The Curmudgeon


Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Gates of Hell

Once upon a time, a bright young fiend became curious as to what lay outside the borders of his native Hell; perhaps because, unlike many of his compatriots, he had not received an American education.

"What lies outside the gates?" he asked his manager.
"Use your initiative," his manager replied, as all managers do in Hell.

The young fiend considered asking his manager's manager, or even going further up the ranks to discuss the matter with a senior demon. He was aware that his career might suffer; but since all things suffer in Hell, this was not so great a concern as it might have been.

He quickly found out that only the most senior members of the Descending Hierarchy were likely to have any idea about what lay outside the gates; for only they could remember the gates being raised. Middle-rank and junior demons, who had spent their whole existence in Hell and had no personal recollection of Satan's fall from Paradise, were of no help whatever.

However, it is no easy matter for a mere fiend, however bright, to contact such Infernal luminaries as Beelzebub, Baal, Moloch or Mammon. All the great princes of Hell are isolated in their eternal suffering; Beelzebub by swarms of flies the size of cats, Baal by hordes of Bible-waving Gideons, Moloch by the ear-scorching wails of a million infants and Mammon by battalions of high-powered secretaries and self-lubricating sycophants.

After the debacle, the young fiend returned in dejection, took a brimstone sauna to clean off the hair-oil, and resolved never again to ask foolish questions. He remembered the time when, barely more than an imp, he had asked a question and, as an object lesson, had been taken by his teacher to see the damned being admitted to their unending punishment.

"Now," his teacher had said, "if thirty-four thousand children die on earth each day from the thriftiness of their neighbours, and eighty-five per cent of them are unbaptised, what is Hell's share of the souls?"

For she was, like all teachers in Hell, a mathematics teacher. But for once the young fiend did not shudder at the memory, as a sudden idea had struck him hard between the horns. He leapt from his bath and rushed to the place where his teacher had taken him, the huge processing area for souls newly entered into Hell.

Naturally, the place was Pandemonium. Everywhere were vast disorderly queues of the damned - cowering at the playful prods of imps trying out their pitchforks, cursing or screaming at their fate, fighting for last place in line. The ceiling was high and domed, specially designed to magnify every echo and reverberation; and wherever the eye might rest there were at least three signposts: one ambiguous, one confusing, and one which contradicted both the others. Ushers with huge teeth chased the terrified souls to their allotted punishments. Altogether, it was worse than a railway station, and almost as bad as a social security office.

The young fiend seized the first damned soul he saw. "What lies outside the gates?" he asked. But the soul simply stared at him in horror and made the sign of the cross. The fiend did not even pause to give the customary fiendish laugh. Hurling the soul back into the throng, he swiftly picked out another. "What lies outside the gates?" he asked. But again, the soul was too fearful to reply or too traumatised to recall.

The young fiend was about to grab a third soul when a horny hand fell heavily on his shoulder. The hand turned out to be attached to the largest and toothiest of the ushers. "What do you want?" the usher said.

"I want to know what lies outside the gates," replied the young fiend. "I thought one of these might tell me, since they've been out there so recently."

The usher bit its lip in confusion. Actually, because of the formidability of its fangs, it could bite both its lips at once, with an eyelid or so for dessert. "Why do you want to know that?" it said.
"Idle curiosity," said the fiend.
"Fair enough," the usher said. And, using its pitchfork as well as its claws and teeth, it cleared the young fiend a convenient route through the writhing mob of damned and right up to the gates; which the usher unlocked, at only the thirteenth attempt, with an electronic identity card.

The young fiend walked out through the gates. What he saw was void, without form, except for the bright light of Heaven far above and the somewhat tarnished blue light of Earth slightly nearer. The fiend could hear the sounds of war on Earth and, in between the explosions and screams, the complacent strains of the Heavenly harps.

As he turned to go back inside, he observed a little middle-aged man with a paintbrush in his hand. The little man was splashing paint across the outside of the gates. He had rather more energy than talent; but as the fiend watched, a design began to emerge: sunny blue skies, pretty little flowers, football teams, people with microphones, several television screens, and lots of sexual activity.

The fiend was overcome with admiration at this irredeemably pretentious act of vandalism. "What do you think you're doing?" he asked the little man.

"What does it look like?" was the reply. "I am painting pretty pictures on the gates of Hell. You see that?" He pointed his brush at the blackening Earth, incidentally spattering the fiend with paint from his horns to his cloven feet. "The oil has just run out up there, and I am a professional news editor."


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