring me to show revulsion or fear. As if an experienced businessman like me would show emotion over anything as petty as rape or murder. Some of our best corporate clients were both rapists and murderers.
When I do not rise to the bait, his expression softens. "I'm a photographer. A photo journalist. My partner and I were working a story about child labor in the Muslim camps. America's pretty fucked up right now, but nowhere near as bad as what you guys have over here."
Over "here"? Does he imagine that we are still in Italia? I resist the urge to correct him. Like all Americans, he talks too much. But what else do we have to do out here in the middle of space with only a strange, distant red sun to guide us?
"We had the goods on Faella, the shoe company. Bastards were using orphans in their factory. Kids six and seven years old working sixteen hour days making thousand dollar loafers. Someone must have found out about our story. Mother fuckers took April -- that was the reporter I was working with -- they took her out to the woods and raped her. Then they cut her throat. Next day, they arrested me for the crime. I tried to tell them I was miles away, getting laid in a bath house, dozens of witnesses. But the public defender said that being gay was a worse crime than rape or murder in modern Italy." He looks at me as if for confirmation.
"He was correct." My face shows no emotion. Some of my best corporate clients were homosexuals. Money buys absolution for all sins in modern, fascist Italia.
...if only I had a camera. One moment, we're walking through the stars. I'm telling Gino about my home on the Bayou. The perfect Italian gentleman, he listens politely, though I can tell his mind isn't on my story --
-- and then, in the space between heartbeats, the stars are gone, and we stand in a jungle. Or is it a forest? The ground is covered with bright green ferns, but the trees are conifers, long, bare trunks topped with strangely twisted branches, like the Monkey-Puzzle trees of Chile, but larger. Much larger. And the bird which circles high overhead is enormous, its wing span easily twenty-five or thirty feet. Its beak is probably longer than I am. Do condors come in that size? No, wait! Its skin is smooth, reptilian. It's a pterodactyl!
I point, but Gino's attention is fixed on a more immediate danger. Standing before us is a lizard the size of a bull elephant. No, bigger. A dinosaur? Where the hell is my camera? It's gorgeous! Three horns, a ruffled neck, legs as thick as tree trunks -- triceratops?
The dinosaur seems oblivious to our presence. Calmly, it stretches out its neck to bite off and devour a fern. Its movements are slow, lazy. With its sharp, curving beak, it could snap me in two. I ought to be scared shitless. But all I can think of is how much I want to get this shot.
"It's a dinosaur!" I exclaim.
Nothing ever seems to faze Gino. "So it seems. A plant eater, I hope."
"Triceratops? Yeah, it's an herbivore. I wonder if there're any more of them around." If I can't take their pictures, at least I can record them in my mind's eye. Have the Italians created their own Jurassic Park? Maybe they have perfected time travel. But what about the butterfly effect? They wouldn't send their prisoners back in time. We might fuck up the future. Spoil their cozy little fascist paradise. Could this be why the dinosaurs became extinct?
Gino listens to my theories politely. How can he stay so calm? We are standing in the middle of a cretaceous forest, and he looks as if he is ready for a hard day of number crunching in his black three piece suit and wire rimmed spectacles. His shoes have been polished to a high gleam. His grey streaked black hair is pulled back in the queue that European businessmen favor.
"None of this is real," he remarks, finally, when I run out of things to say.
"It looks real."
"Listen. Do you hear wind in the trees?" He sniffs. "Do you smell damp earth? Rotting vegetation? It looksreal, but can you touch it?" He waves his hand. It passes through a tree trunk.
As a camera man, I am so used to looking that I often forget to pay attention to my other senses. I examine our surroundings more closely and discover that he is correct. It's a visual illusion, without form or smell or sound. But that doesn't stop me from wishing that I had a camera.
My companion has excellent eyes and an even more excellent memory. As we move from one world to the next, he picks out details that I would never notice.
"This is Nagasaki," he says as we pass through a mid 20th century Japanese coastal city. He points to a distant mountain. "I recognize that factory and the hills behind it. Usually you see it in photos after the atomic blast." The city looks deceptively tranquil. It is early morning. The sun has barely cleared the horizon. Dew gives the streets an unnatural sheen. Servants in short blue and white coats are hurrying to perform their errands. A group of armed soldiers loiters beside a food vendor. One elegant woman dressed in a flowered silk kimono picks her way carefully between puddles.
As usual, no one seems to notice us. We are like school children visiting a diorama in the Natural History Museum in Milan. We can look but not touch. We can pity the inhabitants of this Japanese coastal community, but we cannot warn them of their fate.
We return to the starry path. I have lost count of the imaginary worlds we have visited. Most are uninhabited forests and plains. Occasionally, we pass through a city. Rarely, I recognize a landmark, like Mount Vesuvius. More often, Luc deduces our location from the architectural style and the people's clothing. We have passed through London several times, the same city seen in different centuries. Once, we stumble upon a black roofed, white concrete building named the New London School.
"Now where have I heard that name before?" Luc muses.
Through the first floor windows, I catch a glimpse of school children, boys with hair cut short, girls with pigtails. The automobile parked in front of the building is a vintage black sedan, almost a century old though it looks brand new.
Later, when we are back on the starry path, he suddenly remembers. "New London School! It blew up. A natural gas fire! We have to go back and warn them!"
Though we backtrack, the starry path takes us to some anonymous Alpine forest where an ancient Ibex with massive curling horns confronts a younger rival. Snow covers the distant peaks. Above the mountaintops, storm clouds are gathering. Lightning flashes. I count, but the sound of thunder never arrives.
We continue our journey, through African savannahs, tropical jungles, Russian cities constructed all of wood. Past farmhouses and mansions and modern high rises. Past people of all races wearing all types of clothes. Many of the animals are strange, like the dinosaurs. None of them seem to notice us, until we come across a grassy plain surrounded on all sides by barren mountains. There we encounter a tiger with a shaggy white beard and thick fur on its stomach.
"A Caspian tiger," my companion explains. "Extinct for almost a century." He approaches the beast in order to get a closer look.
The tiger turns. Its gaze fixes on my companion. Its tail begins to twitch. With a shake of its massive head, it roars, a sound that makes the ground beneath our feet shiver.
Luc stops short. "Don't run," he whispers.
His warning is unnecessary. I could not move if I wanted to. My feet have turned to lead. I am too terrified even to pray.
The beast slinks towards us through the tall, winter lightened grass. Its eyes are wary. When Luc holds out his hand, the tiger hisses and folds back its ears.
"It's ok, big guy." Luc's voice is soothing. "You're just like us, aren't you? You're wondering what the hell happened to your world."
The tiger sniffs Luc's outstretched hand. Reassured by his scent, it allows the American to run his fingers through the thick fur on the back of its neck. The great beast purrs.
As easily as that, we acquire a third companion. On the starry road, by the light of the distant red sun, the beast appears to be on fire, and I am reminded of William Blake's poem. Who dare seize the fire? One crazy American photographer, who has no fear of anything. What will happen when the beast gets hungry? Which of us will it east first?
I realize that I have felt neither hunger nor thirst, not since the elevator opened. We have been walking without rest through countless worlds, and yet, my legs are not tired.
We journey from world to world, the American, the tiger and I, until we find ourselves in an Asian city, standing before a villa enclosed by a white stone wall. The street signs are lettered in Vietnamese characters. The paved road in front of the mansion is empty. No, not empty. As we pass beside a 1950s style sedan car, parked with its hood up, I note a solitary, saffron clad, bald headed Buddhist monk. He is sitting in the middle of the street. His legs are folded in the lotus posture. His head is bowed, and his hands are clasped together in prayer.
Something about the scene triggers an emotional response. Tears prickle the backs of my eyelids. I have seen this Vietnamese man somewhere before...
"Thich Quang Duc!" Luc utters the words that have been fluttering at the back of my mind, just beyond my reach. "Saigon. 1963. He's about to set himself on fire to protest the war."
The tiger throws back its head and roars.
If the slender monk in the bright yellow robes notices us, he gives no sign. He is as still and serene as a carving of the Buddha.
The American shakes his head. "No, this isn't how it was. There were people everywhere that day. Monks, protesters, journalists, police trying to control the crowds. Cars passed by. Men and women bowed down to pray to him as he burned to death. He didn't die like this, alone. His death would have been meaningless if no one else was there to witness it. Where are the others?"
It suddenly seems so obvious. How did I not understand it before?
"Cataclisma." I murmur.
"Cataclysm. Mount Vesuvius erupts incinerating Pompeii. Lightning strikes in a summer forest. A natural gas leak causes a school to explode. Nagasaki is destroyed by the atomic bomb. The dinosaurs become extinct when a meteor strikes. A single Buddhist monk dies by fire." I recall the dreadful heat of the elevator, the way my skin seemed to burst and the blood to boil. I remember the rumors of crematoriums, death chambers designed to resemble elevators into which the condemned are herded. Impossible!Gino the banker insists. We do not do such things in modern Italia!And yet, such things are done. They were done to me and my companion.
All the fight goes out of me. I fall to my knees. How foolish of me to think that I have escaped the Inferno! God has damned me, but not for the crime of theft. I bow my head before the yellow robed monk, like a supplicant seeking forgiveness. Forgiveness for the mustard gas used in Ethiopia. Forgiveness for the bulldozers that wreck the homes of the Roma. Forgiveness for the Muslim men who labor in our streets wearing chains.
"Innocente?" I wail. "I was never innocent." No wonder the nine hells of Dante rejected me. My sins are much worse than mere theft or heresy or lust.
I have come to the end of the world, and now I am witnessing its end, over and over again. A peculiarly modern hell, designed specifically for those of us who have flirted with disaster in our quest for greater glory and higher corporate profits. The atomic bomb. Global warming. Colonialism. Genocide.
Luc lays his hand on my shoulder. "There's nothing you can do," the American murmurs. His words are meant to soothe me, but they have the opposite effect.
I laugh hysterically. "Indeed. There was nothing I could do. No way I could make a difference. So, I never tried." I am suddenly overwhelmed by tiredness. I can go no farther. My journey ends here, in a street in Saigon, where a monk waits to die by fire in order to redeem the sin that men like me have committed. Ignoring Luc's voice and the hand that is shaking me and the tiger which butts its forehead against my palm, I close my eyes and surrender.
I couldn't just leave him there. The tiger seemed to feel the same way. He didn't object when I laid Gino across his back. Together, the three of us left that little bit of Saigon and returned to space.
I gave up trying to navigate with the aid of the small, red sun. No matter which way I turned, it was always right in front of me. We passed through two more forests, then we were in Waco, at the Branch Davidian compound. It was early morning. The sky was deep grey with just a hint of light in the east. Federal agents had the place surrounded, but they did not spot us. The tanks were in position. April 19, 1993. The last dawn that many of the Branch Davidians would see.
We walked through the walls of the compound. Inside the building, the atmosphere was tense, but no one was panicking. Not yet. People gathered to pray, women and children mostly. The kids rubbed the sleep from their eyes. The littlest ones were crying, maybe from hunger or maybe because they sensed their mothers' worry. The men were armed. They knew that a showdown was coming, but they had no idea how bad it was gonna be. As I watched them, my insides ached. Which of the children would suffocate? Which of them would be burned alive?
I knew it was futile, but I couldn't just stand there and do nothing. I jumped up and down. I waved my arms. I screamed. The tiger got into the act, batting its huge paws at the people we passed. But they couldn't see or hear us.
Cataclysm, Gino had called it. Living things -- people, animals, trees, plants -- cut down by fire, the way that we in the "elevator" had been cremated to death. Gino said that this was Hell, and I'd laughed at him and said there was no such place. But he was right. Maybe not about this being Hell -- I didn't believe in God or eternal damnation. But this was the place where living things went when they died from fire.
It could have been worse. They could have been trapped for all eternity within the flames that killed them, rather than being caught in the moments before they burned to death.
When it became clear that no one could hear my warnings, the three of us -- Gino, the tiger and I -- resumed our journey.
Finally, we came to snow covered northern tundra, Siberia or maybe Finland. I knew immediately that this place was different. For one thing, I could feel the wind, piercingly cold. And the ground smelled of damp earth and lichen. The herd of reindeer startled as we passed. The tiger twitched his tail and leapt after them. Gino tumbled from his back. He looked like a doll, arms and legs splayed, eyes open but unseeing, glasses hanging loose from one ear, black curling hair freed from its queue spread out around his face like a black halo.
Even a little man is a heavy load when he is unconscious. I slung him over my shoulder and began to trudge through the snow towards a wooden cabin. Smoke rose from the chimney. As we neared the building, I smelled burning pine.
A flap of leather served as a door to the single room cabin. The interior was lit by a central, open fire. Two figures crouched beside the hearth, one an old man dressed in fringed leather. A drum hung on the wall, along with primitive tools and an antler horn headdress decorated with white feathers. The Apple laptop computer and Louis Vuitton purse looked as out of place as their owner, a blonde middle aged woman wearing blue jeans, a black turtleneck sweater and a white lab coat. Her hair was done up in a style that no one had worn for over a decade.
The old man said something unintelligible.
"Close the door," the woman said in crisp, British English. Was she translating? "You're letting in the cold."
I looked around for a place to put Gino. The old man pointed to a pile of animal skins.
"Sit." The woman patted the ground.
I sat down next to her, across the fire from the old man. His skin was dark and leathery. His nose jutted from his flat face like a bird's beak. His eyes, once dark, were now milky blue with age. He was watching me with open interest. He said something in his own language, and this time I was sure that the woman was translating.
"He wants to hear your story."
Where to begin? "Name's Luc. I'm a photographer -- "
"Not your life story," she interrupted. "Your death story."
So, I told her about the Italian fascists and their crematorium. She nodded her head sagely and then turned to the old man and explained it all over again to him. "Tore wants to know if the other man died the same way."
"Yeah, he did.
So the old shaman's name was "Tore." That meant we were probably in Scandinavia. Or rather, in a piece of Scandinavia that was ravaged by fire. Looking at the low ceiling of the wooden hut, it was easy to see how it might have burned down. But that would not explain the reindeer. And what was the British woman doing here?
She saw the question in my eyes. "The name is Mildred. I was caught in the Channel Tunnel fire."
"The fire of 2016."
The bad one. "What're you doing here?"
She gazed at Tore fondly. "I'm studying."
"I am studying to become a spirit guide. For people like your friend." She frowned at Gino. "Though he looks as if he is beyond salvation. What happened?"
I told her about Saigon. She translated my words for the old man. They conferred together, and then she said "You should leave him here. You have a long way to go, and he will only be a burden."
I decided then and there that I wasn't leaving Gino behind. But that argument could wait. "What is this place? And where is it that I'm supposed to go?"
The tiger pushed open the door flap and sauntered into the cabin. Mildred looked apprehensive, but the old man held out his hand. The big cat licked the shaman's fingers and then curled up beside him. His golden eyes glowed in the firelight. Softly, he began to purr.
Tore answered my question, and Mildred supplied the translation. We were in a land called Muspelheim, according to the old shaman, one of the nine Norse worlds, a place where fire demons lived. Here, the spirits of living creatures killed by fire were sent to await the judgment of the god, Surtr.
I rolled my eyes. "Gimme a break."
Mildred bristled like an angry cat. "Don't assume that because he is a primitive -- "
"I'm not assuming anything. I knowthat this is no Musselhelm -- "
"Muspelheim," she corrected.
" -- and there are no fire demons, and no god is waiting to cast judgment on me. It isn't prejudice. I'm an atheist. I don't believe in any god, not Jehovah, not Thor, not Sutra."
We glared at each other.
Softly, the old man began to chuckle. He murmured something to Mildred.
"Tore wants me to explain it in a way that you will understand. Do you know what the Oort Cloud is? The comet field beyond the solar system? "
"Yeah, I've heard of it."
"Impact events -- mass extinctions -- occur when a comet collides with the Earth. The Oort Cloud is the source of those comets."
I had no idea where this was going, but I nodded.
"You've seen the red sun, right? That's Nemesis, a companion star to Earth's sun. It's a red dwarf, much smaller and cooler that the sun. And much older. Sol gives life to the Earth, and Nemesis destroys that life. It is a repeating cycle. About once every twenty seven million years or so Nemesis moves close enough to the Oort Cloud to disturb its comets. The comets rain down upon the solar system, wrecking havoc.
"During an impact event, huge numbers of creatures on Earth die. When death occurs on that scale, the usual cycle of rebirth is interrupted. Having nowhere to go, some of the spirits -- "
I held up my hand. "Hold on there. Impact events and comets I can buy. 'Spirits' sounds like superstitious mumbo jumbo."
Mildred grimaced. "'Spirits' may not be the best word for it. If you recall that time is not linear, then anything -- or any creature -- that exists in one point of time exists simultaneously in other times, even after its so called 'death'. Does that make sense?"
Not really. But I pretended that it did.
"Life is a powerful emitter of energy. Though a living thing's organic structure eventually falls apart, its energy pattern can persist indefinitely. And those energy patterns -- what Tore would call the spirits -- are attracted to the energy with which they are most familiar. Life on Earth is based on photosynthesis, meaning that the spirits of the dead seek out visible light -- the type emitted by the sun. However, creatures that are incinerated before they die have an affinity for infrared radiation -- the type emitted by red dwarf stars. They move away from the sun towards Nemesis.
"On their way to the red star, the dead encounter the Oort Cloud. There are peculiar particles here, unknown in our solar system. When the spirits -- code might be a better word -- of the newly dead interact with these particles, they cause distortions, reactions. The result is something lifelike though inorganic."
It sounded plausible. Or at least scientific. But then, the idea that the Earth was flat and the sun was carried across the sky each day on the back of a turtle probably sounded pretty scientific a thousand years ago. "Go on."
"There isn't much more I can tell you. It takes light almost a year to reach this region of space. During that time, most of the dead lose their consciousness -- their volition -- and by the time they arrive here, they are just shadows of their former selves."
"Good analogy. A few beings retain their volition, and they are able to create the illusion of form and sound and scent. Tore is one of those creatures. So are you. So is your friend. But he is dying. It takes a strong will to live out here, and Gino's will is fading."
I glanced at my companion. Would he end up like those people in the Branch Davidian Compound? I imagined a man on the executioner's block waiting an eternity for the headman's axe to fall. If hell existed -- I'm not saying it does -- but if it did exist, it would be a lot like that. Terror, anger, grief and most of all an awful fatalism. That's how it was in the elevator. I thought I would go mad. But Gino's calm expression reassured me. And later, when were lost among the stars, I never would have made it without him. There was no way that I was going to abandon him now. "How do I give him back his will to live?"
Mildred frowned. "Why do you care? You just met him."
"He's my friend. How do I bring him back?"
She sighed. "That's the job of a spirit guide."
"I'm just an apprentice."
"Then your teacher. Will he do it?"
Tore seemed amused by the request. He and Mildred had a heated discussion -- heated on her side, patient on his. The more she argued, the more firmly resolved he seemed. Finally, she turned her back to him. He said something in his own language. When she did not respond, he poked her in the back. A little electric spark jumped between his fingertip and her shoulder blade. Static? He poked her again, and this time a bolt of white lightening encircled her like a snake. Her blonde hair stood on end. She yelped -- in surprise, not pain.
"All right! All right! Tore says that he can't help your friend. If you want to bring him back, you'll have to do it. I told him you have no training and that someone like you -- a skeptic -- can hardly be expected to -- "
"There's no atheists in a fox hole. Translate that."
She looked at me as if I was mad, but she relayed my words. The old man nodded. "Good. Good," he said in heavily accented English. A smile spread across his broad, weathered face. He looked like a Buddha. A laughing Buddha was long black braids and milky blue eyes, his hawk like profile chiseled in stark relief by the light and shadows of the fire. How I wished I had a camera --
I felt a weight in my hands. Glancing down, I was startled to see my favorite Nikon. Surely I had not been carrying my camera all this time. I would have noticed.
My eyes met the shaman's. "Did you do this?"
Smiling even more broadly, he pointed at me.
"I did it? But how -- ?"
...one foot in front of the other marching across an endless blood hued desert. The tenth circle of hell is the destination of cowards, like me. There are no snakes and no crocodiles, no devils wielding pitchforks, no lakes of fire or ice. Such terrors would be a comfort. If we could focus our fear on one or two externals, maybe the world would cease to terrify us.
We are lead to market. There, we will be sold like cattle, our imaginary helplessness in life transformed into actual powerlessness in the afterlife. Some stranger will buy the right to tell us where to go and what to do. As a rich man's flunky, I am used to being ordered around. It is all very familiar.
Everything is red. The sand, the sky, the distant sun. Even the faces of the buyers have a reddish cast. They are an unsavory lot. Many of them wear horns. Some of them have animal heads. They are heavily armed with swords -- broadswords, katanas, rapiers -- and guns -- pistols, rifles, machine guns. A lizard-headed man wears a coat bristling with knives. The two headed woman has a metallic whip wrapped around her waist. Her eyes are weapons, too. Small and dark, they pierce me. My façade unravels. I am a quivering mass of fear, barely able to climb the stairs to the platform where I am displayed for the buyers.
The auctioneer is an old man with a bird's head. In his singsong voice, he describes me to the crowd. "Ah, one of fascism's foot soldiers. A working class boy who taught himself to ape his betters. When his bosses said 'Jump', he said 'How high, sir?' He abandoned his first fiancée at the recommendation of his employer. 'You'll never get ahead tied to a girl like that.' He married a politician's daughter, who dropped him at the first hint of scandal. Not his own scandal, mind you. Gino here may have fantasized about stealing from the company and running off to Tahiti, but he would never have done it. Instead, he took the fall when his boss, the CEO's youngest son, got caught with his hand in the till. He was cannon fodder in the great class war. How much am I bid for this corporate coward? Do I have fifty?"
The two headed woman raises her hand. Her nails are lacquered blood red. The right head, the one with the angry eyes looks like Bianca, my wife.
"Fifty! Can I get seventy-five? Seventy-five! How about one hundred? Will anyone offer one hundred -- "
Money talks, here in Hell, as it did on Earth. The crowd falls silent. All eyes turn as one. A tall, dark man dressed in a long red coat moves forward. He wears a pair of shining pistols on his low slung belt. His boots have spurs.
"Two thousand," says the auctioneer. "Do I hear two thousand one hun -- "
The cowboy leaps onto the stage. He grabs me by the collar. "Sold."
"Sold," the auctioneer agrees with a sigh. "Next, we have a -- "
My new owner drags me away. Outside the auction house, a tattoo artist is inscribing the newly purchased slaves with their owners' insignias. Though I sold my soul in life, the thought of wearing an emblem of my servitude disgusts me. I am not an animal.
"I am not an animal," I say aloud, startling even myself.
"It's for your own protection," says the tattooist . "Murder isn't a crime here, but theft is. As long as you're someone's property, you're safe."
Safe from what? My owner is the most frightening person in sight. He towers over the others. His dark face is set in a perpetual scowl. He does not stop frowning until we are out of town, back on the endless red desert.
"Name's Luc," he says, offering his hand.
I gather up my courage. "You are not real," I tell him. "This is my hell."
His eyes flash. He points a pistol at my head. "Tell me to shoot. Go on. If I'm an illusion, I can't hurt you."
I swallow my terror. "No, but I can hurt myself. Please. Put the gun away."
He holsters his gun. Unexpectedly, he pats the top of my head, as if I am a dog or a small child. "Still wearing that three-piece suit. And I can still see myself in your shoes. At least let your hair down."
He removes the clip that holds my queue in place. Black hair tumbles over my shoulders. So much grey! Have I really grown so old? "Give it back, please."
He tosses the hair clip into a ditch. "And lose the tie." He plucks the ribbon of black silk from around my neck. It dangles from his fingers. I reach for it, but the wind blows it away. I am coming apart. Torn to pieces. What is Gino? I thought that I was the author of this world, my own private hell, but what part of me created Luc, the gunslinger?
"This is Hell, and you are a devil." I say the words slowly, enunciating each syllable as if I am talking to an imbecile or a small child.
Luc squats. With the barrel of his gun, he draws a circle in the dirt. "The sun." Eight much smaller circles. "The planets." Around the solar system, beyond Neptune, a circle two meters in diameter. "The Oort Cloud. Comets. Lots and lots of comets. This is where we are. This is where every living thing that dies by fire comes. And over here -- " He stands and moves three meters away. With the toe of his boot, he makes a small scuff in the dirt. "-- the red sun. No heaven, no hell, just stars, comets and planets in space."
A truly terrifying thought. Frightening enough to drive all my other fears away. Could it be -- ? No, impossible! But what if -- ? No, if I let my thoughts go down that road I will lose myself forever. This is my hell. Mine!
We journey across the desert, until we come to a dusty village where trains converge. At the outskirts of town, a tiger waits for us. By the light of the distant red sun, the beast appears to be on fire, and I am reminded of William Blake's poem. Who dare seize the fire? One crazy gunslinger, who has no fear of anything. He offers his hand to the beast to sniff. The giant cat begins to purr. Amber eyed, it has seen things I cannot even begin to imagine. It is not my creation. Not a figment of my imagination.
Can two or three private hells overlap? Luc's, the tiger's and mine? But if one is not alone in Hell, then there is still hope. And a hell with hope is heaven. A rust red heaven, dusty and windswept, shadows stretching behind us, before us an endless plain. The American west in all its pristine glory --
No, not so pristine. Nestled among the rolling hills, like an open wound, is a tent colony. Rows of grimy, slate colored canvas. Here and there, a few more permanent structures crafted of tin and plywood. The few scattered patches of snow are grey. Even the freshly washed clothes hung up to dry are dingy.
"Ludlow, Colorado," my companion says, pointing. "The miners went on strike. The owners called out the national guard to force them back to work." His nostrils flare. His hand drops to his belt. Is he planning to shoot? No, he draws a camera, not a gun. Click.
-- and the camp is in flames. There is gunfire in the distance, almost drowning out the screams of women and children. Their shouts for help come from one of the burning tents.
I move instinctively, but the tiger is faster. Animals are supposed to fear fire, but the beast approaches the burning tent boldly. With one paw, it bats away the flaming canvas. Two women lift their heads to peer out of a pit dug in the earth. Two more women do not stir. Their lips are blue. The children are asleep -- no, they are dead, too. Asphyxiated. I count eleven of them. Their limbs are pitifully thin.
The tiger nudges the closest of the corpses. A small, dead boy opens his eyes. One by one, he wakes his companions. They stumble from the pit, looking scared and confused. Their clothes and hair smell of smoke. Their faces are darkened with soot.
One of the women is dressed only in a linen slip. I take off my jacket and hand it to her. I give my vest to a small child who is naked.
The wails of the two survivors follow us as we march away from the blackened wreckage of the tent colony, Luc in the lead, then the two dead women and the eleven dead children -- I carry the two smallest of them. The tiger brings up the rear. The reanimated dead do not leave footprints in the red dust, and they do not cast shadows.
Silently, we cross the plain. The small, red sun is still thirty degrees above the horizon. Does it ever move? Does night ever come to this world?
At the next village, Luc buys new clothes for the dead. As they shed their blackened rags and cover their skinny bodies with new plaid shirts and indigo blue jeans, a spark of life lights up their eyes. The children begin to talk. Then, the women.
"Where are we?" the shorter of the two women asks me. Her English is heavily accented. Greek or maybe Romanian. She has shiny black hair and dark brown eyes.
I cannot tell her that she is dead. It would be too cruel. "Ask Luc. He's in charge."
Luc hands out Australian silver coins strung on leather cords. On one side is a woman's head -- Queen Elizabeth of England -- and the date 2010. On the reverse, a recumbent tiger and the words "Year of the Tiger". I recognize the beast. It is the one that is tattooed on the back of my left arm, my mark of slavery.
"Wear these, and no one will give you any trouble," Luc tells the newly risen dead.
We are not alone in the village. Several animal headed people watch us from the shadows. They eye the new arrivals greedily, until they notice the silver coin medallions. They look from Luc to the children and back to Luc again, silently assessing the gunslinger, as if trying to decide whether the battle is worth the prize. One by one, they slink away.
Luc addresses the women and children. "It's gonna feel weird at first. You'll visit strange places. You'll forget where you are and how you got here. Some nasty folks will try to take advantage of you. Most of them will be figments of your imagination. A few of them will be real, like you. They'll tell you this is Hell, and you may be tempted to believe them. But those coins will keep you safe. Take your time. Look around. Find a place where you want to settle down. Don't bother looking for food or water. You don't need it here. Any questions?"
Both women and three of the children raise their hands at once. Each utters some version of the same question. "Is this Heaven?"
Luc considers his answer, before replying "Yeah, more or less."
"Will I see my grandpa here?" asks one little girl.
"Only if he died in a fire. This is heaven for folks that died by fire."
"Where do other people go?"
Luc shrugs. "I dunno. Someplace else."
"Are you an angel?"
He is lying. Luc is most definitely an angel.
Eventually, the dead run out of dumb questions. We leave them in town and return to the starry road. Gino looks like shit, his hair tangled, his white shirt soot darkened and his black pants covered in dust. But his shoes are still so shiny that I can see myself in them.
"Feeling better?" I ask.
"Yes, grazie." This is the old Gino, cool as a cucumber and always polite. Tore was right. Give a man something to do, something usefulto do, and he'll forget to be scared when the world falls apart around him. Impact events happen all the time, but we live through them. We adapt. We survive.
"I left my coat," he says.
"You can imagine a new one."
He closes his eyes. His new coat looks just like mine, except his is black. His shoes change into a pair of boots -- still shiny, of course. His hair shortens until it just reaches his shoulders. The glasses disappear. "Do I look like a cowboy?" he asks.
"Yeah," I lie. He looks like a preacher. An old fashioned western preacher, the kind who reads from the Bible every time a gunman dies.
Camera pull back. Wide angle shot of the preacher, the cowboy and the tiger walking across a field of stars towards the distant red sun.
© 2010 McCamy Taylor
Bio: McCamy Taylor is, of course, Aphelion's reigning Serials / Novellas (fiction longer than 7,500 words) Editor. She is also the author of many stories and articles that have appeared in Aphelion and various other publications too numerous to list here. Her most recent fiction contribution to Aphelion was the story Father Friday Cemetery in the November 2010 issue.
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