A Trip Through the Inferno (A Short Story)

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Halloween dawned with gray rain falling softy. The sound was soothing, urging her to stay in bed. It was Saturday, so sleeping in was a possibility. She got out of bed just long enough to turn up the heat a little, enough to take the chill out of the air. It was one of those mornings made for staying cozy under the covers, listening to “Weekend Edition” on NPR and falling asleep again if the body says so. She made it as far as the Sandra Bullock interview before she dozed off. The second awakening called for food and something hot to drink. Potato chips and fun sized Snickers along with green tea comprised the breakfast menu because she needed to consume something healthy.
Standing in the kitchen, munching on the candy, waiting for the kettle to boil, she saw a spider descend from the ceiling on a silver thread as thin as a strand of hair. There was no web, only a single spider and a single silver thread. The spider did not scare her, rather she was fascinated by the oddity of the occurrence. She reached for the broom she kept by the door leading from the kitchen to the hallway. She kept an old-fashioned broom in every room, not because she was a neatnik but because she liked the symbolism of male and female – the handle and the bristles – together in an elegant complementarity. She thought the broom was a guardian presence, reminding her of a family legend about her great grandmother, self-respect, and courage.
She swept the spider out of the house onto the patio because she always tried not to kill a spider, paying homage to the African tradition that spiders trap and kill other insects, so they are good luck. She called spiders Anansi after the West African tradition brought to the new world of Anansi the spider who was a trickster, a story-teller, and a symbol of cunning, slave resistance, and survival. Returning to the silver thread that hung from the ceiling, there was something different about it, a special shine, an unusual play of light. She wanted to touch it before she swept it away, but when she tried to, she recognized that it was not a string at all. It was an opening. This was a perceptible, touchable metaphysics more subtle, more ephemeral, something beyond anything earthly mathematics and science could calculate or theorize.
She touched it again and a portal to a new dimension opened. Her curiosity overcame her fear, and she stepped through an open door into a blinding light. She looked behind her, and her kitchen, her house, anything familiar was gone. Then, in a flash, she felt herself falling into a darkness so deep, so thick that she could feel it on her skin. Now she became afraid because this falling was not flying. It was not the free fall of a lucid dream that is terrifying until one reminds oneself that this is only a dream and that the fall with not kill. Relax. Fly.
Soon her feet touched solid ground, but there was still no light, no wall to touch, no stars, nothing to help her get her bearings. She could sense nothing. No smell. No sound. No taste. She had no guess about where in all of creation she was. She did not know whether she ought to walk, run, go forward, back, or to the side. The only thing she could think to do was to call out. “Hello”, she yelled as loudly as she could. Her voice seemed to reverberate against nothingness. Another strange impossibility. So, she stood still for the longest time until the darkness started to recede a little and become dark grey.
Now she could see shadows, but not only could she see shadows, she started to feel things on her skin that she had never felt before. She could feel emotions – grief, fear, regret, sorrow, anger, frustration, pain – come into her being through her skin. Suddenly she could see and hear and know the inner anguish of the beings she saw around her. She recognized the place from Dante’s “Inferno.” She was standing on the outskirts of hell atop a bottomless pit of retribution and suffering, and she was utterly alone. No poet guide. No companion. No friend. No enemy. She had only herself and her own feeble understanding of where she was and of what was happening to her.
She saw the indecisive spirits chasing a banner and being chased by flies and hornets. She felt on her skin and in her soul the bites and stings of the insects. She found herself searching for God, Divine Love, grace, mercy, rationality, something to salve the soul wounds. Is there a balm in Gilead? Is it to be found in this desolate place? She slipped down a slope a little deeper into the pit, and bug bites where no longer her problem. Now her body internalized an insatiable desire for sex. She wanted to touch and to be touched, not because of love, but because her body said so with no explanation. She was taken up into the hurricane that allowed the lustful no peace, no rest, no sleep, an unyielding attack by the enemy who uses lust to corrode love.
Just at the moment she thought the hurricane would send her swirling into a forever perdition, she found herself waste deep in fetid, putrid mud along with the gluttonous souls assigned to this ring of hell where they will eat and eat and never know satisfaction. Rain, snow, and hail pelted her along with them. There was no space for judgment. She understood that she was one of them as she understood that she was one with all of the sinners. Again, as she resigned herself to this as a final destination, the scene shifted again, and she was face to face with Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the gates of hell. Its growl, blood-chilling bark, its vicious teeth and powerful body allowed souls in, but did not allow any out. No exit. And she was at once Cerberus, herself, and all the souls trapped in the inferno. She became at once predator and prey, the guard and the prisoner. Then she realized that like so much in the world she lived in, there was no way out but through. She had already become one of the damned.
She rolled huge weights with the hoarders and the spendthrifts. She tore at the other damned souls with the wrathful, and slept beneath the slim with the sluggish. She felt to her marrow the violence unleashed upon heretics and those who lacked self-control. Then all she could think of was the past, the historical past, and her own past. When she was not thinking of the past, she was thinking of the future in this place of no hope. There was no present, no now, and this was the most unkind punishment of all.
When she realized there was no now, she found herself swimming for her life in a boiling river of blood. She was fighting to keep from drowning along with all those from history who had perpetrated violence. There were famous names and those known only to their victims. She could smell the blood, taste its salt and iron. The heat was unbearable. The perpetrators wanted to tell her their stories, to explain the logic of their crimes. They wanted to confess. She felt their sorrow and regret, but she had no patience for it. At the same time, she was glad there was retributive justice in this dimension of creation.
She escaped the river of boiling blood to find her way to a level deeper down where blasphemers lay supine, usurers lived in a crouching position while flakes of fire rained down upon them. She wore the money pouches that hung around the necks of those who committed fraud, and she drowned in excrement with the panderers and seducers. She was tormented by pitch fork wielding devils along with those who betrayed their country and their responsibilities. She wept with the hypocrites and wore the gilded, lead-lined cloaks. She ran with the thieves who were tormented by serpents. Her whole being caught fire, burned to ashes and reconstituted itself for the process to begin again. Her guts spilled out of her body as did the guts of those who sew discord. Like the falsifiers, she could not stop scratching at diseased sores. Her tears froze and locked her eyes in a fixed stare just as those who had betrayed guests and associates.
She felt someone chewing her skull and eating her brain as she chewed the skulls and ate the brains of those who murdered their own kin. She could see clearly now that all of humankind was kin. Her soul died while her body lived possessed by demons. All of this permeated her sense of herself from skin to bone to dead soul and back again. When she was at the bottom of the bottom of the pit, she saw in the distance before her a sliver of light, the same thin, delicate quivering, ephemeral door that had brought her to this dimension.
However, while all this time, what seemed an eternity, she thought that the evil had possessed her completely, there remained a part of herself that was untouched by the horror. It was her love. The love that loved her children, family, beloved, friends, work, nature and creation; her love that loved strangers and enemies and that loved the unlovable; her love for ancestors she had never met and for her parents now with the ancestors who had blessed her with a love beyond any measure; this love gave her the strength to run toward the light. She wanted desperately to get home to see again the people she loved.
So she ran with all she had left in her. She ran away from the horror toward a promise of a better way to live life in the eternal now, with an understanding that our actions, even our thoughts and words have consequences, that there is no room to judge sinners because we have all sinned and fallen short. Every one of us could find a home in one of the circles of hell. She ran now, not toward home, but toward, mercy, grace, forgiveness and a love that was deeper, stronger, and more powerful than her own capacity to love. She ran away from the accuser and toward the advocate. She ran away from retribution and toward restoration. She ran away from terror and torment into gratitude and peace. She ran from All Hallows Eve to All Saints Day. She ran beyond her own exhaustion, beyond her own self, and finally reached the open door.
The moment she touched it, she was back standing in her kitchen, holding her broom. The kettle whistled. Only a few minutes had passed. Nothing was different. Everything was different.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.”