Between Scylla and Charybdis they cower amidst the ruins fearful to look skyward lest they encourage the rains of hell.
Now and then they visit the corpses, hastily buried grief drowned by the sound of the laugh of the gunner peering down from the hills. It is always night for the soul and lookout must be kept for Charon, who rides silently along the rivers of blood, that flow through her streets.
In the great halls, far removed from the horror, self-professed wise men exchange maps lines randomly drawn, scythes slicing a people. They trade in lives as chattel, reaping a bitter harvest, praying there may only be but seven lean years.
They offer a sop to Cerberus, three villages straddling the river, but the army of the hills knows they will take that and more and waits patiently for the winter when the odor of sanctity no longer arises out of the city to assail their nostrils and Shadrach is no more than a ghost.
First Appeared in Living Poets (UK), Vol. 2, No. 1, 2000.
Ice, he said, is clearly an invention of Satan, the ice cube a scaled down version of that corner of hell of which no one ever speaks, so little known.
And stop and think, we got by well for eons without a cube of ice, unless with blade we chipped it from a nearby glacier or left water out in the dead of winter, which never worked all that well in much of the world.
Whiskey, that was one of our best innovations, one of which we are rightfully proud, one which we have practiced for untold generations. We’ve been sipping it and drinking it from the word go, and each culture has come up with its own version, and it is only recently that the devil gave us the means of denigrating one of God’s greatest gifts to us.
God, mother told us, prefers things neat, as they were intended, so clearly ice is the Devil’s work. Turn away!
“You know,” she said with a smile, “that you are going straight to the infernal regions when this is over and done with, no doubt.” “I can’t imagine,” he replied, “that He who is all knowing and all powerful would ever let that happen to me.” “Be serious,” she added, “you know that the nether world is replete with scriveners of doggerel, it is their natural home when they are done here.” “But I’m a mere bard, a weaver of tales,” he cried, “nothing more, nothing less.” “Ah, yes,” she smirked, “but the road to everlasting fire is paved with cliches and euphemisms.”
Hell is a place where what you least desire becomes eternally yours, or so we were told as children, well not us, not the Jewish kids, for us Hell was our mothers’ finding that copy of Playboy we stole from our father’s stash our mother didn’t know about, and which he would deny, throwing us under the bus or any large vehicle she found
If we buy into Hell, and given that ours is an aging population, many of whom have landed in Florida and Arizona to avoid the winters that are hell on the ubiquitous arthritis, and all those who have joyously consumed the evangelical Kool-Aid, when the final bell rings, they may be surprised to discover there is far, far more of a chance of a snowball in Hell.
It is an ungainly beast and its cry, as much a bleat as a roar, can pierce the air and is never easily ignored. There are far larger to be found, and far more beautiful. Some have voices that melt anger incite passion, alleviate pain. Some sing in a register so low touch and hearing are merged. Even this beast has its smaller kin, gentler, if not ever soothing, happy to fill a room, not a universe. But the great beast has always known its place, held in the arms of and cradled informal procession, carried forward into battle by the so-called Ladies from Hell.
Some people say religion is dead, or at least mortally wounded. In my generation, closer to death than puberty, there is some truth to that thought because God seems a whole lot less responsive these days, our peers beginning to fall like lemmings from the cliff. But the young clearly have found what has gotten so far away from us, and they have gone so far as to personalize God, something we never dared do for fear of hell for the wrath of our parents and loss of use of the car. Today, even in school and at the mall their faith is on display on their smart phone screens, secretly genuflecting each time they mention OMG.
We have mastered the art of making promises, we can do so without reflection. We are not certain why God seems so reticent to join us, we were created in His image, we are constantly told, yet even when we ask, no promises seem to be forthcoming from heaven. Some say God is far too busy to make even simple promises, for God would have to deliver on them, without fail, something we have never quite managed. Others say promises were what had us evicted from the Garden and we still have not learned our lesson, or so promise the priests and ministers who assure us our place in heaven can always be secured for eternity by a sufficiently large donation.
If my mother was here she would ask me what I have to say for myself. Just this once, I would remain silent, for there is nothing that needs saying and she would be certain that if there were she should be the one to say it, but silence would drive her mad. So perhaps it is good that she is not here, that she did not ask, though if there is a heaven and hell, God or the devil will need to tell her what they have to say for themselves, or they will never, ever hope to hear the end of it.
In his dreams he is still marching across endless paved paths on an Air Force Base that might be Texas or might just be hell. In his recollection, in July there is virtually no difference between the two. He stirs each time his Drill Instructor bellows, which is every few minutes, likely seconds in this dream. He is sweating through his uniform, finds it absurd to be wearing high combat boots in the heat and humidity. But he realizes that he has enlisted in the Air Force, a four year hitch in the theater of the absurd. He awakens in a sweat and peers out the window at the building snow on the lawn.