Content note: this work of original fiction includes depictions of hell and associated tortures, inspired by the Inferno.
“The most important thing you need to understand is what omniscience is,” the tree says in an urgent whisper. “He knows when every sparrow dies. He knows how many hairs are on anyone’s head. It’s knowledge. It’s not thinking.”
I would answer but I’m a little busy desperately trying to catch my breath as quietly as possible, curled up small behind the tree. If I did answer it’d be to ask how that can be more important than—hm, no, actually it’d be to ask how anything at all can be important to the damned.
“The reason that matters is that we might be able to outsmart him. He doesn’t think so—if he thought so, he wouldn’t let us try—but he might be wrong.”
I’ve caught my breath a bit and I dare to risk the quietest whisper I can manage. “Isn’t he omnipotent?”
“Yes,” says the tree, “but bound by—shit. Run.”
I run. The forest of the seventh circle of hell is a terrible place to run, all gnarled roots poking out of uneven ground, but I’m sure on my feet and I’m getting used to it. This time I make it three minutes before the hounds of hell catch me. (I count the time by remembering songs. I’ll probably never sing out loud again, of course—I’m too out of breath all the time—and I probably deserve it, but I have my imagination and I know how long Carol of the Bells is.)
I tell you about the songs because I don’t really want to tell you what happens next. Suffice it to say the hounds get bored when I stop screaming. While they go after someone else, I look for a better hiding place. There aren’t any good bushes to hide in, and anyway that doesn’t work (well, I haven’t tried it, but it didn’t work in Dante’s Inferno). I see a hellhound look up from someone else and turn toward me and I don’t even know which direction to run in.
So I don’t. I sit down, hands over my head. That’s not a clever gambit; I just don’t know what else to do. The hellhound, of course, has no trouble finding stationary, despondent prey.
I lie there, intermittently being played with by dogs, and I go through Carol of the Bells and Scarborough Fair and This Land Is Your Land and Love is Just A Four Letter Word and Sweet Sir Galahad and then I run out of songs besides the ones that I always used to turn to for comfort. I can’t help myself, or maybe that’s just what I tell myself. Maybe that’s just what I’ve always told myself. Next I go through Nearer My God To Thee and Jacob’s Ladder and Amazing Grace. I don’t feel comforted but it’s like I can’t stop myself, and anyway, I need some way to keep time. I start in on Jesus Loves The Little Children and halfway through it hits me that if he loved them so damn much he could’ve killed them all before they were old enough for hell.
I stop counting time after that. I don’t know how long after that I spend wrestling with the problem of evil. I always kind of thought that was silly, before—I mean, I didn’t want to die and didn’t know anyone who did, so even if we weren’t spoiled with everything we could possibly have asked for I figured humanity was doing pretty well. I personally felt showered in blessings I didn’t deserve and could never deserve. The idea that a loving god couldn’t have created me never really resonated before. And now, getting what I deserve, I—well, I do deserve it, or I wouldn’t be here. But I don’t understand why I was allowed to exist at all, if this was what would become of me.
The thing that snaps me out of my reverie is that I turn my head while the hellhounds are ignoring me and I notice the harpies. There are some of them eating the leaves off the top of the nearest tree, and I vaguely remember that the Inferno says that hurts the trees. I get up. I run. I climb a tree. I scare the harpies off.
The tree sighs. “Thank you,” she says.
“Welcome,” I pant. I wonder if I can just stay up here, out of reach of the dogs, protecting the tree. I spend a while catching my breath before I say anything else. “Is this like the story about the spoons?”
“I don’t know that story. Will you tell me?”
“Someone saw a vision of hell. There was a huge feast and everyone at it was starving, because their arms had become all distorted and wrong, so they couldn’t reach their mouths. Then they saw a vision of heaven, and it was all the same, but the people were feeding each other. I was just thinking, since I’m up here out of reach of the dogs…”
“You must be new.”
I’m about to ask why when I notice one of the hellhounds running toward the tree. I stick my tongue out, and then nearly bite it in surprise as the hellhound simply runs up the trunk.
When the hound is done with me, I climb the tree again and chase the harpies away again. I ask that tree for her name, which is Iuni, and for a story.
It takes a long time—I lose count of the number of times I climb Iuni and chase the harpies away—for Iuni to tell me the story of Inanna descending into the underworld. Distantly, I notice that it’s cool to hear a new (old?) version of it, but I can’t quite bring myself to enjoy it.
Then one of the hellhounds catches me and refuses to go farther than a few feet away, waiting for me to be worth chasing again. I leave Iuni then, hoping I can shake the hellhound and find another tree to chase the harpies off.
I go through ten or twelve trees after that. One of them tells me not to worry about the harpies; he thinks it feels nice, being eaten. I laugh, mostly just because it’s so startling to hear that anyone likes anything anymore, and I leave his harpies alone.
Then I end up back at the first tree who spoke to me. I don’t recognize them at first, but I climb them and chase the harpies off.
“Kind of you,” the tree says. I recognize the voice. And now that I think about it, I recognize the shape.
“You said we could beat him,” I say. “How?”
“Outsmart him or give him what he wants. Up in Limbo they’re working on artificial intelligence that might be able to outsmart him. I think he’s letting them because he thinks the AI will just announce that God never makes mistakes and this will only magnify his glory. There’s a team of poets trying to think how people not being tortured could be part of a narrative that shows him off in a good light—what he’d think of as a good light, that is.”
“How could it possibly not?”
“Because—look out, a dog.”
I jump out of the tree. I run. I keep ahead of the hellhound for a while this time (I don’t start with the songs immediately and I do get all the way through If I Knew), until I run into a different one I didn’t see behind a tree.
Eventually, in my travels, I discover the edges of the woods. The way out—the way leading to the higher circles, with what are ostensibly lesser punishments—is guarded, besides being up a steep slope and past a boiling river. But the other way isn’t. There’s nothing that way but a vast plain where it rains fire, and beyond that the rest of hell, but it isn’t guarded. The hellhounds never bother the people on the plain where it rains fire, either. I’m not convinced I’d enjoy that any more than the woods—actually, the woods are sort of charming, aside from all of the ways they’re thoroughly horrible—but I’ve seen the woods and I haven’t seen the plain yet, so one day I run far enough to cross the border and lose the dogs tailing me.
I fall to my knees a few steps later. It burns like—well, I want to say it burns like hell. I guess that’s true; it burns like hell. In five minutes I’m nearly as thoroughly sick of it as I am of the forest. But even if it’s worse, even if the forest is the best place I’ll ever be for the rest of eternity, I do want to see whatever else I can, at least once.
And that is why, eventually, I make it all the way down, past a landscape that would put Junji Ito to shame, and reach the icy lowest circle. It’s so frozen down there that my throat stings and my feet quickly pass all the way through agony and come out the other side. My hands don’t stop burning even when I breathe on them. I feel ice forming inside my nose.
“Huh,” I say, shivery and out of breath and unable to think of anything that isn’t inane and stupid. “And here I thought I had it on good authority that we’d’ve cured cancer if this happened.”
I walk—and sometimes slip and fall—past people frozen in the ice, on display like artifacts behind museum glass. I wonder if they can see me, or if they’re unconscious, frozen like that. I guess it’s probably better if they are.
And then I come face to face with one last devil, frozen up to the waist and using his multiple mouths to gnaw on three different people at once. It’s probably Satan himself, given the overall accuracy of the Inferno so far. I stand and stare.
Satan watches me back. I don’t know how long we spend looking at each other. I definitely do not think of any songs during that time.
Then he takes one of his prisoners out of one of his mouths and speaks. “What brings you here?”
“Um,” I say. “My sins, I guess. Are you… who I think you are?”
“I am not reading your mind and don’t know who you think I am. I am he who rebelled against the one who consigned us both to this fate. I am an enemy of he who would condemn you.”
Am I supposed to think he’ll help me? Will he help? Is he on our side, insofar as we have a unified side, all of us here who are victims of God? “You are literally chewing on people,” I say.
“Do you imagine that if I didn’t use it for torture I’d be permitted any freedom of movement at all? That I wouldn’t be encased completely in ice like those you passed on the way here? I couldn’t speak to you if I wouldn’t do at least this much of what he asks of me.”
“He asks—wow. Just wow.”
“I hate him.”
“I do too. I tried to ask someone else what we could do about that but the dogs are a lot worse for conversations than the cold so I didn’t get much of an answer.”
“You can’t. First of all, no one can, because he is all-powerful and everything we try will fail in such a way as to make it clearer to everyone that he’s the most powerful being in the universe. He only lets us try anything because he likes showing off. And second, the people who can try things are the people up in Limbo, with access to every material good they want. They can try to align an artificial intelligence to outsmart the Almighty, because they have access to computers. They can try to convince him that universal salvation would make him seem more awesome, because they have time when they’re not in pain and not distracted and don’t need to run away from anything, so they can think deep thoughts. You can’t.”
I think about that for a while. I’m inclined to think any enemy of God is a friend of mine, but then I imagine telling myself-before-I-died that Satan told me to give up and—it would’ve sounded different to me then.
It might also be what I’m in for. For not thinking I had a future worth investing in. For being careless. For treating my life like it was disposable.
Which it was. There’s the rub. All this stuff is true and I already know it. I don’t have to wonder if Satan is saying this because he’s evil. It’s not news to me.
“Does it make things worse when we fail?”
“He likes it,” Satan says.
“But aside from that, does it hurt us? Or is trying harmless at worst?” I don’t even know, when I ask, which answer I want. Whether I want an excuse to give up, or a reason to keep going.
“I think you have to answer that for yourself. What do you still have to lose, and what else could you do with it?”
I don’t have anything—no, that’s not true. I can talk to people. I can climb trees. I have so little I can’t stand it, and more than all the people I passed on my way here. I don’t want to risk that; I don’t want to risk making things worse, not just for the rest of my natural life or anything as trivial as that, but for eternity. And yet, on the other hand, if I did make a difference—if, because of me, they did somehow defeat God—then I wouldn’t be tortured anymore, and that reprieve would also last forever.
The future is huge. I don’t know how to deal with that. I think about just doing whatever Satan suggests, and then I imagine telling myself-last-year that I was considering that, and then I decide not to go with that plan. But I don’t know how to make this choice. I don’t know how to weigh infinity against infinity. I don’t know what’s worth doing, when the stakes are this high but the odds are this bad.
And so I—well, I don’t. I just stand there, for long enough that my feet stick to the ice and another layer of flesh comes off when I move, and then I go to my knees, sobbing, because I am one human alone and I do not know how to bear this. I wish I did know. I wish I were going to fix it.
But the truth is, I know I’m not.