by Donna Farley
There was a boy who made an unintentional visit to Hell. When he finally got home, he was not supposed to remember the story of his trip — people usually don't — but in fact he even remembered parts of the story he should not have known, himself. Perhaps the story itself will explain why.
First of all, you must remember that Hell is a garbage dump — the ancient Jews called it Gehenna, after the dump outside Jerusalem, where spontaneous combustion and maggots and unseen bacteria combined to send up a stench you could smell for miles around. The spiritual Gehenna is that compartment of the Underworld where the human garbage ends up.
Who takes it there? The haulers in their trucks — angels, in other words, who according to treaty between Heaven and Hell dump the damned souls into the place where the demons can gloat over them, like misers over a heap of gold. Don't tell me angels have no bodies or don't drive trucks — yes, they're spirits, but they are anything but insubstantial.
At the story's beginning, a hauler in his truck had just pulled through the gates of Gehenna. The gatekeeper on duty rubbed his hands together and said, "Garbage Day again at last, eh?"
Some haulers would reply, "Well, it's Friday, isn't it?" But this one just glared, silent as a rock.
The gatekeeper obviously didn't like the hauler's clean features and clean clothes and clean eyes. Of course the haulers were all like that, but this hauler knew his refusal to talk scared the gatekeeper. (If you are thinking of a Christmas-tree angel with tinsel hair and a Victorian lace gown and gently lidded eyes, you will have it all wrong. If you think of Arnold Schwarzenegger, you will be pretty close to the reality.)
"What've you got, then, asshole?" the gatekeeper said.
The hauler hated the gatekeeper's pendulous belly and rotten teeth as much as the gatekeeper hated him. The difference was, the hauler wasn't afraid. He put his truck in gear and swung it around the corner and down to where the garbage scow was waiting. Every time he came here, the burning mountain of refuse towered higher, until now its pinnacle was out of sight in the empty space whose roof was some place unlocatable; yet the steaming, acid lake never completely clogged, and the barge was always empty and ready to ferry another load out.
The hauler backed up to the scow and dumped his load. The garbage should have slid off his mind as easily as the silk gown off a bride on her wedding night, but today something wasn't right, he could feel it. There was something in the load that didn't belong here.
Other days, he left the scene more like a bat than an angel. For the lone gatekeeper he mostly had contempt, but he abhorred the hideous, everchanging tableau of the dump — today, for instance, piled round the base of the mountain of trash, were what looked like the hollow and mutilated remains of plaster mannequins, their noses chipped and their lipstick faded. Appropriate enough for prostitutes without hearts of gold, but still enough like the Divine Image to make him shudder.
But today he couldn't ignore the feeling that something worthwhile had fallen into the truck with the offal. It did happen occasionally. He got out of the cab again and watched the gatekeeper squatting toadlike to paw through his treasure.
Suddenly the gatekeeper straightened up and looked suspiciously at the hauler. "This is only the first load, of course?"
The hauler's throat tightened. "Yes."
Relieved, the gatekeeper squatted down again. He poked through the refuse, then cackled, sifting a mass of dark, damp grit through his fingers. "The coffee grounds of an old man's soul. We get a lot more of these than we used to." He fixed a taunting eye on the hauler.
The hauler shrugged. "They live longer now."
"Ha," said the gatekeeper. "You just don't want to admit our people have done so well at getting them to avoid thinking about death, even when they're in the very act of dying."
Never debate, the hauler reminded himself. It was the first and most important rule. He could not afford to be distracted, if there really was something valuable in the load. But he would have liked to say, That's all you know. It just looks old. It used to be a thirty-six-year-old unemployed machinist. That kind of oldness is all in the attitude.
The gatekeeper's long red tongue stabbed out to taste the grounds, then smiling he brushed them from his hands and dug into the pile of refuse on the boat again. "Look at that!" This time he brought out what looked like a chicken bone with a few shrivelled shreds of flesh still attached. "One of those teenaged sluts who thinks she's a persecuted intellectual, I bet — you know the type, parents never suspect she's screwing half the high school, one way or another. A lot of them manage to avoid the garbage bin, though. Wonder what she did to finally — "
"Don't bother asking," the hauler said coolly. The gatekeeper knew it was none of his business. But the hauler was sorry the foul little garbage fly had guessed so much. The hauler knew the chicken bone had been a suicide.
"Oh, well — " The gatekeeper cracked the bone between his teeth, and it let out a sudden high-pitched wail. He sucked out the marrow and tossed the splintered remains out into the hissing lake.
The hauler had braced himself, but still he felt the scream like a shot of pain in his chest, and he became acutely aware of the weapon resting against his rib cage, concealed under his white jacket. He wasn't supposed to need to use it here; this was a simple delivery job, covered by the treaty. A sudden gust of hot air off the lake blew its putrid stench into his nostrils, and he choked.
The gatekeeper guffawed. "I've heard some say it smells like the insides of a schizophrenic's mind."
It did, and it wasn't the first time the hauler had caught a good whiff of it. "Hurry up and count your booty."
This was the wrong thing to say to the gatekeeper, and the hauler knew it as soon as the words were out. For some time the gatekeeper sifted through the piles of assorted souls — businessmen and labor leaders, their consciences in shreds, all tangled together like unwound audiotape; globs of amorphous, marshmallow soft stuff that might once have been suburban housewives; a number of cockroaches who had undoubtedly been hypocritical clergymen.
"Well, maybe for once you haven't cheated us," the gatekeeper said grudgingly. He plowed through the garbage to the helm and revved up the engine.
The hauler jumped on behind him. "I believe I'll come along for the ride."
"You can't do that!" said the gatekeeper.
"Sure I can." There was nothing in the treaty against it, if the he was crazy enough to come this deep into enemy territory alone. He hoped the gatekeeper might run and ring the gong for defense forces, to try to bully the hauler into leaving, which would give him a chance to search for the treasure, and maybe get away with it before the troops came.
But the gatekeeper seemed to suspect what he was after. Scowling, he opened the throttle, and the garbage boat pulled away from the shore.
Another lungful of the sulphurous fumes that belched from the lake set the hauler hacking again. Over the sound of his own coughs he could hear the gatekeeper snorting with laughter. The hauler fell to his knees, pretending still to be suffering, and surreptitiously searched the boat with his eyes. One of the souls here somewhere was not quite what it seemed — encrusted with evil, perhaps, but at its core it was redeemable.
But the damned souls howled as the searching light of his eyes fell on them. The gatekeeper cut the motor.
"Here, what the hell are you doing?" he snarled.
"No rule says I can't Look," said the hauler, standing again.
The gatekeeper's curses hit him like poison darts, slowing his reflexes. "Take care," said the hauler. "I can Look at you, too."
The stream of curses slowed to a trickle, and the gatekeeper's eyes narrowed. Then he said, "Screw this game. What are you after?"
"I don't know exactly," said the hauler.
"Well, you can't have it, whatever it is, so you might as well go back."
The hauler folded his arms. "You would save yourself a lot of trouble if you just let me take it."
The gatekeeper hooted at him. "Think so, mate? It's my job to stop you from doing whatever it is you want to do. Think I want to face the music if you take your treasure back, after we already got it through the gates here?"
"You wouldn't know what to do with it if you found it." It was a brave boast, but the hauler could only hope that it was a true one. He defied the gatekeeper, and turned his Look once more on the load of refuse. While the shrieks of the damned rose about him, he pored over their pitiful lives, searching for the one that wasn't quite worm-eaten at the center.
He found it. It was buried in the heap of spiritual garbage under the gatekeeper's feet.
The things that had once been human psyches still howled and whimpered under his gaze, but inside one that looked like a ball of crumpled, greasy aluminum foil, a rough diamond glowed dimly, the smallest particle of lifelight still struggling there in its heart.
And now we've met the boy who shouldn't remember this story. The hauler recognized this treasure — a fourteen-year-old from an alcoholic family, who had recently joined a street gang. When the hauler had picked this soul up at a hospital at the other end, it had been slipping out of its body through a knife wound.
But before he could reach for it now, the gatekeeper realized the location of the prize. With a wild crow he dove to scrabble at his feet for the treasure.
The hauler waited. Finally, the gatekeeper stood up, his arms full of debris and his hideous grin twisted into a still more hideous frown. "Which?"
The hauler folded his arms again, this time tucking one hand inside his jacket, ready to reach for his sheathed blade. "Just give me the whole load; you can have your dregs back when I have the one I want."
The gatekeeper snarled. "Who do you think you are? Draw that blade, and you're a treaty-breaker!"
"My side will back me up."
For a moment the gatekeeper hung in indecision, fear and greed and more fear fighting a three-cornered battle across his ugly face. Then suddenly bellowing a curse that threatened to singe the hauler's hair, he heaved his armful of trash over the side and leapt again to the helm of the barge.
The hauler took the curse in the face; it was so potent as to momentarily blind him. But he did not hesitate, and while the gatekeeper was busy with his controls, the hauler stepped to the edge of the barge and plunged into the lake. The black molten ooze closed possessively over his head.
His searchlight eyes swept the area beneath him; the wadded-up soul might have looked like lightweight aluminum, but its heaviness had already pulled it below the range of his sight. There was a bottom somewhere, but....The hauler kicked and stroked downward. He could go without breathing for a long time, if need be, though it would be painful. But if he didn't find the treasure quickly, the gatekeeper would have all the hounds of hell breathing down his neck.
His jacket quickly burnt to ashes in the acid liquid, and the heat of the boiling black lake began to melt him, too. His weapon, like the clothing, was an extension of his own substance. Now he reabsorbed the blade into himself; even so he knew that before long, he would be reduced to a thin and helpless stick figure, and they would get him. They might hold him a long time before making a prisoner exchange. It went without saying that they would torture him every moment of his captivity.
He kept swimming until the treasure came in sight, its foul exterior burnt away by the lake. He tried to quicken his pace, but he was losing substance, and it was a long time before he could reach out his fingers, reduced nearly to wire-thinness, and grasp the prize.
He clutched it to him, and let himself drift upwards to face whatever hounds and harpies came in search of them. He used some of his meagre substance to grow a pocket in his chest, and folded the treasure protectively into it.
The little soul was now within the hauler, a part of him, and perhaps that explains how the boy later could relate the whole story. The hauler could sense the boy was thoroughly terrified, helpless in his gem-like form. Yet most of the dross was gone; no-one now could mistake him for a hell-bound soul. His lifelight had grown stronger, and the hauler was determined to take him back to his body.
He was going to need his weapon, he was sure, to fight his way to the truck. The truck too was an extension of his personal power, and however debilitated he became, if he could only reach it, he would have a chance. He drifted a moment, resting, then pulled a rib out of his emaciated side, moulding it by pure will into a blade of blinding light.
The gatekeeper meanwhile had set the gong clanging, and when the reinforcements arrived, they quarrelled, as is usual in hell, and spat and accused each other for some time before taking any action. It gave the hauler time to crawl onto some floating debris where he could lie possum and peer toward the enemy.
He saw them swarming like ants, not only on the shore, but all over the garbage scow between him and the truck. All shapes and sizes, yet with a dim sameness about their faces, faces with the singleminded purpose of a regiment of crocodiles. One tall skinny one whose voice combined haughty words and whines, sandwiched between barks and growls, stood shaking a finger in the gatekeeper's face. The others yammered and laughed as they watched. The gatekeeper snarled, and bit the skinny one's finger off.
The skinny one gave a yowl, and the others whooped with laughter. The skinny one put a boot between the gatekeeper's legs, where his genitals would have been, if he had been a creature of mortal flesh. It was a tender enough spot nevertheless, and the gatekeeper fell over, screaming.
The hauler watched the ensuing free-for-all, discouraged. The damage the demons were doing each other was all very well, but they were still in his way, and he could not possibly escape without their noticing. Worse, their numbers were increasing; they dropped from above on obscene, membranous wings from some secret nest in the endless overhanging gloom, and spewed forth from the cave mouths that pockmarked the cliff face beyond the gatekeeper's house. He was alone in enemy territory, with no more hope of assistance than possibly a couple more haulers bringing their loads to the dump sometime today.
The boy's penitent soul pulsed in the hauler's bosom like a heart — he had no such organ himself. Nor had he any stomach, but his revulsion at the floating spiritual detritus he clung to was very much akin to nausea.
And there was the answer to his dilemma — staring him in the face, crawling on his skin, and stinking in his nostrils. To replenish his dwindled mass, he needed raw material, and the damned souls were the only material available. In unlimited supply.
With wry humour he noticed that this revelation did not make him feel like shooting up praises to Heaven like skyrockets. That was a bad sign, meaning he was already becoming infected with the spiritual diseases that swarmed in the dump. And to accomplish his goal, he would have to voluntarily wallow in the foul remains of disintegrated personalities — to actually absorb into himself the bitter, poisonous souls of radical feminists and white supremacists, the revolting blandness of lukewarm religious men, the black sludge of wife-beaters and child-molesters. For the first time he could remember since the Infernal rebellion itself, he knew fear.
And the boy — what would it do to him? His sad little soul was the whole point of this exercise. Reluctantly, the hauler reabsorbed his weapon once again, wrapping its substance, the bulk of his own celestial purity, like armour around the treasure to protect it from the baneful influence of the damned.
Then he plunged his arms into the floating tangle of garbage, embracing all the decay and putridness of it and making it part of himself.
The souls screamed at his touch, as they had at his Look, but the denizens of hell were still squabbling and drowned the cries with their own racket. He sank ever deeper into the clump of floating trash, and became the mind that guided it. He had the will to propel it across the acid lake, even while the liquid ate away at its underbelly, toward the towering mountain that was the main refuse heap of Gehenna, for there he sought more souls to increase his substance. To face so many of the hordes of hell, he would have to become a veritable monster.
He saw suddenly in the garbage heap what he had not seen before, that it was an Infernal copy or reflection of the tower of Babel. Its purpose was to scale the impassible emptiness between hell and Heaven, to bring damnation to the very Celestial gates!
It would be impossible to describe the hauler's rage at this blasphemy. There is nothing more pure than a pure and righteous anger, but it is not something any human soul has ever experienced. Such anger burns more white-hot than any of hell's own vaunted flames, and the souls the hauler had taken into himself shrieked as if scalded by his simple feeling. Only God knows whether it hurt them more than it hurt the hauler.
His own substance grew weaker as he absorbed more and more of the the trash piled at the foot of the mountain. But what little remained of his own mass he consolidated around the treasure soul. Still he ate into the garbage heap with sheer force of will, making of the damned souls a vast and fierce exoskeleton with which to plough his way past the hellions to his truck. At last the thing he had made of himself reared up on pseudopods like a giant amoeba, like a radioactive swamp-creature in a bad sci-fi movie. And it gave a heave to the tower of refuse piled on its shoulders, and the precariously balanced garbage heap came to pieces, raining damned souls all over the lake of Gehenna.
The hauler waded in to shore, where the infernal troops were screaming and milling about in confusion, some of them ducking back down the tunnels in the cliff as the trash fell all around. Some were scrambling over his truck to get off the garbage scow; the hauler swept them away like flies with a gigantic appendage built of what looked like rusty pipes and concrete blocks. The demons fled in terror.
He was too big to get in the truck now. He began to shed some of the outer layers of dead souls, which whimpered in relief as he sloughed them off. It took time, though, and although the enemy had retreated, he saw baleful eyes watching from the gatekeeper's house as he stripped down to something approximating his normal size. Fearing a renewed attack, he decided not to cast off the rest of his trash-body until he was through the gate.
Quickly he pulled the truck away from the scow and barrelled toward the gate, head down and thinking only of the open road beyond.
The truck blasted between the gateposts, but then something strange happened. As if a giant rubber band were stretched across the gateway, the truck slowly lost momentum, then snapped backward inside the gate again, landing with a thump. The hauler stared at the open gate, dazed, and a fit of raucous demonic laughter issued from the gatekeeper's house.
The damned souls! They could not pass the gate, and as long as they were part of him, neither could he. He jumped out of the cab, and began peeling them off of him like leeches. Gradually the gatekeeper's cronies crept out of their hiding places toward him, grinning wider as their numbers grew.
He clawed a scummy soul off his chest and dipped into his chest pocket to pull out the boy's soul. This got the demons excited, but as they drew nearer, the hauler pulled a fender off the truck and shaped it into a weapon. They backed off, hissing at him.
He tossed the gem into the cab of the truck. The truck was his substance, but it needed a mind to move it. All right; it would have the boy's mind. Keeping his weapon aimed at the enemy, he used his free hand to embed the boy's soul in the front seat of the truck and mould a rough body. The face took on expression of its own, and the young former gang member's out-of-body experience suddenly acquired sensation and substance.
"Oh, Jesus," said the boy, staring wide-eyed at the hauler. "What the hell are you?"
"Watch how you use those words," said the hauler.
The boy's face paled.
"Don't be afraid," said the hauler. It was the standard greeting to mortals, though he'd seldom had cause to use it before. "The truck is yours, for now. All you need is your will to start it, and a little faith for fuel. Just steer it straight out the gate. There should be another truck along soon, the driver will help you get home. Only don't look back, okay?"
A demon leapt in at the opposite window. The boy screamed, and the hauler threw his blade across the cab at the hellion. It evaporated with a rotten-egg stink, shrieking loudly. The other demons backed a few paces further away from the truck.
"Get that for me, will you?" he said calmly, pointing to the blade that lay on the seat. The boy picked it up and handed it back, swallowing as he stared at the hauler's face.
What the boy saw was a disfigured being whose flesh seemed to be composed of old tea bags, dog crap, vegetable parings and mouldy cottage cheese. The being kept shaking loose gobbets of his body, like a well-decayed zombie. Someone slipped me some drugs, thought the boy. All the other mess I was in, I never went for drugs. I don't remember. I thought somebody stabbed me....
"Get going!" the hauler yelled at the stunned boy. A demon landed on the roof of the truck with a thump, and the hauler clubbed him off with a monstrous arm. The boy revved up the truck and drove it out through the gate. The hellions closed in on the hauler.
The boy did as he was told and didn't look back, but when afterward he found himself back in the hospital, he remembered what he could not himself have seen. The hauler stood firmly before the advancing hordes. He smiled and turned his self-forged blade on himself, peeling off the last layers of trash and stood waiting for them, spindly and weak but proudly naked.
The boy grew up to be a Salvation Army officer who specialized in getting street youth out of scrapes potentially as dangerous as the one he had been in himself. He got the nickname "Captain Angel." How great an honour he felt it to be, no-one on earth ever learned.
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