Monday, 13 July 2015
The Unbound Library
[Image was of the Vintage paperback edition's cover of The Master and Margarita]
As some of you may know, Unbound authors were asked to name their favourite book for inclusion in the Unbound Library. My suggestion was The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Suffice to say this is one of the books that inspired the Rolling Stones 'Sympathy for the Devil'. Check out other books in the Unbound Library here . There are some fantastic reads to choose from and some that I had quite forgotten about. Everything from Harper Lee to Michael Moorcock is on the shelves.
Anyway, here is a (longish) short story for you to read.
Welcome to Hell
It's hard work. I don't mind it. Anyway, consider the alternatives. Coming through the vestibule was the worst. All those fence sitters, takers of no side at all. Josef said the same, besides what good does washing one's hands do? Ask Pontius or Lady MacB. Anyway, like I always say, there's always work for a resourceful type. I was a Kapo you know, this isn't so different. Only, I was a bit surprised by the sign over the gate. All that 'Abandon Hope All Ye' business. The sign over the camps was less, what? Obvious. Also, no-one calls it Sheol. Funny that. Oh I know that's where I should have ended up, but what's in a name?
So, it's like anywhere, you've got to be processed. This goy with a clipboard comes over.
I tell him 'Moyshe Pinkenstern'
He looks down the list.
'Special treatment. Or Sonderbehandlung, maybe, huh?'
A look around at the other clipboard holders doesn't get the laughs. Anyhow, he didn't laugh at my joke, since, of course, Pinkenstern is just a made up name, no more my name than his.
Which is maybe why I end up with my goy guy as guide. Publius. He looks about fifty, if those years have been better than the KZ and worse than the Ritz. He's wearing a frou-frou shirt with big sleeves and some kind of cravat. His trousers are tucked into his boots. One of those sleeves is thrown out in front of him, so I know there must be an arm in there somewhere. His mouth opens and I hope it isn't poetry that's going to come out.
'Guide, guide to the circles,
give me one obol.
It's worth the trobol!'
He points a finger at his chest,
'Publius's the name, guiding's the game.'
He sees me looking at his costume.
'Doesn't this say poet to you?'
'It says getting arrested on the Ku'damm to me.'
Quick as flash he's wearing some kind of short tunic and those sandals that must take ages to do up all the way round your lower leg.
'So does that,' I tell him
There was nothing for me in Limbo, although I saw a few from Ozwiecim. A few bald men with beards were interrupting each other and making wild hand gestures like actors from the Yiddish Theatre. Ha Shem knows what they were on about; it was all Greek to me. Anyway, it took a while to get past them since Publius seemed to want to talk to them all. I did see a beautiful shiksa with one of her, you know, out. Disgusting, if you ask me, but she did have a spear. Saw a lot of Arab faces too, but not many blue eyes. There was a man in round eye-glasses and a loin cloth. Had a lot of young girls around him and smile on his face. Perhaps he was from India.
'Maybe,' Publius says. 'Get all sorts in Limbo. Not their fault. No Christianity available, Geographical or temporal unavailability is no excuse though, so down here they come.'
I think maybe I prefer the poetry.
Well, like I said, nothing for me there. Didn't like to look too much at the next department. Besides it was damned windy. I saw couples hanging on to each other and being blown here and there before grasping at each other again. Publius had to stop and chat to someone he called Cleo. The place was full of Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Spartans, Trojans and Italians, so many Italians. More women than men, so perhaps it's true that women suffer for men's sins. In any case, why would I be interested? The Kapo's armband wasn't the only decoration on my KZ-Kleidung. I was the only Kapo with a pink triangle.
We're just on our way out and Publius says,
'So, whaddaya think? This the place for you?'
'No,' I say.
'Guess not Mr Pinkenstern.'
I think about telling him to shove an obol up his arschloch, but he might take it the wrong way.
I got to say, I felt sick at the next stage. A fierce and icy rain was falling, it gathered in foul ponds. I had smelled nothing like it since the storm after the ovens broke down for a day and we had to dig instead of burn. Well, that was then. At this gateway was a huge worm. You could see vast bellies protruding above the surface of all the foul and slushy water. Every shape of paunch, gut and bloated stomach could be seen for miles. The worm was stuffing one such in his mouth. I swear it was the fat fool Goering, there was crimson staining his pink uniform. Well, of course, there was little meat on my bones, so I made to walk past the worm.
Publius lets out a shriek like a virgin among gypsies,
'Jupiter's Balls! Hold on, Pinky. Cereberus likes the meat near the bone too!'
He grabs my arm and bends to pick up mud.
'What? We're making mud pies now?'
He just balls up a load of mud and jams it into the worm's mouth.
'More!' he says, and I oblige him by making mud-pies of my own.
This gives us time to get past the guardian. I wipe my hands on Publius's tunic thing.
We stepped carefully between the foetid pools. There were a lot of American accents, I walked quickly, remembering the GIs at the end of the March from the camp. Naturally, by that time, I had discarded the armband, but there were plenty to point bony fingers. I didn't care. Only the strong survived. Why be ashamed?
Publius jerks his head back towards the stinking waters,
'Not for you then, Pinky? Not much opportunity for Gluttony where you've come from.'
'Don't call me Pinky,' I say.
The next department was just meshuggah. Two vast bands of disorganised fools battering at each other. One side was full of Popes, Cardinals and richly-vestmented men of the Christian God. I thought I recognised Father Serafinowicz. He gave Hans-Rudolf Höss his first communion under the eyes of his proud father in the Catholic Church at Ozwiecim. The other side was made up of grim men and women in black and dull clothing.
'Hey Publius, let go, I want to speak with Father Serafinowicz over there!'
Publius drags me on. 'They won't hear you, they don't fear you...'
I interrupt. 'Enough already with the Poetry schtick.'
We carry on.
The two warring factions screamed 'Wastrel' and 'Miser' at each other as appropriate. I remembered the expensive watch that Rudolf Höss had given to the priest, although I never found out to whom it had belonged. This gigantic childish melée was noisy and that was all. Boring, in fact.
So boring that Publius opens his mouth.
'Fortune. Fate. Blind luck?
What raises us up...'
'I tell you what, Publius.
Who gives a fuck?'
Which shuts him up for a while at least.
We came to yet another river. All that talk about the fires of hell and the damn place was full of water. It looked wide. Naturally, there was a ferryman.
'Phleggy, my friend,
a favour to that end
the river we may cross.
I'll pay in discourse
for money's only dross.'
'Tosser!' says Phlegyas, for that's his full name.
I learned that word from British Interrogators. Where Publius learned it from I don't know, but know it he must, for he says
'Aliquot masturbandum est'
which even I know must have something to do with the solitary vice.
A vast sea-battle was being conducted on the river. Almost every face I remembered from the camp raged and stormed at others who seemed equally moved to anger. There were Armenians, Russians and countless Asians. We continued past these angry fools. What was there to be angry about? We Jews had been weak and complicit in our own destruction. Others had been so too, throughout history. I was not angry, I am not angry.
It was marshy on the other side of the river. We came up hard against a city wall. It looked like one of those old walled cities in Southern Germany.
'What's that?' I'm pointing at the gates to the city.
'It's Dis,' Publius says.
'Yes, Dis. Are you completely ignorant?'
Publius points his finger and says 'Dat!'
He laughs and I think about the time I saw 'Entensuppe' at the cinema.
'I'm Jewish, how am I supposed to know all this stuff?'
Publius looks as though his gruntle has moved to Dis.
'Greece is the cradle of all civilisation.'
I refrain from saying tell it to the Mesapotamians.
After a while Publius dis-mounts his high horse and lets me know that the Dis is the capital of the Underworld.
'It's a helluva place, ain't it?' I say.
We were surrounded by bent-backed angels with broken wings. We hadn't even got through the gates of Dis, before these oafs swooped down and landed a little unsteadily.
'Papers, Papers! Haff you papers, show der papers.'
This one is wearing a peaked cap. The visor is almost vertical over his eyes. I've seen his type before and I wish I had some papers to show him.
Publius produces two Ausweise from somewhere inside his tunic, Jehovah knows where.
'Everything is in order.' He says.
I know from experience this is a foolish thing to say. This is what goons like to say after they have given you the run-around for as long as they feel like it. In fact, it's best just to hand papers over, when you're asked for papers.
'Ve vill see, Herr.. Publius?'
The Goon-in-Chief turns to me and says, 'Zis, who is Zis?'
I don't point at the gate and say 'Zis is Dis', but I'd really like to.
Publius says 'Pinkenstern' and as the goons look at me I feel a cold wind like the one that blows off the Tatra mountains.
I swear the Chief Goon looks at my chest to hunt for a star.
Publius puts two fingers in his mouth and whistles.
An angel comes down and sees the goons off. He touches the door with a stick and we're in.
'Who were they?' I ask.
'They were bent and broken from falling.'
We went in. The Sixth Circle.
It was no surprise to find still more Clergymen. I'd been told by people who did know about such things. It was just hearsay though. Or perhaps I'd even misheard that. There were few Rabbis.
So I mention the scarcity of Rabbis to Publius.
'Perhaps when none can agree on orthodoxy, there is no heresy.'
I tell him to go shit in the sea.
He just laughs. 'That's two storeys up, my friend'
I look up ahead. We're about to embark on a steep decline.
'Is it the 7th circle next, Pubby?'
'Indeed it is, it's a three-ring circle!'
He feels this to be a crack from the wisest of acres. He looks at me slyly,
'You'll be doubly at home, O Stella Rosata!'
We headed into the domain of Violence. A bull-headed figure was picking his teeth with a sharpened stake, but paid no mind at all to me. He was watching the screaming sinners in the river of boiling blood and fire. I felt nauseous, for the place stank like those foul blood sausages the SS stuffed their faces with at every opportunity. There were a few black uniforms amongst those in the river. All were kept from leaving it by sharp-shooting horsemen, whose arrows always managed a non-fatal strike, in the eye or leg. I forded the river and held my nose.
The middle ring also had a few faces I recognised from the KZ. People who'd run towards the wire, or away from the work column. Also a few faces from the newspapers. Dr Goebbels for instance – and his wife. There was no sign of Adolf. At first I thought they had been nailed to trees, but in fact they had become the trees themselves. Gnarled and blackened and diseased. Naked bat-winged women came down to break off limbs and boughs. Others were being chased by marauding dogs. Helferrich, Luther and Schacht each carried huge sacks which were leaking thousands of banknotes as they tried to escape the pack. In fact there were lots of faces from the front pages.
'So, Moishe, the inner ring. I have great hopes of this for you.'
'You do not understand.'
Publius shows me his back and we tramp through the innermost ring of the 7th circle.
It was a desert. Sand blew through the air as hot as the ash that sometimes belched from the incinerators at the camp. I saw a few friends from Fingerhutte in Berlin. Those two Englishmen -they claimed to be writers - who’d spent the 30‘s chasing every blond, blue-eyed nancy boy through Wilmersdorf to Mitte. I’d chased a few of them myself. Publius was looking at me.
‘So, this is for you. I think.’
‘I think we pay for the biggest sin. I won’t be spending eternity here, however many old friends I might meet.’
‘What on earth did you do, Pinky? He shook his head.
‘Your syntax is off, Publius.’
Apart from fellow Lavender Boys, who wandered round the burning desert in groups - no, they were not holding hands – I saw people lying or sitting on the scorching sand. Publius's tunic had proved a hiding place for some thick soled boots. I hopped and danced like a dervish in order to put them on without blistering my feet too much. Those damned that were sitting held sacks of money which they passed back and forth between each other like the hottest of potatoes. Old habits died hard: every so often one offered to hold the bag for a little longer in exchange for some of the contents. Eventually, they would drop the bag and gold coins would scatter on the sand. The coins would be regathered with many squeals and oaths, and the game would begin again. Many of these sinners, but by no means all, wore the kippah. Some wore the Sikh turban, some wore the Arab keffiyah and a sizeable proportion wore a derby or homberg.
'Not even here, Pinky?'
'I think I would meet acquaintances among those sitting if I looked long enough.'
I look at the burned hands of the moneylenders.
'But no, I am not bound for their company.'
Publius's face does not so much fall as collapse in a heap. I realise it must be boring being an infernal tour guide for new arrivals. But then, anything might become boring over an eternity. So I take pity on him.
'Catholics would call it a sin of omission.'
My guide scratches his chin.
'What on earth didn't you do?'
I tell him his syntax is still off.
Passing close by those lying supine, looking at a sky devoid of stars, I heard them muttering, whispering and mumbling. It was a most ecumenical place. Arabs were chanting the ineffable name, over and over again. My people were whispering the 1000 names and interspersing them with every unclean thing they could think of. As the fiery sand burned the skin from their backs they listened to each blaspheming the others' faith. An American voice cried out, 'Kool Aid, get your Kool Aid. God calls us. I'm tellin' ya!' He wore sturdy boots against the hot sand, but he couldn't give the drinks away.
'Where are all the Christians, Publius?'
'They all took Jim's soda pop.'
Jim gives me a wave that I don't return and I tell Publius we should keep moving.
'What for?' he says. 'We've got forever.'
Publius stops short and I bump into him from behind.
'Hey! None of that. It's not in the contract.'
I look down and see why he's stopped so suddenly. We are on the edge of a precipice and it's a long way down.
'So? We jump?'
'Well, we could...'
I step back a few paces to take a run at it.
'No, no,no! Do you want to start all over again?'
'Maybe I'd like that. I'd do things different…'
'Not there, you idiot! Here. From Limbo.'
I thought about this for a while. Whether there could be any circumstances where starting again from a certain point in a story would be useful. Maybe it would be okay in a game. If you could take back a card in a game of Skat. Or put your rook back where it was before you had to knock your king over. Still, what would people learn from playing games like that?
Meanwhile Publius had something resembling a Blechflöte at his lips. I recognised a mangled tune that sounded a little like “Kommt ein Vogel geflogen”. A song I had learned at my mother's knee. What turned up was no bird.
I look at the wings sprouting from a lion's body, which ends in a scorpion's tail. This is not the most surprising thing about the creature. He has a man's face, open and smiling. The face of an Uncle who has süßigkeiten for a young boy as innocent as I myself was once, long ago.
My guide smiles and says, 'Geryon.'
To my horror he points at the back of the creature and says 'Saddle up, cowboy.'
We climb aboard. I'm worried about the scorpion sting, since I'm sitting behind Publius, whose worries for his virtue seem to have disappeared when deciding who was riding pillion.
The beast turns back to look at us as we float down from the cliff.
'Whose face is that? Do I know it?'
Publius laughs. 'Diogenes should have.'
I ask him why to take my mind off our flight into the abyss.
'Diogenes took a lantern and walked all round Athens looking for an honest man.'
'Did he find one?'
'What's the point of telling me that?'
Publius is laughing again. I'm beginning to think he does so at my expense.
'He should have looked in the mirror.'
The beast, Geryon, turns his face again to look at his passengers. I half expect to see my own. But the face is that of Punchinello, so maybe the joke is on me.
We landed without fuss. The beast flew away. We were at the 8th Circle. Two to go.
It's different to other circles. Sub-divided into well, I don't know what. Publius sees my dopey look and says,
'They're called pockets. Evil Pockets.'
I tell him it sounds like something out of a child's fairy tale. Publius gives me a look that would kill me, were I not dead already.
'Evil Pockets of the Fraudulent, to be precise.'
Perhaps there'll be a time when that doesn't sound ridiculous, I do not know when that might be.
We make a whistle-stop tour. Publius still has his blechflöte. In between blowing a bar or two of Danse Macabre, he barks out the various pockets' contents,
'# One Pocket: Panderers and Seducers, whipped in contraflow.
# Two Pocket: Flatterers and Flim-Flammers, steeped in excrement.
# Three Pocket: Simoniacs, sellers of Spiritual Goods, head in rock-holes, flame-burnt feet.
# Four -'
I peer into the pocket, although to tell the truth they all look like smaller sub-divisions of a very large hall indeed as though some landlord has decided to maximise his rental income. There's a face I recognise.
'Look, maybe I'll stop here a while -'
Publius produces a scroll of alarming length. He keeps unrolling until both arms are at full stretch,
'Aha! It says in the contract that once a decision is made it is final and the sinner must remain in his allotted private hell for eternity.'
I beetle my eyebrows, imagine myself waving a cigar,
'What about the Sanity Clause?'
'There is no Sanity Clause, we have Evil Claws in pocket #5.'
'If there ain't no Sanity Clause then the contract is invalid!'
He looks like he's bitten an orange and tasted a lemon, 'It really is most irregular…'
'Listen,' I put an arm round him, he's not such a bad guy. 'Who's going to know? I'll just spend one small infinitesimal part of eternity having a look round in Pocket #4. You hang around, take a break, have a holiday in Hell and you know, we'll carry on later.'
'But… but… it's nearly over. It has to be decided by the Ninth…'
'Yes, yes, like Baseball, I know.'
He gives me his tin-whistle. 'Blow this when you're ready. I'll come.'
'What shall I play?'
He looks over his shoulder, 'You'll work it out.'
I went into Pocket Number 4. Directly in front was a surgical theatre. Rough and ready, but recognisable. A man stood by an operating table dressed in blood-spattered whites.
I recognise the eyes over the surgical mask,
'Hello, Doctor. Or may I call you Josef?'
'I do not think so. You may call me Herr Doktor Mengele.'
'Hey! Is that any way to treat an old friend?'
'Friend? I have no friends – only colleagues.'
'Potay-to Potah-to! Don't you recognise me!'
I look at the long queue of impenitents waiting for their procedure. There are a lot of pointy hats and people carrying crystal balls. One old guy with a long white beard keeps changing into a bent old woman without a beard. They both must have been in the queue a long time.
'The other day I had Nostradamus in here. I think there may have been a mistake. Well, make yourself useful. Strap the next one in.'
The removal has to be quick and dirty. It is, no sooner is it removed than Mengele is resewing at the neck. In no time at all the latest astrologer, fortune teller or false prophet has his head on backwards.
After a week I tell him, 'It is boring, Josef.' He has finally allowed me this familiarity. We are all in it together, down here, after all.
'It is science, Moishe!' He smiles and flattens his hair with a bloodied hand. 'And very boring.'
I left him without a backward glance, haha. There was no obligation to visit all the pockets, but I felt I should. After all, what is time in the underworld. None shall leave. Orpheus is a liar. It took a while to think of what to play on the tin-whistle.
Finally I choose. I play some of Hitler's hated jazz. I play 'Body and Soul'.
Publius arrives on Geryon. I can't resist looking at the chimera's face. It is Kurt, ex-Kabarett performer, Director of the Carousel at that Holiday Camp, Theresienstadt and lately inmate of the camp at Ozwieczim. I despair of finding my place in the 9 circles.
Publius is drunk. He has difficulty standing. I ask him if he has enjoyed his time off.
'Time off? Are you mad? I have been showing O.Henry round. That always happens. Any time I get some time off they send me another drunken writer. Just because I wrote a bit in my day. You make a nice change, Pinky.'
'You can get a drink in here?'
'Only if you're an alcoholic. And the booze doesn't affect you – at all. It's a little extra punishment. Of course, yours truly, the lucky guide gets to down a few with them. I'm not here for dipsomania.'
He hiccoughs, I wonder what would happen if Publius became an alcoholic down here.
'Puh-puh-pocket num' FiFe Polit- poli-pl – Gummint crooks, boiling pitch. Evil Claws on guard. Hode yer nose, Pinky.'
I am stifling a yawn as Pinky addresses the leader of the Evil Claws as 'Evil Tail'.
The Evil Claws make a halt in military fashion the moment Evil Tail lets out a fart like Gabriel's trumpet. I hold my nose, but it's too late. While I cough and splutter, Publius negotiates safe conduct from the Evil Claws. E.T. issues orders by means of tuneful if malodorous trumpetry and we are provided with an escort. It seems we must descend to Pocket #6.
We arrived at a flint staircase. I looked behind us. The Evil Claws were nowhere in sight. Only an Evil Smell lingered to tell us that we had ever had an escort. We slipped and slid down to the next pocket. Pocket #6. Publius hiccoughed 'hypocrites' in answer to my question about those wearing lead cloaks in that particular location. I recognised Caiaphas and was unsurprised by the number of clergy in their heavy raiment. We were soon approaching the 7th Pocket and I caught sight of its guardian. A centaur with a dragon on its shoulders and snakes upon its back. Publius sobered up at the sight of it.
'Ah, let's get through here quickly, Pinky, please.'
'This might be my destination, Publius!' I say, but I know that it isn’t.
He really looks as though he might be sick.
'Are you afraid of the Centaur?'
'Him? Jupiter! No!' He points to the ground. All around the sinners lizards and snakes are snapping at their heels and lower calves. A man dressed in a peculiar shade of green and with a feather in his hat begins to change into a lizard after several bites from a salamander. Another man in co-respondent shoes accompanied by a flighty-looking woman in a short dress and pearls executes a spastic Charleston in an attempt to stamp on the writhing reptiles. It is no good, they succumb and she cries 'Arthur!' Arthur doesn't get her name out before he turns into a puff-adder and I only know it started with 'Bo-'
Publius is mincing and hopping for fear, although he must know that I am not chosen for this and neither was he. Therefore, the reptiles cannot harm us. Even so, I invite him to climb on my back while we negotiate this pocket.
I regret it though, as my neck becomes quite wet with his tears of gratitude. I distract him by asking who this lot are.
'Thieves, Pinky, thieves.'
I know what I have stolen and it will not see me tortured here.
At last we came to some flames. Each and every sinner was enclosed in their own particular column of fire. I saw several faces from the Jewish community in Berlin. People who advised “waiting and seeing”. And what things this led others to see. How strange it had been that I never saw one of these in the camps. The Two Day Chancellor of Austria stood to attention, burning forever and never burned to ashes. I did not bother to ask Publius what sin these had committed, it was clear that they had given bad advice and for their own material gain. Needless to say, many looked like the lawyers they had been. By my count there were two pockets left. Publius had been silent for some time, and, to tell the truth, it was an uncomfortable silence. We passed into pocket #9.
'Hey, Publius! Is that Mohammed, peace be upon him, etcetera, etcetera?'
I point at a swarthy figure holding his entrails in with one hand and shaking a fist at a sword-wielding demon with the other. I know it's a demon because of the tail, and the fangs. And the unlikely colour of his scaly skin.
Publius sighs, 'It might be, but I'm not going to say so.'
'Why not? If he's down here he must be one of the bad guys.'
'Sshhh! You have to be careful even here. There are a lot of people who might take offence if you suggested such a thing.'
He points over behind the dis-embowelled one, whose bowels are re-entering his ventral cavity as the very skin is healing. I get the idea the demon's sword will be put to use once more very shortly.
'See that, Pinky?'
I see people who might take offence.
'Sunni, Shi'a, Shi'ite, Amahdavia.' Publius reels them off. 'Sects,' he says.
'I thought you'd never ask,' I say.
'Look at them, fighting, arguing…'
They are: it looks like a no-weapons fight to the death. A short man with a heavy beard stands on a boulder,
'I am the Mahdi!'
After a moment of silence, one, two, three, three hundred different voices make the same claim. The fight begins again until the Demon wades in with his mighty sword.
'I know this isn't you either, they're called the 'Sowers of Discord' the ones who end up here.'
'No,' I tell him. 'I believe you've got to go along to get along.'
We turned left into the 10th Pocket. Lepers rubbed shoulders with Chancre sufferers. There was a lot of elephantiasis. Many people had what once were labelled poxes. I didn't recognise anyone, they were so disfigured. A woman screamed, 'Joseph, Joseph! Is that you?' Her outstretched finger pointed at me. I shrugged and motioned with my head to Publius to move on. The 9th Circle awaited us.
We get to the side of the great pit. The giants are standing on a ledge, looking out. So we only see them from the waist up. I recognise Nimrod but not many others, although there is one monster with a hundred hands who maybe I should have heard about. They all seem to be wearing heavy chains. Maybe I should count the shackles on the Centimanus.
I turn to my guide, 'No Goliath?'
'No, of course not. He fell on earth and his pride needs no punishment here.'
'Is that so? I fell pretty far myself.' I put my hand to my mouth.
'Did you, Pinky?' He looks me up and down. 'It's symbolic. Giants representing hubris and pride on the part of those that end up in the 9th. You are no giant.'
And it's true. I'm a small portion. Size isn't everything, I say. But I know and he knows that it's a weak riposte. Giants in the 9th, I think, but I don't waste another baseball joke on Publius.
I like Baseball. I wish I'd stayed working for Rothstein in New York, but I went back to the Vaterland, when it got too hot. I laugh. Hotter than hell on the corner at Lindy's. They called me Dutch in Manhattan. Sometimes I was mistaken for Schulz. I ate well those days.
I notice Publius is talking to one of the Giants. This one has no chains. He is holding a long, thick cable of rope.
'Going down, Gentlemen?'
'We are, Ant! This is my first 9th circle-r since I don't know when. '
“Ant” has a high-pitched, lisping voice, 'Not thinthe Judath Ithcariot, Publiuth. Remember him?'
Publius shudders, 'Moan, moan, moan. “It was fate, my destiny, I had to do it.”'
'Athif! What about the conthept of free will? Might ath well believe in Godth.”
Publius laughs, 'Like your Mother and Father?'
I ask who exactly this lisping fool is.
'Antaeus, son of Poseidon and Gaia. Offspring of Gods, most likely a God himself.'
'Greeks!' I say, 'Profligate in everything, even divinity.'
'Tell him I don't talk to the cuthtomerth,' Antaeus says.
No wonder he likes to call himself Ant, I think, as I wipe some Spittle of the Gods from my face.
As Ant lowers us down into the pit, Publius explains to me that there are four rounds in the 9th Circle. I think of Max Schmeling and the times I imagined myself meeting him in the ring. Of course, there were other reasons to hang around a Berlin Gym in those days. When I did box, featherweight as a matter of fact, I threw the fight if it went past 4 rounds.
Publius is talking, again. At least he's given up the poetry.
'The first round is named for Cain. Traitors to kindred end up here. Fratricides mostly. Hence the name. That's Höðr over there - shot Baldur with a mistletoe arrow or maybe killed him with a borrowed sword. Who knows?'
I see an Aryan type who would have looked good in the SS uniform. He is frozen into a column of ice up to his chin. This hell is full of surprises.
'Is anything organised in this place? Who's that character next to the Nazi Pin-up?'
Publius follows my gaze, inside the column of ice is an oriental looking chap in furs and a strange hat. 'Oh him, that's Temujin. He could have been with the Genocides earlier.'
He shouts 'I am Khan!' as we shuffle past.
'Seconds out, Round 2!' Publius bellows in my ear and I find that maybe I'm warming to him at last. I ring an imaginary bell in my hand and see that we are surrounded by more bodies frozen in ice.
'Ok,' I say, 'What's this one called? Looks just like the other one. '
Publius puffs out his chest, which looks ridiculous in that damned tunic thing. He buffs his fingernails where a lapel might be. I'm reminded of some of the fellows I met in the United States.
'I like the name of this one. You might say I thought of it myself.'
'Sure you did. What is it, you schmuck?'
He looks put out, but says 'Antenora, it's for betrayers of cities, countries, all that treasonous stuff.'
Which of course means gar nichts to me. I catch sight of another face from the papers. It's the famous Admiral Canaris.
'Warum bin ich hier?'
I think he's just shouting in general, for he doesn't catch my eye.
I jerk a thumb at Canaris, say to Publius,
'Doesn't he have a point?'
'We don't go in for that meta-ethical moral relativism here. At least I don't think so. You'll have to ask Spinoza up there with the heretics what he thinks. Last time I spoke to him he was so sure of himself. Pah! I mean, “Nothing is inherently Good or Evil.” It must be, otherwise what's the point?'
I can't see what this has to do with Canaris.
'If you betray a corrupt regime, it's not a crime, right?' I say.
'Of course it is! Listen, we can't be deciding who's in the right with God on their side down here. Why, Hell would be half empty in no time. Besides, Paradise has its quotas. They won't let just anyone in.'
Publius looks at me closely.
'You know, there's something...Bah! I just need to get shot of you, too long with one of the clients and you start to feel sorry for them. Got to be detached as a guide. You customers all deserve to be here. For what you are, for what you've done…'
But I don't answer, this is how I thought of my own people, when I was a Kapo.
Now it's round 3, but I don't hear a bell.
The sinners were still enclosed in blocks of ice. This time they lay supine. Their faces were uncovered. All manner of flying beasts passed overhead and defecated into their open mouths. Chimerae of all shapes let their waters flow onto the exposed faces. In one block I caught sight of a thick chalk-stripe suit on the trapped body and a fedora above the face of a malevolent and chubby toddler.
I see his lips move.
'Mamma mia! Let me outta here. I ain't done nuttin'. Youse cain't prove nuttin'!'
'Who is that?' I say to Publius.
'A worthy successor to Thyestes. Or Fra Alberigo.'
'No, I know that face.'
The face in the ice snarls. I guess he's not talking to me, or to anyone in particular,
'Now I know why tigers eat their young,' he says.
This makes as little sense as anything down here.
'Come on, who is he?'
'You can call him Al,' Publius says.
We pass to the the 4th ring. I know Publius is going to say this is all that's left, so I preempt him.
'No, it isn't, you know that.'
He huffs a bit,
'This is Judecca, named after my last 9th Ringer.'
'And where did he end up?'
Publius blusters a little and I say,
'Let's get this over with, who are this lot and what did they do?'
But Publius doesn't feel like telling me.
The damned were entirely enclosed in ice, bodies contorted as if they had been frozen at the moment of the greatest torment. There was no-one to speak to, and, to tell the truth, I didn't care.
We entered the very centre of Hell. I looked at Publius. His eyes had practically crossed.
An empty, grisly throne of skulls and other sundry bones stands empty before us. I sigh, wishing that it hadn't come to this, although I know that it always does. There's never any ceremony. The last incumbent of the post doesn't stick around to show the new guy the ropes.
'Where is Satan?' Publius asks.
'I just got here.' I say.