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Skinwalker chapter 5 (standard:travel stories, 8996 words) [5/5] show all parts
Author: EutychusAdded: Mar 28 2018Views/Reads: 272/112Part vote: 0.00 (0 votes)
Jerry and Moe move beyond the library and into the circle of the heretics and beyond that to the circle of the wrathful.
 



Click here to read the first 75 lines of the story

making it into the marketplace?" 

My explanation was not well received. Even less satisfying was the
justification the attorneys used to defend the government's position, 
namely that if they allowed someone to be exempt for reasons based on 
their faith, then anything might be construed excusable for religious 
reasons. 

"I think this justice wrote the majority opinion in the case. She was a
constitutional lawyer before she became a Supreme Court justice and 
should have known that unless there is some compelling governmental 
interest in having employers provide abortion inducing  medications 
through insurance coverage, forcing employers to pay for religiously 
objectionable products that are cheaply available in the open market, 
amounts to a clear violation of that employer's first amendment rights, 
which would be those rights governing the free exercise of religious 
expression." 

"If she was aware of these facts and then ruled contrary to the spirit
of the rights you mentioned, she was favoring her own judgment over 
known truth. A heretic to the core." 

"I always held religion and religious matters in high regard. I even
stood up for faith based charities when the attitude of the court 
tended toward an open hostility to organizations with an element of 
faith at their core being allowed to use public funds in the operation 
of their charities for fear they might influence someone in the 
direction of trust in God," a voice from within the tomb said. 

"But heresy seems to have less to do with religion than truth. Did you
ever compromise on what you knew in your head to be true with what you 
felt in your heart was true?" 

"Is there a...of course there's a difference. And I guess that majority
opinion you were discussing was an example of my heart overriding my 
head. We were honestly trying to help people, and to do so in a way 
that wouldn't bankrupt the country we needed everyone participating, so 
to accomplish the end goal, the government's compelling interest 
outweighed the religious freedom of a few corporations." 

"I see. You thought it best to co-opt a portion of the Bill of Rights to
accomplish your goals. Then I guess I understand the scripture on the 
lid of your tomb." 

"What does it say? I've never attempted to look." 

"It's a quote from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 16:20- 'Justice,
justice shalt thou pursue.' Is it a testament to your body of legal 
work or just something for you to think about for all of eternity?" 

After a few moments with no reply we moved on. 

As we walked, numerous voices called out to us, disturbed that we would
pass without taking an interest in their situation. 

"If we speak with all of them, your journey will last much longer than
it ought to," Moe said when I displayed curiosity at a tomb. 

"It's someone else I know, only in this one's case it is not merely by
reputation. This was a college professor of mine." 

"What? One of my students? Who is it?" 

"Professor Rhysart, it's Jerry Trumbauer. I won't ask how you are doing,
but I am sorry to find you here." 

"You can't possibly be more sorry than I was surprised. Me a heretic? I
never so much as sang a Christmas carol let alone a hymn. And the only 
time I was in a church was at my kids' weddings. How can I be a 
heretic?" 

"I recall going round and round with you in matters of faith at more
than one party. You were exposed to truth and are therefore responsible 
for that knowledge. You chose your own take on matters of faith, and I 
have come to understand it is that intellectual stubbornness that is 
the core trait of every heretic, be it in matters of unorthodox church 
doctrine or a simple rejection of truth in favor of your own thoughts 
on any given topic." 

"I was exposed to a version of truth. How was I to know that yours was
the real deal? What about Buddha or Mohammed?" 

"Yahweh tends to give proof once belief has been expressed, when trust
has been established. The proof comes for those who make the conscious 
choice to trust Him. Can you see a kind of sense behind waiting for 
trust before offering proof?" 

"Yes, if I had been given proof I would probably have rationalized it
away, found some nice little explanation that rendered the proof 
meaningless." 

"And you would have done the same with your examples of Buddha and
Mohammed." 

"Quite likely. What was it that moved you to trust in a God you couldn't
measure or evaluate by observation?" 

"I first looked at the dataset available and then engaged in a little
original research, like BioPsych 216. I designed a research proposal 
and performed the experiment." 

"What was your dataset?" 

"God's own record of His activities on planet earth, the Bible." 

Something like a snort came from the tomb and then I was asked, "Why
would you trust an account whose origins are suspect at best?" 

"Are you familiar with the gift you have been given where the Bible is
concerned?" 

"Do you mean being able to remember surprisingly large sections of that
particular collection of writings?" 

"Yes, but it isn't technically your memory. If I said to you 'For we did
not follow cleverly devised stories', what should naturally follow?" 

"When we told you about the coming of our Lord..." he said then dropped
to a whisper to speak Jesus' name at a level that might not be 
discerned. Blue flames and screams rolled out of the tomb for several 
seconds, perhaps an indicator that speaking the Name had not gone 
unnoticed. "He received from God the Father honor and glory, when there 
came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, 'This is my beloved 
Son, in whom I am well pleased.' And this voice which came from heaven 
we heard, when we were with him on the holy mount." 

"Right. Those verses are from Peter's second letter. Note what you said
about the disciples who were present hearing God's voice speaking 
approval for His Son. Peter was establishing the fact that he, James 
and John were eyewitnesses. It's eyewitness testimony." 

"That is presuming Peter actually wrote the letter and that it has been
accurately transmitted for two thousand years." 

"Why is it that the thoughts of Socrates are never challenged, even
though they predate the New Testament accounts by a few hundred years, 
the oldest copies we have of his thoughts were written a thousand years 
after Socrates lived and they are the recollections of Socrates' 
students... his disciples, if you will? Why do his disciples get a 
credibility pass and the motivations, intentions and memories of the 
disciples of the Savior come under constant fire?" 

"Because Socrates merely presented his thoughts. They could be
considered and then accepted or rejected without greatly impacting the 
life lived. This Person from Galilee... not going to make that mistake 
twice... made demands of people, insisting that they make a decision 
regarding Him. To make that decision requires realigning your life, and 
who really wants to do that? So it becomes a requirement that 
everything He reportedly said or did must come into question to make 
rationalizing His significance away a comfortable thing to do." 

"That's the process I imagined. I'm sorry it came so easily for you." 

"That's okay. At least I..." he began then paused. 

"Did it MY way?" I suggested. 

"No, but just as bad so far as your definition of heresy goes. I was
going to say at least I was true to myself, which sounds synonymous 
with your description of the mindset of a heretic. But as a man of 
science I simply couldn't accept the message. How could I be expected 
to accept something that doesn't stand up to scientific scrutiny?" 

"Professor, how many other historical figures from antiquity have you
subjected to the scientific method? Who else have you observed, 
measured, formed and modified hypotheses about and after experimenting 
to test those modifications finally formed an opinion based in 
science?" After a moment he replied, "None I suppose." 

"Yes, and that is because historical facts are judged based on rules of
evidence, not scientific methodology. And just as both means of 
investigation are led by reason, the evidence or the experiment reaches 
the heart of the investigator by way of the imagination, not the 
intellect." 

"Before I died I would have agreed with you that faith is arrived at by
way of the imagination, but science relies on facts, plain and simple." 


"But those facts rest in a bed of imagination in the mind. The
imagination designs the experiment as informed by reason. After it is 
performed and the hypothesis confirmed, the imagination embraces a 
reality in which the discovered facts apply for all time. We are 
convinced not by the facts but by our impression of those facts. Can we 
imagine those facts being true? If we can, then entropy becomes our 
explanation for the condition of our thirteen year old car. If we can 
imagine the human genome acquiring extremely sophisticated new 
programming by accident, then evolution becomes our explanation for the 
emergence of life as we know it on planet Earth. 

"A teacher might influence us with his passion by engaging our
imagination in a particular way, the timbre of someone's voice might 
draw our imagination in a specific direction, a stern look might temper 
our imaginings, but it always comes down to how our own imagination 
processes the facts." 

"Is that true of faith as well? Does the imagination inform the heart
where God is concerned?" 

"I think so. Before I could believe that God is, I had to imagine there
was at least a possibility that He might exist, and the ability to make 
that leap can only come from the imagination. From that point God moves 
the curious in the direction of faith through the urgings of his 
Spirit, who operates like the voice of the teacher I mentioned." 

"Is there an unspoken tweak in that teacher reference?" 

"Of course not. That was just the first authority figure that came to
mind when I thought of the Holy Spirit's work in our lives, teaching us 
what we need to know about the Savior and the Father." 

"Now there is an issue your God didn't think through very well. He chose
to identify himself with the 'father' authority figure.  My wife 
suffered several forms of abuse at the hand of her father. How could 
she possibly hope to embrace a God who shared the same title?" 

"Professor, God identified Himself as Father long before there were any
human fathers around to give the designation a black eye by the 
imperfect execution of their responsibilities in that role. He was 
always the Father of Jesus from eternity past prior to the creation of 
the universe. So the definition of what a father is descends from God 
to man. We're not anthropomorphizing a distinction upon God by 
referring to Him as father because He has been the paradigm for 
fatherhood since before the world was made." 

"How does that do anyone with father issues any good? Can Amanda be
expected to just turn off the emotional, mental and physical abuse of 
her father should she consider the fatherhood of God?" 

"If she ever does, she will find the father she always imagined in her
mind as the ideal daddy." 

"Daddy?" 

"That is a rough translation of the Aramaic term 'Abba' that the Lord
used. The term also communicates in its original tongue a sense of 
intense intimacy that is lost to some degree when it moves into 
English. But even so, think of your own Daddy if he was a good one. If 
he was, then you probably trusted him. When he held your hands as he 
was first encouraging you to walk you trusted his actions. Eventually 
he let go of your hands so you could walk on your own  always ready to 
catch you should you falter. If your wife chooses to trust, He will 
prove Himself in much the same way to her as well." 

The silence lasted a long time and presently I decided the professor no
longer wanted to talk. 

"Shall we move on?" Moe suggested. 

"Let's. This place is by far the least comfortable I have yet seen. The
futility of it is really oppressive," I said. Five minutes later I 
caught a flash of light clockwise of us and began drifting that way. 
There was no sense of vertigo as I moved in the direction of the 
consistent points of light so Moe obliged my curiosity. In a few 
moments we arrived at a tomb whose lid was not open or pushed to the 
side but was welded shut. This individual would never have the chance 
to burst into flame by exploring his surroundings. A blessing in hell? 
As I read the lid I recognized the man whose company we couldn't share. 
My reaction to what I read caused Moe to presume I was familiar with 
this individual. 

"No, never met him, though I did routinely turn his books so that the
back was facing out in every Wal-Mart I ever entered. He was a purveyor 
of the so-called prosperity gospel. I would have thought that people 
would recognize the theology he peddled for the hackneyed stuff that it 
was, but dress up a lie in new clothing and it can look just like the 
truth." 

"What lies did this person tell?" 

"He implied that God would do anything we asked of Him by virtue of our
speaking in faith. It almost sounded like speaking the words obligated 
the God of the universe to fulfill your desires and dreams. But the odd 
thing always was that this character insisted that true spiritual 
happiness can be found in the same place the culture at large finds 
happiness. A car, a nice home, a Rolex wristwatch, and any number of 
things he had acquired during his years of ministry can be had by 
reaching out in faith to the God who wants you to be blessed beyond 
your wildest imaginings. " 

"But there are circles and rounds within those circles for the
fraudulent. The fact that he wound up here at least implies that he 
truly believed what he was preaching. Otherwise he would be somewhere 
even less hospitable." 

"Sorry, but that doesn't make me feel any better about the man. His big
catchphrase was 'Live Life to Its Fullest Now!' and there's no telling 
how many folks missed the saving message of Christ because they fell 
into his personality cult." 

"Another bit of truth you fail to credit the man for... judging from his
place in hell, the fullest and best part of his eternity was the time 
he spent on earth." 

I couldn't help but smile thinking Moe was intending humor with his
remark. Another flash of light drew my attention to the lid of the tomb 
and I noticed that every instance of the lower case letter 'I' was 
dotted with something inlaid into the iron that was both surprisingly 
white and curiously reflective. I got my face as close as the heat 
would allow and informed Moe that , "The lower case letter 'I's are 
dotted with teeth. Look, that's a molar. There's a bicuspid. This is an 
incisor..." 

"In what culture do people have teeth that are this free of stains?" 

"Mine. He paid a lot of money to have teeth this white. In addition to
not being noticeably yellowed, he also helped some orthodontist to 
retire early," I said and began walking inward again. After quite a 
while I noticed that the tombs no longer had lids on or anywhere nearby 
and because this development was uniform in its distribution I could 
examine the curiosity without being reprimanded for wasting time by 
detouring away from our path. But hey, if there was no such thing as 
time here, did it really matter? 

I slowed by one of the iron caskets and noticed that there was no heat
radiating. I reached out and used a hand to gauge the temperature of 
the tomb. I felt a void of heat, like there was nothing exuding from 
the metal at all. Then to Moe's surprise I planted my palm on the 
surface of the sarcophagus without screaming. 

"Don't panic. Come on over and sit down," I said, plopped down and
exhaled contentedly. The coffin was cool to the touch. 

"I suppose this makes sense. There is no reason for them to be hot until
occupied," Moe said from a lotus position as he pressed his back 
against the refreshing metal. 

"Yes, it goes back to the old physics question 'is hell endothermic or
exothermic'," I said and received a well-deserved look. "I think I get 
what's implied here by the tombs waiting for occupants. Let me see if I 
can remember this. I believe it was something that accompanied the 
opening of the fifth seal in Revelation. Ah there it is. 'When He 
opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had 
been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. 
And they cried with a loud voice, saying, "How long, O Lord, holy and 
true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the 
earth?" Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to 
them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number 
of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as 
they were, was completed.'" 

"The implication being what?" 

"Those who had been martyred for their faith and who would be martyred
are of a fixed quantity known to God. Those under the altar were told 
to rest until their number was completed. I'll bet it's the same here. 
God knows how many heretics will eventually inhabit hell and has 
supplied exactly what would be needed." 

Moe said nothing as he savored the coolness of the tomb. For a while we
talked about nothing germane to our journey. He told me about a woman 
named Kas whom he had married at the age of thirteen, an arranged 
marriage that he willingly participated in despite denouncing the 
practice later in his life. I explained my work, told him about my 
immediate and extended family and showed him some photos of my 
granddaughter Constance on my phone. As I did I took an image of him as 
well for no good reason. 

"I believe I'm ready," Moe said as he stood without first untangling his
legs. 

"Probably easy to do when you weigh nothing," I consoled joints that had
been sensitive to humid conditions for a few years now. As we walked 
through the field of empty tombs new sounds and aromas became apparent. 
Screams from a thousand throats were drifting up over the approaching 
drop off. An outward blowing breeze brought a wave of ferrous ions our 
way giving the air the smell and flavor of something metallic. As I 
remembered what we were approaching my stomach did a quick flip. 

"What's wrong?" Moe asked. 

"Just the thought of a river of blood, let alone boiling blood. I always
had a difficult time with the image. I suppose it's along the same 
lines as picturing the amount of blood spilled at the battle of 
Armageddon.  How can there be that much blood found outside its 
intended containers?" "If it helps, that is only a small portion of the 
next circle. There are other rounds within the circle." 

"And a minotaur?" I asked, remembering what form the personification of
bestial behavior that embodied the violence of the seventh circle took 
in Dante's telling of the tale. 

"Jerry, you need to remember that what qualified as classical literature
for Dante was quite different from what you and I might recognize as 
such. The Ovid, Aeneid, Homer's epic poems, which were set against a 
backdrop of Greek mythology,  Aristotle's discussions of ethics and 
poetry, Socratic dialogues and Greek tragedies all populated Dante's 
understanding of the Classics. I have never seen a minotaur in my time 
in this circle, so I'm thinking that maybe its presence was specific to 
Dante's journey here, in keeping with the works that formed the context 
of his literary world. What constitutes classical literature to you?" 
"But Dante was a poet. I'm not. If the creatures encountered reflect in 
some way the person travelling through hell, shouldn't I encounter a 
personification of beastly behavior that is in some way related to my 
career as a geneticist, something like a violent chemical reaction?" 

"Chemistry is a very specific discipline. Literature is far more
universal. It is the language of all learning, the story. We learn from 
the stories we hear and tell, so storied characters whose identities 
cut across many cultures are perfect vehicles to personify the various 
areas of hell." 

"In that case, Shakespeare. From his sonnets alone, it's plain that the
man knew everything worth knowing," I said as I pondered the mist 
rising from the base of the drop off. The screams had blended into an 
annoying kind of background noise so I managed to overlook the fact 
that the mist was probably steam rising from a river of boiling blood. 
When that realization hit home again, my guide offered reassurance 
though I'm not sure he accurately read my concerns. 

"No need to panic. There is a ford across the Phlegethon not far from
here so we will not have to spend much time in the company of this 
brutal lot." 

Though I have been complaining about the narrowness of the ledges we had
to navigate to get from one circle to another, they really had been 
getting wider as we descended, and I mention this now because as we 
moved to the seventh circle Moe and I were walking abreast. It almost 
seemed like the path down was getting easier to negotiate the deeper we 
went. 

At about thirty feet from the base of the cliff we had dropped below the
level at which the steam cooled to the point of condensation. Up to 
this point it had obscured the view of the circle below us. Now we 
could plainly see what was happening in and around the river and I was 
surprised by the nausea that washed over me. Men and women of all 
shapes and sizes stood in the river at varied distances from the shore. 
Those in the shallow side of the river danced like dervishes attempting 
to keep one leg or the other out of the boiling blood. The river's 
depth ranged from several inches to chin deep, but being unable to tell 
how tall those submerged to their Adam's apple were, there was no 
guessing the true depth. 

It was also at about this point that the ledge, such as it was, abruptly
ended and we found ourselves climbing over, under and around large 
boulders. I presumed they had fallen at some time in the past and 
obliterated the rest of the ramp. 

When we reached the base of the cliff and turned away from the boulder
we had slid down, we were face to face with a red-headed woman whose 
stance was very regal in its bearing. She adjusted her posture so that 
she was looking down at us which was quite the accomplishment as both 
Moe and I were taller than she was. 

"Cal é o seu delito?" she half asked, half demanded of me. 

The words had a familiar feel to them and as I attempted to place her
language, I remembered why they felt memorable and said, "Cranberries." 
Moe's look seemed to question my sanity so I explained as best I could. 
The Irish group's lead singer would occasionally record one of their 
songs in Gaelic, and this woman's question struck me like a portion of 
the Gaelic version of Dreams. 

"I do tire of speaking English," the woman said with a touch of disgust.
"It seems the whole world must be speaking that bastard language 
anymore. What is your offense?" 

"Minos could not judge me but granted me passage. Moe was kind enough to
lead me this far." 

"You, acting as a guide?" she asked and snorted with disdain. "This is
the Skinwalker then?" 

"That's what Phlegyas called me, yes. The name stuck?" 

"Word has spread. There are grave concerns over what this might mean." 

"Pardon me madam, but why do you care? Are you not a damned soul brought
here by the choices you made in life?" 

"Yes but I was so accomplished at making those choices that, unlike my
husband, I have been entrusted with certain responsibilities in this 
circle." 

"Trust can exist in hell?" 

"No. I am promised time out of the river on occasion because of my
proficiency at violence. It seems even the demons can appreciate a sin 
done well. But my duties as a figurehead will end without notice and I 
will be hip deep in blood again. Naught to be done then but to screw my 
courage to the sticking place and endure the blood until they release 
me to direct the likes of you to your place of torment or to deny 
passage as I see fit." 

I shot Moe a look and dared to ask a question.  "Madam, may we know who
you were?" 

"Gruoch Ingen Boite, wife and queen of Mac Behad Mac Findlaích." 

"I recognized the regal bearing even in hell. You still carry the
stature of your title," I said, attempting to sound conciliatory. If I 
was right, I did not want this woman taking a dislike to us, though we 
may not have a choice but to ignite her ire. That was how Virgil had 
gotten himself and Dante beyond the Minotaur, taunting the beast into a 
blind rage and slipping by before the rage passed. I spoke a quick 
prayer for an improved memory and whispered Moe's direction, "Where is 
this ford?" 

Moe looked directly at me and then turned his gaze to a very specific
point a five minute walk clockwise of our position. The "waters" of the 
river were moving quickly at the designated location, indicating 
something solid just below the surface like the rocks that caused 
rapids to form in a quickly descending stream. 

"You must be headed for the bolgia of the panderers, though you are not
a very good one," she said with a look that said we were not in her 
good graces. So, failing that, it was time to employ a proven tactic. 

"I suppose there can be no contentment for you in having your desires
realized by playing the role of figurehead for the violent. Would it 
not be safer to be one of the things you in your life destroyed than to 
dwell in your current state of doubtful joy, never knowing when you 
will be returned to the blood?" 

She looked at me, glared disapprovingly and said, "You've read that
damnable play." 

"Yes I have. So was there really much of a struggle for you to embrace
the cruelty the play or your own actions in history required of you? I 
never imagined there being any effort for someone who could so casually 
discuss dashing out the brains of the child at her breast," I said and 
gave Moe a "get ready" nudge. 

Her response was even tempered for a moment. She scoffed at the
playwright for making the simple seem so complex, like the malice of 
her actions needed to be explained. Then her scoffing changed to 
infuriated condemnations of the vacillating men in her life who had by 
their lack of resolve ruined her plans. Her English broke and she 
returned to a more comfortable Gaelic diatribe, which sounded much 
worse than her curses in English. As she shook her fists at the sky and 
whirled back and forth like a trapped animal trying to free itself, her 
hair whipped at the air, humid from the boiling river, and did what 
hair that length sometimes does in muggy conditions. When I signaled to 
Moe it was time to move, she had lost both regal bearing and awareness 
of our presence. 

I looked back as she clawed the air at river's edge and continued to
heap unintelligible curses on nameless objects for unknown slights. I 
surveyed the rapids and confirmed the obstructions that caused them 
reached all the way across the river. Many of the stones in the river 
were above the level of the blood and a crossing would be nerve 
wracking but not be too complicated. And then I wondered something. 
"Moe, why is this area of the river not swarmed by souls trying to 
stand on the rocks rather than in the blood?" 

"Consider the shore. There are worse things than standing in a boiling
river." 

Demonic beings lined the shore diligently watching the people in the
river. Some were standing on the shore, others were in make-shift high 
chairs like a lifeguard might use to better survey activity on a beach. 
Each held an object from a different portion of history that had, in 
its day, served as an instrument of violence. One demon had the end of 
a spear at the throat of a screaming individual who was standing 
shin-deep in the river. "I don't think I should be able to see your 
knees, Adam. Back to your place! Deeper! Deeper! C'mon, forty two 
inches. Be grateful Minos didn't judge you by the height of the 
teachers you killed!" 

"We had best make our crossing," Moe said with an evil grin. 

"Agreed, but what's up?" 

"I probably shouldn't say. Really isn't my place." 

"Spill it." 

"Just that there's a good reason to move on. 'Something wicked this way
comes.'," Moe said and nodded over his shoulder. The primary rage had 
passed and a secondary rage had taken hold, most likely directed right 
at Moe and myself. As the woman with the frizzy red hair advanced our 
direction we began moving most cautiously stone to stone across the 
boiling river. At the midpoint I thought about Moe's last statement and 
smiled at how he chose to inform me that he knew her identity as well. 
"When did you figure out who she was?" 

"Years before I coaxed you into regarding Shakespeare as an example of
classic literature. And when did you make the connection?" 

"When she told us her name and that of her regent. I had been thinking
Irish, but the 'mac' prefix of the name suggested Scotland. Do you know 
what a diagraph is?" 

"Has something to do with how a pair of consonants is pronounced?" 

"Yes. You can have blended consonants, in which the sound produced is a
blending of the sounds those two consonants make. The word 'blend' 
comes to mind. Then there are diagraphs, which are combinations of 
consonants that make a sound other than a blending would result in. The 
sh- in 'shoe', ch- in 'church', and the different sounds a th- makes in 
'the' and 'thin'." 

"Understood." 

"Okay. But in Gaelic, the th- diagraph is pronounced like an 'h'. So
when she said 'Mac Behad', the word would have been spelled m-a-c 
b-e-T-h-a-d. Shakespeare dropped the -ad suffix and called the play 
Macbeth, which would make her Lady Macbeth," I said as I concentrated 
on where my foot was about to land. 

After successfully leaping onto dry land I addressed a situation that
had aroused my curiosity back on the other side of the river. 

"Moe, it almost sounded like she knew you. Remember how she mocked you
for being my guide? You've had to deal with her before, haven't you?" 

"Yes I have," he said and offered nothing more. 

"So those we left behind in the boiling river were violent against their
neighbors. Does that only refer to people who spilled the blood of 
their neighbors?" 

"That is obviously the point of the use of blood here. But I'm sure
violence can be done in ways that don't require its spilling that are 
equally hurtful." 

We turned our backs to the screams and advanced across clay that felt so
tightly packed it might be mistaken for concrete. It seemed so 
consistent in its texture that my surprise was total when I stepped in 
something thick and slippery. I caught myself and managed not to fall, 
but my stomach muscles would be reminding me of the slip for days to 
come. 

When I looked down to examine the cause of my near fall, I found myself
face to face with a foul-tempered fowl of some sort. It was difficult 
to identify the species because it was coated with crude oil. The beak 
was long and hooked, its head was even with my waist and the sound it 
made caused me to think of a gull. But as the bird moved its wings it 
was clear that the wingspan would have exceeded ten feet and I had 
never seen a seagull with a wingspan half that, though it had the 
webbed feet of a gull. It regarded me for a moment, lost interest and 
returned to pecking at the surface of the miniature oil slick at my 
feet. 

As I began to lose interest in the oddity of this pathetic creature's
presence here, a hand shot up from the petroleum puddle, groped for a 
moment, grasped it by the neck, and slammed its head into the clay. The 
bird recovered quickly and though it seemed somewhat disoriented 
managed to walk off. 

From below me a dark figure began to emerge from the tar pit. It
struggled to its feet and began wiping away the crude. As it did oil 
began leeching out of a massive chunk of facial hair in many thin 
streams. He smiled a yellow smile and said something that sounded 
Middle Eastern. When I apologized for not understanding he was decent 
enough to switch to English. 

"I said thank you," he said and gave me a messy hug. "You took its
attention off of me for long enough that I realized it was straddling 
my neck again. That allowed me to reposition myself so it couldn't peck 
out my eyes. It always goes for the eyes first." 

"No problem," I said as I cautiously removed my jacket, turned it inside
out and tucked it under an arm. "Moe, I thought we would run across the 
wood of suicides next. And I don't remember there being a round that 
involved a miniature oil slick." 

"I was inaccurate to refer to the different regions of this circle as
rounds. They are more like zones, I suppose, though the Phlegethon does 
flow in a circle before spilling over the Great Barrier. And as the 
world changed since the time of Dante, so too has hell. I believe this 
particular zone developed as a result of industrialization on earth." 

"Then another type of violence against nature, in this case violence
against the natural world as opposed to violence against the nature of 
things. Sir, do you have any idea why you are here?" 

"For suggesting a perfectly sound strategy," he said and wrung the
remaining oil from his beard. "When it became plain that there was no 
stopping the coalition forces, I authorized opening valves on the Sea 
Island oil terminal that would flood the Gulf with oil. It would foul 
desalinization processes on the U.S. navy ships, make landings more 
difficult, and give our forces more time to retreat under cover of 
smoke from burning oil wells." 

As soon as I realized I was talking with the person who had authorized
the scorched earth policy at the end of the Gulf War, other 
possibilities came to mind that caused concern. Was there a zone in 
hell that might require a radiation suit and was I anywhere near it? 
And what were the chemicals that had caused the Love Canal development 
in Niagara, New York  to be at the forefront of everyone's mind in the 
1970s? Dioxin? Oh joy. 

From behind us a sloppy sound was making its way closer. I turned to see
an ungainly bird flapping heavy wings and running as best it could our 
direction. It leaped into the air, flapped its enormous wings twice, 
missed Moe by inches, and struck the messy Iraqi commander in his 
chest, throwing him off balance and knocking him back into a pool of 
hydrocarbon quicksand. The bird looked almost comfortable with a leg 
above each of the man's shoulders and seated on his chest as it pecked 
at his face. 

As we moved on, I found myself paying more attention than ever to the
ground ahead of us. Very hard and very dry, the earth in this region, 
and something from Inferno returned to me. 

"Moe, this zone included more than the suicidal, didn't it?" 

"Yes, while the suicidal squandered the bodies God gave them, this
circle also includes those who squandered the resources God gave them." 


"All right, then that explains the messy gentleman to our rear. He
squandered Kuwaiti resources for the sake of Iraqi troops," I said and 
relaxed a little over the possibility of exotic ways to die. 

Clockwise of us I heard rapid foot falls and turned to see a wiry man
running our direction. 

"They're right behind me. Run!" he said as he approached and passed us.
"Whatever it is is not for us. Don't be concerned," Moe said with a 
cautious look clockwise. 

Four black shadows flashed past us, took down their prey in a heartbeat
and tore into his flesh. They were slim, sleek and muscular, like black 
greyhounds on steroids. After their interest had subsided and the 
screaming had stopped they turned and headed inward. 

"Can I do anything?" I asked as I bent down next to the man who remained
in the fetal position he had assumed during the attack. 

"Nuffing to do," he said, enunciating poorly because one of the
hellhounds had taken off his left cheek. We sat silently with him until 
the pain became manageable and he was able to speak somewhat clearly. 

"What was their issue with you?" 

"They were being wantonly destructive. It's a payback kind of thing, I
suppose." 

"What did you do?" 

"I was a journalist. I wanted to change the world, to improve the world
around me by telling people what they needed to hear." 

"And who decided what needed to be heard? I was always bothered by
reporters who claimed their motivation behind getting into journalism 
was to 'change the world'. I always imagined journalism was more about 
proclaiming truth to people. How did you stilt things so that you wound 
up here?" 

"I was an investigative reporter. I looked for the truth, as you said,
but when I found it I used it like a bludgeon against whatever entities 
had tried to hide it. Sure, a few innocent bystanders got drawn into 
the story and suffered some damage as a result, but thousands of people 
who had been injured by prescription drugs or short cuts taken in the 
development of the next generation of automobile air bags were able to 
receive restitution." 

"So how many reputations did you wrongly harm?" 

"Many. In fact I know of at least two who are over in the woods thanks
to my work. Guess they couldn't live with the guilt." 

"But people don't end up here because they merely told the truth on
someone. You must have actively tried to damage people or the companies 
they had built and enjoyed doing so." 

"It was a bit like a drug. When you successfully champion a cause you
must do yourself one better the next time. It began with simple 
exposure of the facts and quickly became a game of attacking the 
responsible parties, painting them before the world as evil, greedy for 
gain at the expense of whoever seemed like the most sympathetic group 
at the moment." 

"Then you willfully destroyed reputations, and in the process caused
some to react in such a way that they committed suicide. What do you 
have to do to someone to cause them to consider suicide as the only 
option?" 

"One of the people I mentioned was a respected presenter of the news who
sat behind an anchor desk and read the news before a TV camera. An 
allegation of sexual harassment had been made by several women though 
nothing they said could be corroborated. But the appearance of 
misconduct on the part of a revered local celebrity was just too good 
not to run with and too much for him to live with." 

I shook my head and turned away. As I looked at the path ahead of us I
noticed what looked like a small building of the professional variety. 
Lots of windows like the kind you see in elementary schools, short and 
wide and too high to be able to look through from the inside, an 
aluminum framed door and windows for an entryway, and even a sign out 
front. I slowly made course corrections that would bring us closer to 
the building thinking Moe might not notice the shift in trajectory. He 
noticed. 

"Must we indulge every curiosity?" 

"You seriously aren't interested? Or have you been there before?" 

"Yes. And no. Knowledge of hell's workings does me no good." 

As he spoke we got close enough to read the sign and I sensed Moe was
right after all. We were approaching the Margaret H. Sanger Health 
Center. 

"What was this person's crime that she is memorialized by having a
structure in hell named in her honor?" 

"She stressed the importance of controlling population growth and its
positive effects on the various societies of the world. It all sounded 
responsible and benign on the surface but if you looked behind the 
window dressing you saw a very different picture. She really wanted to 
control particular portions of the population and their ability to 
reproduce. Were you at all familiar with the eugenics program Hitler 
had in place in Germany in the mid-1930s?" 

"I was aware something odd was happening in that region of Europe and
felt that these efforts just might lead to what it inevitably did lead 
to." 

"Well this Sanger woman was one of the inspirations for Hitler's
interest in the whole subject of eugenics. If you get rid of the less 
fit among us they won't reproduce, weaknesses will be eliminated, 
society will improve. Sounded good, moral, and practical at a meeting 
of The Birth Control League in the 1920s, but Hitler showed the world 
where this kind of thinking must ultimately lead. So after a fashion 
she could be called the mother of the Holocaust. In fact, more than one 
of them," I said as I opened the door. 

Signs bearing slogans like "Quick Same Day Abortions" and  "Guaranteed
100% Safe and Pain Free" assaulted us upon entry. 

"Pain free for whom?" I asked an instant before the air was punctuated
with a basso profundo scream. 

"Not him," Moe said as he leaned in the direction of the sounds of
discomfort. He could act as disinterested as he wanted to, but he was 
curious. 

I opened the door leading out of the waiting room and into the back of
the office and saw several other doors. A few screams and a little 
investigation later Moe and I found ourselves standing outside the door 
to the room the screams seemed to be coming from. Moe cracked the door 
and I strained to observe inside.  A trouble light was hanging from a 
wire of some sort that had been attached to an electrical box on the 
ceiling and bent into a hook. Beneath the light five demons dressed in 
surgical garb that dated to maybe the nineteen-teens stood around a 
table. 

"Hold still, little froggy. If you squirm this will just be more
difficult," the demon holding the knife dripping with blood said to the 
"patient" on the table. Another demon reached under the table, the 
sound of a shop vac filled the room and there was more screaming. 

"Dr. Kildreemz, may I step in?" 

"Yes, you're fully qualified," the "doctor" said and the intern (?)
stepped into the space between the stirrups. As the doctor moved out of 
the way I noticed that his surgical cap was really just a baseball cap 
worn backwards. 

"This shouldn't hurt one bit. Oops," the intern said. More screams. "I
guess there's more than one way to prevent future unwanted 
pregnancies." 

Dr. Kildreemz looked down at the floor and said, "Actually, it's two.
Step aside for the benefit of those in the gallery." 

The demons moved to the opposite side of the table and looked at the two
of us standing in the doorway. On the table lay a man in both stirrups 
and restraints who had been filleted like a trout. On a stainless steel 
tray lay a liver, a kidney, one eyeball with the optic nerve still 
attached, and little price tags like those in the fresh meat case 
containing the higher dollar cuts of meat at your nicer grocery stores, 
though I was stunned by the value placed on the patient's organs. He 
was still breathing, tears were streaming and his teeth firmly held his 
lower lip as his whole body shook. 

The smell of the procedure reached us and I found my digestive system
suddenly operating in reverse. 

"Sorry," I said to Moe as I attempted to regain my composure. 

"Don't be concerned, we make contingencies for such things," Dr.
Kildreemz said and whipped out a small spray bottle, as did the others. 
"We'll just flush the area whose sterility has been compromised." 

"NOOOOO!" the man on the table shouted. 

"Froggy, it's just a saline solution." 

"But it's a caustic saline. The concentration is strong enough to... You
may as well be using Round-Up." 

"We'd never use anything you wouldn't, Froggy," the doctor said and the
spritzing commenced.  The screams were deeper and the patient shook 
convulsively. Then the operating team donned leather work gloves and 
began scrubbing the area they had flushed with saline. Having no more 
energy, the patient whimpered and twitched occasionally. 

"Did he say saline?" Moe asked. 

"Yes. They are most probably discussing a hypertonic saline abortion
solution." 

"You mentioned that earlier, the subject of abortion. It seems to me
clear as daylight that abortion would be a crime." 

"Would that the leadership of my nation felt the same way." 

"Jerry, don't you see what they're doing?" 

"Other than the obvious?" 

"They're rubbing salt into the wounds." 

The activity stopped, Dr. Kildreemz pointed at Moe, said, "I like that!"
and announced the patient was ready for recovery. 

"Before he goes may I try something?" the intern asked. He held a stone
disk maybe two foot in diameter and six inches thick with a square hole 
in the center. Through the hole a four foot length of rope was tied to 
itself. With the doctor's permission he slipped the rope over the 
patient's neck and dropped the stone. The patient's eyes bulged as he 
strained against the rope to breathe. Long past the point when he 
should have passed out he was still trying to inhale and blood vessels 
were bursting like grains of popcorn in hot oil all over his face. 

The intern removed the stone and asked, "So was the millstone or the
procedure better for you, Froggy?" 

A millstone around the neck... 

"And what was that about?" the doctor asked. 

"Just a test of the veracity of scripture," the intern replied with a
touch of disappointment. "And he indicated the millstone was preferred. 
You there, give us a hand. We're very busy. Run our little froggy into 
recovery." 

I took a deep breath, stepped up to the gurney, and pushed the nearly
weightless patient transport toward a pair of swinging doors at the 
opposite end of the room. The doors opened with a plastic thwapping 
noise like something you might expect to hear in a meat packing house. 
As they closed I heard the doctor welcoming his next patient. 

"Maggie, long time no see..." he said and I paused to look over my
shoulder. An assistant was laying out a series of wire coat hangers 
bent into various configurations on the instrument table. "I'll only 
need the rusty scalpel. Her liver is on the menu tonight in Hell's 
Kitchen." 

"Gordon Ramsey doesn't have anything to do with that, does he?" I
wondered. 

"Never heard the name," the 'doctor' said and turned his back to us.
When he did I noticed not a team emblem on his hat but the logo of the 
Lamborghini car company. Hm. 

At the far end of the recovery room a demon stood with a pair of signal
wand flashlights indicating where I should be placing the patient. The 
inside of the building was much larger than the outside would have 
indicated. A tesseract? In a portion of the universe where water 
doesn't phase shift like it should and gravity compresses and 
decompresses on a whim, why not a hypercube? Anyway, it took me a good 
ten minutes to get to our slot. On the way I saw all manner of surgical 
abuse in various stages of healing. At one point I noted a pile of 
flame-blackened flesh crunching as the chest cavity moved up and down. 
I wasn't going linger over or ask about that one, though I did notice 
the charred remains of a keffiyeh bearing Arabic script that contained 
the phrase "I am a soldier in the army of Allah" wrapped around his 
head. No, I couldn't then nor can I now read Arabic, but it's amazing 
what you can learn from a search engine. 

After we found and made use of an exit Moe paused, looked at me and
asked, "Why were they calling him 'froggy'?" 

"I think I finally recognized him but to make it clear to you I'd have
to explain what a Muppet is. Still curious?" 

"I suppose not. Let's press on," he said and turned towards the dead
trees in the distance.


   



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