In a dream I went to Hell.
It started out with me dead. Nothing about how I died, or why I was dead. Just me dead, waiting around in Purgatory to see what happened next.
Purgatory had the ambience of an underground parking garage. It was made of cast concrete, lit with buzzing, failing florescent lights in dingy fixtures, and the smell made me suspect that there was a seepage problem somewhere. And it was cold. Not so cold that you were shivering and chattering, just cold enough to see your breath, too cold to sit down on the concrete. Some people were there too, but they were all pretty busy going about their own business and they didn’t want to talk to me.
So I just wandered around, looking for a stair-well or an exit or something, until someone yelled, “There he is, over there!” And then a bunch of guys came trotting over to me.
Here were my friends.
Not my friends from this earth, but my friends from Heaven. You see, the saints are your friends in Heaven, and any saint that you have ever mentioned in your prayers can come to visit you in Purgatory. Unfortunately, most of the big saints are kept pretty busy. Joseph, Frances, Jude; they’re occupied with petitions and devotions most of the time and a fellow in Purgatory would be lucky to get five minutes of their time. (Don’t even ask how harried Mary is.) So most souls in Purgatory don’t get many visits from their friends in Heaven, and certainly not on the first day.
But I was lucky. I had been devoted to several particularly obscure saints and now here they were: the sagacious Pipin of Landen with his raucous buddy Arnulf of Metz (patron of bad husbands), Hubert (patron of hunters), and Charles Augustus (patron of lovers). And they were really glad to see me too, because they didn’t know a lot of people in Purgatory nowadays. Hubert was regular buddies with Gerhard Roßbach, and Charles came down to see Barbarossa most days, but the other two hadn’t visited anyone in Purgatory since Alban Butler had made it up to Heaven some time ago.
They were really eager to help me out and they said the first thing for me to do was find my Guardian Angel. We started out and Arnulf explained to me that Guardian Angels weren’t really very helpful at all. They were purely spiritual beings, without carnal desires, and they usually had no idea of why you had done the things you did, so they pretty much blamed you for all your sins. Mostly they thought they were doing their job if they kept Satan from tempting you unfairly with prospects of world dominion, the use of dæmonic powers, or offers of marriage from Jennifer Lopez, but they would pretty much let the Prince of Darkness throw the usual seven deadly sins at you day in and day out.
So we found my guardian angel. She was a mature woman in a wool tweed suit who spoke with an educated British accent — in fact, she may have been Eleanor Bron. She was all business. She had a clip-board with all my information on it and she looked it over before she started in. First she had to explain the rules.
You couldn’t stay in Purgatory for more than a day unless you were saved. If you were damned, then off you went to Hell (or Limbo) when the cleaning crew came through at sundown.
In order to be saved you had to have the right sacraments. “There they are,” she said, “On your belt.” I looked down and there were keys hanging from my belt. There were five of them, and she took them and counted them out: “Let’s see —Baptism, Confirmation, Communion, Confession, and Matrimony. No Holy Orders, but you can’t have that if you’re married, and no Last Rites, but you are excused from having that one if you die suddenly. Just the right number — good!”
She checked that off on her clip-board and then went on to explain about reparations for sin. “Every sin has a cost and that cost has to be met with prayer and good works. Now — if you’d already made perfect reparation for you sins you’d have gone straight to Heaven. But obviously, since you’re here, you’ve still got a debt to pay. Of course, you’re dead so you can’t perform any more good works, but you can pray, and that’s your job now. You can pray for yourself and your friends can pray for you, both the ones still on earth and the ones in Heaven …”
With this, my Saint friends began to slap my shoulder and assure me that they’d help me out all they could.
Looking over her clip board, my guardian angel went on, “Judging from your record — working by yourself you ought to be able to pray off this debt in about twenty years.”
“Twenty years?” Pepin objected, but they she showed him the clip-board and he nodded, “Oh, right — there’s that …”
“Just one more thing,” my angel said curtly, “Though it really doesn’t apply to you. A few centuries back Mary put through a special rule for people who had extra sacraments, sacraments you don’t need to get into Heaven like Holy Orders or Unction. Anyway, if you have an extra sacrament you can give it to someone else who’s short a sacrament or two …”
“Well, technically you’re free to give away any sacrament, but in your case you need all the ones you’ve got to get into Heaven.”
“I see —” I thought this over and then asked, “Can I give away my baptism?”
“Well, you could, but then you’d be damned …”
“I guess you already know this, but when I was young, my girlfriend got pregnant and, for all the usual reasons, she had an abortion. Where’s that baby now?”
“Probably in Limbo —” my Angel flipped though the sheets on her clip board and answered, “Yes: baby boy, died unbaptized, sent to Limbo 24 August 1996 …”
“Could I give him my baptism?”
With this my friends got quite upset. Hubert especially took me by the shoulders and shook me, “Don’t be damned, you damned fool!”
But I had to know, so I practically yelled, “Could I give him my baptism?”
“And would that save him?”
Pepin grabbed me by the shoulder and drew me away. He was the most reasonable of my friends, counselor to kings, father of two sainted girls, husband of another saint. “Damned is for keeps,” he said quietly, “In Hell there is no love, and without love is no heat, and eventually everyone in Hell freezes solid. Men come in all hot with hatred and loathing, but soon enough their passions burn out and they freeze solid, entombed forever in ice, fully conscious, unable ever again to move or speak. Hell has been frozen for so long, and is so cold, that some of the Dæmons have begun to freeze up. At the end of time, even Satan himself will be frozen and immobile. Don’t be damned. You have friends in Heaven who will miss you and you have children still on earth who will want to see you again.”
Then impulsive Hubert came over to us, “Look!” He took me by the arm and brought his face right up to mine, “Limbo is an okay place! Everyone in Limbo enjoys a perfect natural happiness. They hunt all day and eat a roast every supper. They sit at table in the evenings toasting their friends. No one is ever sick. It’s not a bad time at all …”
Arnulf took my other arm and backed Hubert up, “Your son is happy where he is. You could be saved and he’d still be happy. But if you were damned then — well, you’d just be damned!”
Charles just shrugged, “Young men make mistakes. Don’t be damned for something you did a long time ago.”
I was deeply touched that they were so keen to see me in Heaven with them, but I was adamant. “Letting her get that abortion was the worst thing I’ve ever done. I’ve never forgiven myself for that, and now I have a chance to make it up to my son. I could never be happy in Heaven knowing my son could never be saved.”
“Look!” Hubert was really worried, “Think it over! Sleep on it, you can always trade it in tomorrow. Don’t be impulsive about this.”
“No —” I looked down and shook my head, “My mind is made up. I could never be happy in Heaven without my son.”
“Your mind is made up?” my Angel asked.
“Very well —” she flipped all the way to the last few sheets on her clip-board and pulled out a form, “I’ll fill out all the paper work. Pepin, could you go get Mary? This is a Fatal Trade of Sacraments and she’ll have to handle it.”
Pepin nodded and headed off.
“Oh, shit!” Hubert shook his head and grumbled, “I’m going to go find Roßbach and help him pray. He still wants to be saved!” Then he stalked off.
My Guardian Angel began to ask questions and tick off boxes on the form, “You realize the alienation of a sacrament is irrevocable and will result in your damnation?”
“You do this of your own free will and without reservation?”
“You are not subject to any coercion or duress, have not received any compensation for this action, and expect no tangible reward?”
She held out the clip-board, “Sign please.”
I reached into my pocket where there was a pen. I signed at the bottom of the form and as I did, I realized that the pen was full of my own blood. I had signed with my own blood.
Very shortly Pepin came back with Mary. She was quite simply the most beautiful woman I had ever seen and she was very glad to see me. “Is this the fellow?” she asked.
“Yes,” my angel answered, handing her the clip-board.
“Oh, is he really going to give up his baptism for his son?” she asked, and reading the form she saw her answer. Then she turned to me, “I’ll take it now.”
I reached down to my belt and took my Baptism off the key ring. I gave it to her and, as she took it in her hand, her other hand stroked mine ever so briefly. Then she left with my guardian angel.
“Oh, well —” Charles sighed, “It’s done.”
The others nodded, and then Arnulf said, “Remember when …” and then he told one of my best anecdotes and the other fellows laughed. They knew all about me, they liked me, and they began to joke around with me. I realized that they knew they only had a few hours to see me and so I resolved to make the best of it and I had one last good talk with my friends.
We probably had been talking and joking for an hour or more when there was a flurry of excitement over on the other end of the floor. We could see Mary, and she was coming towards us with her blue robes flowing behind her because she was almost trotting towards us. As she got closer I could see that she held something in her arms and when she got to us she said, “I’m not supposed to do this, but I thought you would like to see your son before I took him to Heaven.”
My son was just a baby and she held him in her arms. He was all naked and pink and helpless, but he was smiling and cooing and maybe even giggling. My arms ached to hold him, but I was certain it wasn’t allowed. Just the same, my heart was full and at peace.
Just then, he reached up and touched Mary on the chest and began to nuzzle his head against her. “Oh, look!” Mary purred, “The little dear is hungry —” Quite calmly, like it was the most normal thing in the world, she opened her garment and took out a breast fairly bursting with milk. She gave it to my son to suckle and stroked his head, “There now, have all you want …”
But by then it was sundown and everyone who didn’t belong in Purgatory had to leave. Mary and the saints all headed for the ramp up. A guy with a broom told me I had to take the ramps down all the way to the bottom and go to Hell.
So I went to Hell.
It was about twenty levels down and each level got colder. Pretty soon I could see my breath and I was shivering by the time I got to the bottom. The gate of Hell was like an old refrigerator door made of round-cornered white enamel-steel with a big chromed latching handle.
There were about twenty guys already there at the gate, and I could see more men and women trailing after us on the ramps, but I was the one who actually opened up the gate and went in.
We were met by dæmons that looked like body-builders with scaly skin and the heads of bull-dogs. They had tridents and they shoved us forward like cattle to the slaughter. The whole place was dark and excruciatingly cold. A wind whipped crystals of ice into our faces and off in the distance we could see souls frozen into agonized contortions.
Suddenly there came a bellowing shout, “Who let him in?” It was Satan himself, a very handsome man in an Armani suit. He held a saber and he shoved it right at me, “You can’t come in!”
“But I’m damned,” I explained, “I gave away my Baptism.”
“Somebody give him a Baptism!” Satan ordered, but everyone in the crowd drew away. “By God’s Wounds, must I do everything around here myself?” He cursed and then he strode a few yards away to where a man was frozen on all fours. Then Satan took his saber and slashed at the ice encasing the man until he had hacked loose the few sacraments handing from the frozen man’s belt. He picked them up and threw them at me, raging, “Take them all and get out of Hell!”
“But I’m damned!” I insisted.
“You can’t be damned!” Satan was really furious now and he practically yelled down my throat, “God knows the rules and so do you: now get out!”
“But — why can’t I be damned?”
“Because the love in your heart would cause all of Hell to melt!”
That’s when I woke up.
I tried, but I couldn’t get back to sleep that night, what with grieving for my child and the pillow all soaked with tears.