Your journey to Hell begins on a ferry. You clutch your ticket and line up in the stinging rain, waiting for your chance to board. You remember something about a river in Hell, and a ferryman, but in your memory, he rowed a boat more like a canoe in exchange for gold coins. You’re lined up to board a ship, a modern ship, the kind that might take you to an island. Your ticket is a simple piece of printed paper, with your destination clearly stated. A hooded man checks it over as you reach the front of the line.
“This your name?” he asks. You check it, see your name clearly printed there, and nod before he waves you onboard.
This ferry, like all of the others you’ve been on, is full of tourists. The man in front of you wears a t-shirt that says “Boston” in plain print, and you’re not sure if it’s the city or the band. You take a seat on the aisle. The woman across from you is clutching tight to her selfie stick.
The ferry pulls away from the dock smoothly, and for a few moments everything seems normal. Almost mundane. Then the water around you gets rough and soon the ferry is pitching up and down violently. The man next to you lets out a groan, his face pale and shiny with perspiration. The woman across the aisle bends over and heaves. Soon the cabin is filled with the sounds and smells of vomiting. With each new heave, and each new splatter, you grow more nauseated and more nauseated until you’re practically begging for the puke to come. But it never does.
Somewhere in all the chaos and sick, a baby screams and you wonder what a baby could have done to resign it to Hell. But then you don’t really remember what you did to get there, either. You can’t remember much before getting your ticket. Still, you try to think of it, if only to distract yourself from all the vomiting.
The journey goes on for some time.
• • • •
You reach solid ground, or what you feel must be solid ground, after what must have been several lifetimes and, while you’re grateful, even happy, to be off the ferry, its abominable stink still haunts you, like some kind of olfactory ghost. The tourists file out along the dock, shuffling slowly up a long road that curves around a mountain. Atop the mountain stands a structure—a tower, maybe, or a castle. Possibly a fort. Growing up, everyone seemed to think that Hell was below you, but you don’t seem to be underground. There is a sky here, though you haven’t seen the sun since you boarded the ferry. It’s not night, but more like a permanently cloudy day, the sky filled with a sickly gray fog that never clears. A cold wind blows all around you, and you can never seem to stop it from getting in the neck of your jacket or your sleeves. Your eyes are always watery, though whether that’s from the wind or the fact that you’re in Hell, you’re not sure.
The man in front of you protests that he doesn’t belong here, but you know you do, even if you don’t remember why. He turns to you, his expression desperate. “We could fight,” he says. You nod, not meaning it, and you recall that you did the same once before, though the details aren’t clear. It’s part of the reason you’re here, part of the reason you won’t fight.
Your gaze is drawn back to the castle, which is made entirely of black rock, fires burning atop its walls. You wonder if that’s where the devil lives. Satan. Or Lucifer. A friend of yours once told you that Lucifer means “Lightbringer,” but if so, he must have forgotten how to do that a long time ago.
You forgot how to do that a long time ago, too.
• • • •
All around the mountain are massive stone walls, all of the same black rock the castle is made of. You expect a pattern, but the more you stare at them, the more they look like some kind of labyrinth, an immense maze that would take years to navigate. You wonder if it’s a deterrent to escape, or maybe a punishment, where people are put to wander for eternity.
You wonder what other torments they have here. You seem to recall stories of torture and burning, demons with whips and fire, a man endlessly pushing a rock up a hill. It somehow seems better than the labyrinth. You’ve lived on Earth, after all. You know a little something of torture.
The closer you get to the castle, the slower the line gets. Soon you’re just inching forward as the erratic weather buffets you — first wet, windy, stinging cold, then, as the clouds part, an overbearing sun that you can never quite see but which bastes you all the same.
When you finally reach the grounds outside the castle, you’re grateful for the pause from the shuffle and from the constant muttered complaints of the people around you. A harried-looking man with dark bags under his eyes holds his hand out. “Ticket.”
You fish in your pockets and pull out your ferry ticket and show it to him. He scans it closely before handing it back to you. You tuck it back in your pocket.
“Digger,” the man barks, and a tired-looking woman with frizzy hair and a loose, gray dress hands you a shovel. It looks like every other shovel you’ve ever seen. They put you in another line, this one made up entirely of people holding shovels. And you shuffle away again.
• • • •
You spend your days in Hell digging. You dig in biting rain and sweltering heat. You dig big holes and small holes and no one ever tells you what they’re for. Sometimes others join you, but their faces blend together and fade in and out with the heat and the haze.
At times you dig so deep that it takes you hours to climb back out again. You’re rarely helped on these occasions, and when you are, it’s only because the other person needs you as much as you need them. The bright relief you feel at cresting the hole’s edge, at emerging from the darkness, is quickly doused by the unbearable sun or the damnable rain.
They move you through the landscape, through the colossal labyrinth of walled-in fields. At first you think you’re digging somewhere new every day, but after weeks, maybe even months, you start to feel like you’re treading familiar ground. The fields never look any different. They never bear the scars of previous digging, but it’s hard to believe they’re all fresh. You could swear you saw the castle from this angle before, or that one. But every day there’s fresh ground to dig.
There is one woman you remember, a frail little thing, almost the hint of a person. She told you a story about another digger, who dug so fast and so far that she dug her way out of Hell. You think of that a lot, as you sweat and strain, stabbing the earth with your shovel, heaving it out of the hole. But no matter how deep you go, it’s never enough.
Sometimes, though, you remember someone else, a splotch of a man with a gray, breathy voice. He warned you once that the best torments are laced with the silver drops of hope. You hope you will remember it tomorrow.
• • • •
You rarely dream in Hell. On the rare occasions that you do, you see one of two faces. The first is a serious man with a stern, respectable face. He often stares at you, expectantly. You don’t know why, but you feel like underneath that face are secrets that shift and contort like the expressions on a clown.
The other face is a woman. She smiles a lot. She seems kind. Looking at her is like being inside a hug. Most of the time you just dream that you’re there, with her, and that her presence is enveloping you, a calm bubble in a violent storm. But every so often, she changes, her skin almost melting, her hair falling out, and you see pain bleeding out behind the shining eyes and kindly smile.
• • • •
You continue to dig and continue to get nowhere. Time has become a treacherous master. The days that you dig, the hours stretch on and on, a trickle of sweat moving with ice-age slowness, the drip at its end threatening to drop for hours. Yet the days somehow blend together in your memory, decades, even centuries of them smearing together in a greasy, hazy paste.
It feels like a fever that never ends.
At the thought, you experience a memory of being young, and sick. Your mother sits at your side, concern on her face, as she lays a cool, wet towel on your head. A simple act of love and care and comfort, but the memory, and the longing it provokes, are agony to you in that place.
Then the memory changes, shifts perspective. Now you are the one with the soothing wet towel, and she lies in the bed, grimacing in pain. And you remember what it’s like to watch someone waste away.
• • • •
Every so often, they give you a break. Someone comes, not a digger, dressed in unstained clothes, and a smooth, cool hand reaches down to grab your dirty, cracked, calloused one and pulls you out of the hole. They bring you to a small tent on the edge of the field, where you are sheltered from the sun or the rain and they hand you a cool glass of water which tastes clean and refreshing. At first you are grateful: this is a blessing, in Hell of all places. But after the third time, all you can think about is how short a time they give you away from the holes, how each second is pissing away before they come to take the glass and toss you back out into the labyrinth of fields and holes.
• • • •
One day, in that dreary haze of days, you pass another group of diggers. They’re gray people in a gray landscape, like always, but one of them attracts your attention. As you stare at the man, you recognize him as the man from your dreams, with the stern, serious face. Somehow his presence crystallizes your memory and you know him to be your father. You can picture his face fading in and out of your past, hear his voice as it admonishes you, or advises you, or in those few, rare expressions of pride and approval.
But one memory shakes loose from the rest and comes alive in your mind. He sits next to you in the doctor’s office. Another person might be turned toward you, or leaning in your direction, an outward sign of shared grief, but he is apart, in his own space, as he always is. He doesn’t react when the doctor tells you that your mother’s cancer has spread to her brain, taking it in with a clinical detachment. He is a doctor, after all, the reason you are both here and your mother isn’t, a so-called professional courtesy.
“We can install a shunt to help drain off the excess cerebrospinal fluid, and give her radiation, but the chances of success are low.”
You think of the procedures and the hospital visits, the torment added to your mother’s already palpable misery, and think it’s all too much. So when your father says that he doesn’t want to put her through that, you feel relief. “But we’re not going to tell her,” he says.
So when you go home to your mother, and hold her hand and help give her her medicine, and she says, “We’re going to fight this,” you just nod and swallow down the guilt and shame in the knowledge that it’s a lie. And every day after that, until the day of her death, a little part of you twists and contorts, knowing that you’re not telling her the truth, knowing that you’re not giving her a choice for her own life, or her own death, until you are filled with blackened and gnarled bramble.
You remember, now, why you are here. Why you both are here.
You stare at this gray stain of a man, a man whose color was crushed out of him long ago, like juice from a fruit. He looks up at you, those once bright eyes dull and tired. A pathetic man. A mere clog of dirt in the machinery of Hell. And you know what you must do.
“I forgive you,” you say at him, and you know it’s true.
He squints up at you, and nods. You walk away.
“It won’t do any good,” one of the others says. “It’s not like he’s going to be able to leave now just because you said it.”
You know that to be true, too. You know saying the words wasn’t powerful, but it felt important. But just because something feels a certain way, doesn’t mean that it is.
• • • •
Time passes. You dig and burn under the brutal sun. You dig and freeze in the blistering wind. Some days you forget who you are, but when you remember, you pull out the ticket that you keep in your pocket read your name there. On this particular day, the person next to you grabs your arm. You turn to look at them. They resemble a photograph that’s been left in the sun too long. “What’s that?” they ask.
“It’s my ticket,” you say, and you hold it out to them.
They seem to peer at it for a long time and then look back to you. “This is you? This is your name?”
“It says here that you bought this ticket,” they are saying, but your mind is already slipping away. Your eyes find the next field you have to dig. You pull the ticket back from the person and tuck it back into your pocket.
“It’s a round trip!” they yell.
But you’ve already forgotten what they were talking about. There are more fields to dig. There will always be more fields. You’re in Hell, after all.
You pick up your shovel, get ready to dig, and shuffle off into the gray.