Myself, that is Gwyn, my grandson, also Gwyn, and an old and dear friend, Michelle Conde, were in Khamal's Hollow amid the worms and the serpents and the burning wastes of same looking for something to do. Michelle said, "Gwyn,..." as she was eaten by a worm and we, not knowing to which Gwyn she was speaking, both waited for her to reassemble in the filth below. When she didn't Gwyn shrugged and his left arm fell off.
I said, "Gwyn, you've lost your arm."
Gwyn answered, "I'll give you even odds on war between Turkey and Russia before 1880."
I knew better than to take a bet like that from Gwyn. Besides, it was not polite for him to ignore me. I repeated, "Gwyn, you've lost your arm."
He answered, "I know that, Grandpa, what about the bet?"
"I'll bet you three years it's before 1975."
"It's a deal." I shook his remaining hand.
The only way to find out what year it was was to find a newly damned soul, remember him, wait a century or so until he got used to the place, and ask him when he died. So we headed out towards Assip Gate, where souls come in at a pretty rapid rate. On the way, however, I fell through a pit and it wasn't for some time that I next ran into Gwyn.
He said, "Hey, Gramps, still want that bet?"
"You'll have to make it 1955."
"It hasn't been that long."
We happened to be right near Tennepsit Gate, which guards a tunnel leading up and out, so we swam across Fyentivyanish Lake. Coming to the gate we saw the devil Baeston, and I called out, "O vile one! How's business?"
He looked through me and answered, "It is not good, hopeless one. Since the last soul tasted the first flame of his eternal torment at Tennepsit the Gate a dog has lived his wretched life. But do not pity Baeston the Wise, sinner. I was not created out of the endless chaos to count the scum of the Earth. When the Universe was as young as the Earth is now I was among the first to swear allegiance to the Prince of Darkness. And when we stood proud and free before the Almighty and did battle with his insipid servants..." Gwyn and I had both heard this story far too many times already, but not wishing to anger Baeston and end up thrown half way across Hell we pretended interest and waited for a soul to appear through the gate.
Business was not good, and Baeston was already up to the Battle of the White Plain when Gwyn apparently got tired of waiting and made a dash for the gate (attempting to escape is a common pastime down there). Baeston picked him up with the tip of his sword and threw him across the lake without so much as breaking rhythm, which was to be expected.
After several hours I began to give up hope of Gwyn's making a quick return, but Baeston was nearing the end of his tale and having nothing better to do I decided to hear it through. However, just as he was reaching the climax of the Battle of Michael's Wall at least two dozen souls were spat from the gate, followed immediately by seven streaks of white. Baeston didn't have a chance. The seven streaks of white were seven angels and before I knew what was happening Baeston was reliving in deed what he so loved to relive in word. I didn't see much of the battle, which was mostly flashes of light, because as soon as it started I was in somebody's way and found myself flying over Tennepsit Gate, landing hard on the side of Tennepsit Hill. (If Hell's geography were reasonable the tunnel behind Tennepsit Gate would come out high on the opposite side of Tennepsit Hill, but it isn't and it doesn't.)
When I climbed back over the hill, ending up above the gate, the battle was over and Baeston was nowhere to be seen. There was a sole angel stranding guard, and he had his back to me. The very first thing which came to mind was Abath's Drop. Throughout the millennia many methods of escape have been developed, one of the oldest of which is Abath's Drop. Abath's Drop is simply to drop down from above the gate while its guard is occupied and sneak up the tunnel behind it to wherever it is the tunnel leads. It had never even come close to working, but then neither had anything else. Still, this was an angel, and I doubted if he had any experience guarding a gate. Does anybody ever try to leave Heaven? If so, does anybody stop them? I still don't know the answers to those questions and I wasn't about to spend too much time thinking about it then. I pulled an Abath's Drop.
As soon as I hit what passes for solid ground in Hell the angel turned and I bolted. He bellowed, "Come back here!" in what sounded like a dialect of Diabolic, but he didn't follow. I knew right away there must be more angels at the other end but I had already gone farther than anyone had before and I kept on running. After a minute or so of running as fast as my astral legs would carry me I leapt into the light at the end of the tunnel, slid over several hundred feet of polished marble, and smacked into a wall.
The place I was in was a visual shock. Colors were sharp, well defined, static. One could say, "This is white," or, "This is gold," or, "This is sky-blue," as if stating laws of nature. There was none of the confusion of Hell nor the mixing of color I remembered of Earth.
I was amid pillars and altars and gates strewn around a marble hall, and I was surrounded by angels. I created quite a stir. Angels of all sorts crowded around me chattering away in several languages while poking me and picking me up by the hair to get a closer look. Soon an angel drenched in blue asked me, in Ecclesiastic Latin, "Who are you?"
I answered, "Gwyn."
"And where did you come from?"
"And how did you come here?"
The blue angel said something to a sparkling silver angel in their version of Diabolic and the latter took me across the hall to some other human souls I hadn't noticed. These souls looked as scared as a rabbit sitting next to a snake, and as I watched them watching the confusion around us I realized where I was. I had been there before. When I died the battle faded from my senses, replaced by that selfsame room. It was there I was judged and thrown into the pits of Hell.
I was beginning to wonder what had caused the war between the angels to break out anew and how soon I would again be thrown into the pits of Hell when I realized I was not in pain. The needle stabs I had felt whenever I moved, the crawling itch I had felt whenever I stood still, all of the wounds, diseases, rotting skin, shattering bones, aches, and nausea which had plagued me for over fourteen centuries were gone. Their absence soon became a presence, and my mood surged as my senses, such as they were, dropped some of their centuries old defenses to let every angel's feather and every human's breath rush through my consciousness. I was caught up in the joy of input for a while when I realized I was watching an astral body coalesce out of nothing not twenty feet away. Angels started walking over to stand around in wait and I let out a yell and ran up to grab the solidifying soul.
I don't know why I did that. In Hell we were given to following impulses, because in Hell things are so bad that nothing you do is going to make them any worse. Inhibitions serve no purpose down there and eventually get discarded. Besides, one can't spend fourteen centuries among the dead without going a little crazy.
Regardless of why it was done as soon as it was I was blinded by a sudden searing whiteness and I felt as if my entire body had started accelerating towards my navel at several hundred feet per square second.
Then I woke.
My second coherent thought was that I had no idea where I was. My next thoughts were realizations that I did have some idea. I was in a bed in a sunlit room with glass windows and wooden doors, a room filled with furniture, pictures, plants, books, daisies, and what seemed like hundreds of other objects, some easily identifiable, some completely mystifying.
I was, as I soon guessed, back on the planet Earth. Nevertheless, everything in the room had a surrealistic air about it. This was not only because I had been so long in Hell, but also because there are precious few man-made objects which are made the same in the twentieth century as they were in the fifth. On top of that, since it takes a while for a damned soul to regain enough sanity to communicate, all of my second hand information on Earth was dated. (The most recent arrival I had talked to had died in 1881, and she wasn't very coherent.)
I sat up in the bed to get a better look at my surroundings, when the pain which had been in my head brought itself to my attention by increasing tenfold. This didn't bother me, being used to much greater pain, but it made me start to wonder about the body I had acquired. With the help of a mirror I took a look at it. It was flesh and blood, but it was not the same body I had left to rot in the Celidon Forest. This was a young, tall, blond, healthy, male body dressed in well fitted, if messy, clothes; whereas mine had been only young and male.
It was time to do some serious thinking, and this I did. I was back on Earth in someone else's body, and the only explanation I could come up with was that the body belonged to the appearing soul I had impulsively tried to grab on to, that as he died I traveled the path that had opened between the material and immaterial and was incarnated in his corpse. I could only guess what he had died of, but I was glad it wasn't something which had done any harm to his former body.
What I was to do with this body was an interesting problem. I figured there was a good chance that as soon as things were straightened out back where I had just come from an angel would appear to take me and throw me back into the inferno. I wanted to take the fullest advantage of my situation as soon as possible but was at a loss as to the best way to do so. I was also somewhat frightened; this was the first time in centuries I had to make decisions which would affect my fate.
I was thinking about those decisions and looking out the window at a lawn backed by a summer forest when I heard a strange sequence of sounds (which turned out to be a car pulling up a driveway). I heard another strange sequence of sounds (which turned out to be a door being unlocked and opened) and I heard a female voice asking, in a strange English, "Billy, are you awake?"
Thinking of nothing to say I said nothing. Implications jumped around in my mind and an urge to flee was being frustrated by a lack of outlets when a young woman walked in through a door, saying, "Oh, you are awake. Do you want lunch?"
Although she was not especially pretty by objective standards, she was the first woman I'd seen in a real body for longer than you can conceive of and I was jolted by what I saw as a beauty such as was not known when Arthur rode against the Saxons, a beauty such as the angels do not have, being not of matter.
I didn't get to answer her question, because she soon asked, "Billy, are you alright?"
I answered truthfully, "No."
"What's the matter?"
A lot was the matter, but what came to mind and what I said was, "My head hurts."
Less worried she said, "I'm not surprised, after last night. Take some aspirin, or do you want lunch?"
I didn't, so I said, "No."
She said, "Well, I do," while turning, and left the room.
I sat down on the bed and tried to figure out what in the name of Satan I was supposed to do. Then I thought, "Listen to me. What am I supposed to do? I'm one of the damned. I'm not supposed to do anything. I've been condemned to an eternity of pain and suffering. Anything and everything pleasant is a bonus; anything unpleasant can't be worse than what I expected to feel forever. I'm one of the hopeless ones, and without hope there can be no fear. If an angel should appear now and take my soul back to Hell I will still have avoided part of my sentence, which is more than I ever expected to do. I will deal with this woman the best I can, but even if I die of old age my stay on Earth will be brief, and I intend to enjoy it while I can."
I stood up and then sat down again. Saying that decisions did not really matter did not change the fact that decisions had to be made. I was in the body of this woman's husband or lover or whatever he was and this woman was in the next room eating lunch. I considered my options. Firstly, impersonate Billy, which was impossible; all I knew about him was his Christian name. Secondly, tell her the truth, which I could never get her to believe. Thirdly, fake amnesia. This last option came to me in a flash, and, fearful that I would think of a good reason against it, as soon as I thought of it I walked into the next room to commit myself to its implementation.
The room beyond the door was as surreal as the one behind it, but recognizably a kitchen. The young lady was seated at a table eating a sandwich and giving me a puzzled look. I sat down across from her and tried to figure out how to say what I had to say. She kept her eye on me, not making me any more comfortable, and finally broke the silence by asking, "What's the matter?"
To buy some time I answered, "What do you mean?"
She said, "Billy, I know you well enough to tell there's more bothering you than a hangover. What is it? And why are you talking like that?"
Rather than trying to figure that out I repeated, "What do you mean?"
"Your accent. Why are you speaking with an accent?"
The English I had learnt in Hell was influenced by Anglophones of many nations and ages, and was noticeably different from what she spoke, which turned out to be twentieth century standard American. I acted on impulse once again and gave her the only rational explanation I could think of, the truth: "I'm not Billy."
This took her completely by surprise. She stopped eating and stared at me a couple of seconds before saying, "What?"
"I'm not Billy."
She went through the same routine again, the stare, the pause, and, a bit more forcefully, the "What?"
"I'm not Billy."
She looked down at the table and then back at me, obviously not believing me but at a loss to explain what was going on. She asked, "Who are you then?"
"Gwyn...son of Gwythyr"
"What happened to Billy?"
It was my turn to look down. I said, "I think he died," knowing as I said it that I should have said it differently.
"And I suppose you've come to take his place?"
Knowing again that I was not using the right words I said, "Right."
She stood up, said, "Well, if Billy should return let me know. Right now I've got things to do," and walked into the bedroom.
I asked myself, "What did you expect?" and sat looking at what was left of her sandwich, wishing that life on this planet didn't have such a sense of urgency about it.
My eyes wandered around the room until they rested on the first nonhuman creature they'd seen since I woke, a fly which looked cute and fragile compared to the flies of Hell. I was staring at this insect when the lady of the house came in through one door and went out through another, saying in between, "I'm going to Betty's."
I heard the sounds of the car being started and driven away, sounds which I could not at the time identify but whose general meaning I guessed, and once again I was alone in a strange body in a stranger's house.
It took a few minutes of brooding and worrying before I realized my main problem had just removed herself and need not be dealt with for a while, if ever. "So," I shouted, scaring the fly, "Let's get down to business."
I then embarked upon a crash course in the joys of the flesh. I ate a bit of everything which looked edible, reveling in the long forgotten pleasure of satisfying a body. I sang songs which had passed from soul to soul for many a year without ever having known true air. I carefully studied a painting of a young woman with oval eyes, losing myself in the stillness of Earth where something as permanent as a painting could exist. I fiddled and played with the many strange objects in the room and to my great surprise turned on a radio.
It did not take long to figure out what the various knobs on the radio were for and soon I had a strong station blaring an unimaginable music throughout the room. I sat entranced through the songs which were numbers two, six, and three on the charts, puzzled through advertisements for a movie and a skin cleanser, and smiling through what was identified as a golden oldie by the legendary Beatles. Then came a song by the Set of All Reals with the chorus:
Just so I've got my beer in hand,This reminded me of some beer I had seen in the refrigerator, and on this I set to work. The cans were a little tricky to open, but once I got the hang of it there was no stopping me. Billy must have been an experienced drinker, because I drank several cans before I felt anything, but when I did I knew all was right with the Universe. I was incarnate and on the planet Earth and in a better position to appreciate those facts than anyone who has not known Hell could ever be. White clouds crossed a blue sky outside the windows, blood flowed in my veins, and the fly busied itself with the food I had left lying around; these events filled me with a satisfaction I have never known before or since.
Visigoths could ravish the land,
Break every record of my favorite band,
Bury me up to my beer in the sand.
Just so I've got my alcohol,
I wouldn't care if the empire falls,
I wouldn't care if I couldn't ball,
I wouldn't care if there were nothing at all.
Soon, however, I got curious again, and began wandering through the house in search of new wonders. In the bedroom I found a calendar which said, "July 1973," and I literally jumped for joy. I had won my bet with Gwyn. Not that bets in Hell ever mattered, three years added on to his damnation and three years subtracted from mine still came out to an infinite sentence for both of us, but it was always nice to win. I also found an envelope which was addressed: "Pamela Sherry / 25 Serpent Hill Road / Bayford, New York 10241." New York, I knew, was one of the United States. Pamela Sherry, I surmised, was the young lady I had met.
It was not long after that I discovered the television. I sat down to watch a situation comedy and remained there for several hours, trying to make sense of the world as it was in 1973. The plots bewildered me, the allusions went right by me, and the social mores continually amazed me, but the emotions were readily identifiable, even if their sources were obscure.
After a while of this I realized I was no longer paying attention; I didn't even recognize the characters on the screen. Somewhere along the way both my interest and enthusiasm had dissipated. I felt extremely inert. I turned off the television and the silence confirmed my inertia.
"Beer will do this to you," I said to myself, "You can't fool me."
I wondered for a while why I had said, "You can't fool me," but gave up.
My next project was to have been to decide what to do, but somehow I never got around to it.
I had either almost fallen asleep or just fallen asleep when the general lethargy of the place was banished by the mistress of the house, who had entered somehow and shouted. "What's going on here?"
Before I could give much of an answer she continued, "What have you been doing? How much beer did you drink? What's this? What did you do to my envelopes? What's going on here?"
This time she did give me a chance to answer, but although I was no longer drowsy it took me a few seconds to come up with, "I've been trying things out."
"You've been trying things out? You've been tearing the house apart. For Christ's sake, Billy, you drank yourself into a stupor last night and now you've gone on a drunken rampage and it's not even suppertime. What's wrong with you?"
"I'm not Billy."
"I don't want to hear that bullshit. I want to hear what you've done to the apartment."
I shrugged and said, "I've been trying things out."
I thought she was going to hit me as she yelled, "Billy!"
I said, "I'm sorry," but it didn't help.
She continued, "Who's going to clean this up? You're worthless right now. You've been worthless all week. You used to come crying for forgiveness the morning after, but now you don't even do that. You're regressing, Billy. You're regressing. I used to think that with some love and affection you'd straighten yourself out, but all I can see is more of the same; and it's driving me up a wall."
Before I could decide what to do her manner changed. She stopped shouting and sat in a chair. Increasingly on the verge of tears she told me, "Billy, I don't know what I'm going to do. I've had something important to say to you and I've waited since Thursday for the right time to say it but the right time's never come. There are no right times anymore. You just keep getting worse. Last night you popped enough downs to kill a horse and washed them all down with Chianti, and today you've decided to forego sanity. I don't know what to do with you anymore. If we're going to have any sort of good relationship you're going to have to start showing some consideration."
We stared at each other a bit before she said, "Billy, say something."
"I'm not Billy. My name's Gwyn."
"Well, that takes care of that, doesn't it? The best excuse I've heard yet for not discussing something: just become somebody else."
"Listen," I said, standing up, "I spent close to fifteen centuries deep in Hell and I plan to spend a lot more time than that there in the future. In between I've got some time on Earth and I plan to make the most of it. You obviously don't believe me but I am not going to spend my time on this planet trying to convince you. When they come to take me back you can mourn Billy then."
She said nothing so I continued, "Right now I'm going to leave. This is doing none of us any good and I've got things to do."
I waited for her to say something but she just looked stunned so I walked out the door. As I left she screamed, "You belong in Hell."
I spent the rest of the daylight hours walking the streets. Now and then I felt bad about Ms. Sherry but I was mostly preoccupied with observing the world, which consisted of tarred roads strung with wooden houses set in miniature fields of closely cropped grass which were carved out of a summer forest. This may not seem very exciting to you who are used to it, but for me it was a series of great wonders.
First of all there was nature. Although the flora and fauna were not much different from what I had known in Britain, it had been many a century since I'd last seen any, and things natural tend to contain much more detail than things artificial. My memory had stylized such things after so long a time. I kept stopping to gawk at a tree or a lawn, overwhelmed by the intricacy of it all, an intricacy people will praise in a painting but ignore in reality.
Secondly there were people. There were not that many, but the ones I saw commanded my attention. In Hell I had become used to people who wore insubstantial images of bodies plagued by every possible malady, but in Bayford everyone seemed sturdy and solid and generally invulnerable. Even the few oldsters seemed as if they were designed that way, forsaking vitality for dignity. The strangest body of all, however, belonged to a baby. There are no babies in Hell, and I had forgotten how much a baby differs from an adult in shape as well as size. It was also nice to see someone for whom the world was as strange as it was for me.
Lastly there were the many products of human labor. Streets and houses were much bigger and better than those I'd known, but at least their functions were clear, which is more than I could have said for mailboxes and telephone lines. On the whole, however, things made more sense when I was out-of-doors than when I was indoors.
One class of objects whose purpose was obvious but which fascinated me nonetheless was the motor vehicle. Traffic was not at all heavy but what traffic there was inspired my awe and respect. I quickly learnt with the help of some screeching brakes that I was a poor judge of speed when the speed was high and that I should be very careful when crossing a street. However, old habits die hard and what with a host of distractions and a growing familiarity with automobiles my Hellish ways re-emerged and caution was forgotten, the result being that as the day turned to dusk and I caught my first glimpse of lightning bugs I was hit by a car and killed, less than a day after returning to the land of the living.
The golden one addressed me in the flowery Welsh the monks back in Britain used to use, saying, "Gwyn son of Gwythyr."
"That's me," I answered.
"Owing to the recent disturbances created by the nefarious treachery of our fallen brethren and your subsequent and accidental removal to your mother planet you have the dubious distinction of being the only creature ever to be twice judged by this tribunal. If the judgment to be rendered were solely mine own you would be immediately returned to the fiery inferno to perpetually prolong your proper fate. However, there exists a precedent of sorts and I am regretfully informed it holds in your pathetic case."
"A precedent?" I asked, remembering he had just said I was the first.
"When the good news of Our Lord's death and resurrection first spread among the nations of the Earth people of Hindu and similar pagan beliefs who had previously been repeatedly reincarnated on their journey to Nirvana were converted to the Christian faith and therefore found themselves before this altar with multiple lives in their histories. It was decided by the Lord God Almighty when a case of that nature was first presented us that should a soul appear within this hall who had expired more than the customary once his existence before his last death but one should be ignored and he should be judged by his last life and that life alone.
"Unfortunately, my efforts to make exception in your exceptional case have failed, and this selfsame rule applies to you. In consequence your judgment is as follows: You are found guilty of the sins of pride, greed, sloth, gluttony, drunkenness, and gross failure to thank your Lord and Savior for your extraordinary good luck, these sins all in their venial forms. You are therefore and hereby condemned to endure the tortures and pains of Purgatory for nineteen years and three months subjective time, after which you will be permitted to enter and welcomed within the Kingdom of Heaven."
He then said something I didn't catch to the angel who was armed, and the latter spirit quickly and brusquely carried me through a tunnel and tossed me into Purgatory.
I won't bore you with a detailed account of my stay in Purgatory, which was for me a boring place to be. It's a lot like Hell, except everybody there is a newcomer and the place is run by angels. I did not spend nineteen years and three months there, however, because after three or four weeks I had some unexpected visitors.
First was the golden angel from the Hall of Judgment, who said, "Gwyn son of Gwythyr, your lord and master approaches."
"Arthur?" I asked.
Then, in one of those dramatic entrances he loves so well, amid pyrotechnics unimaginable, came the Prince of Darkness, the Bringer of Light, the Lord of the Flies, the Father of Lies, the Great Adversary himself, Satan. He gave me a smile and said in Diabolic (which I speak as well as anything), "Gwyn my child, how are they treating you?"
"Lucy! What brings you here?"
"Business, I'm afraid." He won't lie to you unless he thinks you'll believe him.
I had a good idea what he wanted and no intention of giving it to him, but he was doing a great job of breaking the monotony so I asked him, "Of what sort?"
"Well," he said, materializing some chairs for us, "that bit of chaos you found yourself in the middle of not so long ago was part of a revolt I'd been planning off and on for millennia, but I got pre-empted and the whole thing was nothing but an unbroken string of disasters, the worst of which was you. Nothing personal, of course, but do you realize you are the first soul ever to successfully escape my clutches? And bound for Heaven yet! After a perfect record since the beginning of the human race I lose one of my favorite charges. Why, punishing humans for eternity is our reason for existence, literally.
"You know why they let you in here, don't you? That reincarnation rule is just an excuse. They did it to punish me for my revolt. They don't really want you up there in Paradise, not one of the damned."
I didn't care much if they really wanted me or not, it couldn't be worse than Hell, and by all reports it was far better.
"You mentioned business," I reminded him.
"Yes I did. When you returned to Earth you only lasted twenty hours, and you spent most of that time sleeping. I know for a fact you were anxious to experience the wonders of modern civilization, to immerse yourself in pleasures undreamt of when you spent your days butchering Angles and Saxons. Well, I've made a deal with our golden friend here and his superiors, and all that can still be yours, that and much, much, more. I'm fully aware you're no hick who's never been off the planet Earth and who would sell his soul for a few decades of wealth and power. I know that you know better than anyone I've ever dealt with what's in store when you finally die. Therefore, I'm prepared to make an offer like I've never made before. An offer that puts the temptation of Jesus to shame. Health, beauty, and youth for as long as you want it up to the Last Judgment, which I can guarantee you won't be for at least ten thousand years. Riches like you..."
I had to interrupt him, "But Lucy, why should I give up Heaven for a few thousand years of happiness?"
"Listen, Gwyn, Heaven's not all it's cracked up to be. Take it from me, I used to live there. It's okay for a while, but you'll soon get sick of singing the praises of the Lord day in and day out. In Hell you can sing whatever you want, we'll torture you regardless.
"Your choice is simple: an eternity of the most boring pleasure ever devised; or the longest, happiest life any human's ever had followed by an eternity as interesting as we can make it. The only catch in this whole deal is you're going to have to wait three of four decades to be born, even with the population explosion there's a backlog of unborn souls you wouldn't believe, but even so if you're really anxious we can probably work something out.
"Power, knowledge, you name it. I'll even tell you why I tempt people in the first place, which I know you've wondered about. And to sweeten the pot I've got Goldie here to agree to find another technicality and let someone take your place in Heaven, a suicide who's a much more deserving soul than yourself."
"Anyone I know?"
"Pamela Debra Barbara Sherry"
We then proceeded to spend several days working out the exact wording of the contract. (Satan can be trusted if you get things down in writing.) Heaven would have its Pamela, Hell would have its Gwyn, and Gwyn would have the kind of life which would make a soul forsake salvation.
When I am thirty I will be rich, when I am fifty I will be famous. I will be crowned Emperor of Earth before the turn of the twenty-second century and I will die, I think, with the coming of the end of the world. Then I'll return to where I belong, for ever and ever and ever, Hell without end. Amen.