|Skinwalker chapter 5 (standard:travel stories, 8996 words) [5/5] show all parts|
|Author: Eutychus||Added: Mar 28 2018||Views/Reads: 272/112||Part 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. Tweet
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