“How long must one wait for eternity to begin?”  This is the nagging question monopolizing the thoughts of the weary souls who are forced to move at glacial speed down the course of a poorly lit passageway. They are unable to retire the question and turn their thoughts elsewhere to more pleasant musings. How unfortunate it is that so many are prone to playing the role of mental masochist, a self-destructive vice carried over from life into death. 

The tunnel walls are lined with black granite, whose fine texture is interrupted at fixed intervals by magenta-colored gargoyles on either side of the walkway. The crafted sculptures emit a curious, soft glow from their jack-o’-lantern cores, splashing a dull reddish-orange shade over the effulgent stonework canvas. Their cuddly little faces and sheepish grins make them appear like adorable domesticated pets rather than fearsome fiends poised to attack—notwithstanding the chiseled ram horns and the formidable bat-like wings extending proudly from their muscular, broad shoulders.

The tunnel is so inundated with bends that its total length is masked, stomping upon the hopes of its weary travelers, who yearn to see the end. They wonder if they walk in circles, since each stretch of tunnel between the bends looks identical to the one before and after it—with even the gargoyle facades not varying in the slightest detail. The unchanging appearance of the tube is complemented by an unrelenting smell, as a pungent stench of sulfur uniformly permeates the dank, musty air with a near suffocating effect on the travelers. 

The sound of a distant metronome governs the steps of each soul, communicating “right foot forward” or “left foot forward” with each metrical tick. Occasionally, the metronome stops and causes the line to come to an abrupt halt, and then resumes shortly afterwards at the same pace. A few impatient travelers erupt out of indignation, heaping curses and insults upon the one responsible for orchestrating such an instrument of control and humiliation. Conversations are common but difficult to carry on, since it is forbidden to leave one’s place in line or to turn around and face the person to the rear.        

A stealthy, hooded sentry occasionally leaps out from the shadows between two gargoyles to strike an unsuspecting soul with his truncheon. The phrase “Keep in line, you swine!” is issued frequently by these zealous guards stationed along the course. Of the multitude of dialogues occurring along the march, the reader’s attention shall be directed to one in particular.

“Now, nothing matters—even our warmest hopes cannot anesthetize us from this cruel predicament. For the first time, we’ll assume an existence devoid of everything we cherished in our former lives. What will it be like to receive no more guidance or love from family or friends?” asks a short, pudgy man with a high-pitched voice.

            “Guidance? Is that what you crave?” replies a taller man walking in front of the former. “When I was a boy, I looked to my parents for guidance; when I grew into adulthood, I looked to myself for counsel; in old age, I sought wisdom from Providence … and in death, I stopped looking altogether.”

            “Perhaps I’ve not acquired your comfort with such independence, but when does one ever stop craving correction from a loved one? While it may hurt at times, it confirms the fact that we are loved, that our existence matters to someone. Does it not, sir?”

            “It once did. Now, you should acknowledge and accept the fact that you are alone and that you must look to yourself to find the things that you once depended on from others. If you see your parents, and you should hope you do not, don’t run up to them and expect an affectionate hug with warm, sloppy kisses. They will not be the loving and nurturing ones whom you once knew and trusted, and they may not even remember you altogether. Hell is sustained or fueled by forgetfulness and indifference, not hatred.”

            “Surely a mother will always know her own child? Who or what can deprive her of such an inherent and natural recognition? Your portrayal of this place lacks credibility and is unnecessarily morbid. I’ll not accept it!”

            “Don’t accept it, for what do I care? I’m not your priest nor your lawgiver, but your way of thinking will make it much harder to adapt to your new confinement. I tell you this for your own good, not for the pleasure of tormenting you.”

            “Oh, if I just had a second chance to make it right!”

            “What? To be virtuous? All of us probably had numerous chances to reform ourselves, but we found moral turpitude to be far more rewarding.”

            “I mean I could change if I knew then what I know now.”

            “Ah, so you would be virtuous only because of fear of eternal punishment? What a great reason to be good! No doubt heaven would readily embrace you as a model citizen!”

            “What does it matter what my intentions are?! As long as I—”

            A sentry clubs the short man in the stomach. “You march to the beat of the metronome, not to your own! Don’t let me tell you again! Move on!”

            “Ouch! That stings. It would have knocked the wind out of me if I had any to begin with. It’s enough that we have to be subjected to this march, but to receive that abuse on top of it! I’d like to see that bastard boiling in his own pudding!”

            “We’re on our way to hell and you have to mention ‘boiling’?!”

            “Ah, it can’t be that bad. Rumors always distort the truth.”

            “Do they?! That is exactly what people said about The Great Mortality before it reached England. It then wiped out half of my village in 1349, including the very people who doubted its lethal nature. I thought that experience was all the hell a man should ever have to encounter.” The taller man nearly turns around to face the other, but then notices a sentry staring at him.

            “My, I didn’t realize you were so old!” stammers the short man.

            “It hardly matters now, as we will all be ‘born again’ soon. The major difference is that our spiritual umbilical cords will never be severed from the Devil’s tyranny.”

            “So we should believe the worst rumors now and capitulate to our fears? Our fears are no longer irrational, but objective realities?

“To some degree, I imagine. Be prepared for anything and don’t get caught with your britches down … or a well-endowed demon might try to bugger you! Hahaha ….”

            “Stop with that nonsense! This is no laughing matter!”

            “Yes, I suppose you’re correct. Sorry. You just mentioned before that you wish you had a second chance to live a more virtuous life …”

            “Yes, who wouldn’t want a second chance? Don’t you?”

            “It’s not easy to change one’s stripes. You can’t throw on virtue as you would a new cloak. If you manage to wear it for a little while, you might find that you prefer to put the old one back on. I recall a verse from Scripture that states something like, ‘A dog returns to its vomit.’ I never cared much for religion, and the monks never cared much for me. Oh, but the Bible does have its practical and poetical wisdom!”

            “Listen, I feel like vomiting right now! Abominable sulfur stench!”

            “Tell me, would you seek a virtuous life without the threat of hell or without the promise of heaven looming over you? In fact, can one ever exercise true virtue when tempted by ulterior motives?” 

“I don’t know. That seems a lot to ask of anyone. We’re just human, after all. Why do they expect the world of us? I know I could have been better if I were given a second chance. Damn this line! I’ve never endured one so great, and I doubt I’ll ever meet its equal. Why does the overseer not rush us through as quickly as possible, and turn his attention to the next batch of lucky bastards ripe for affliction?!”

“Why would he want to do that? For he enjoys manipulating our fears and anxieties. He drains us of our passions, seasons us with despair, marinates us in grief, and fattens us with pain in order to tenderize us for his master’s feast. Oh, he is a skilled chef in this art!”

“Certainly we are more than ingredients in a recipe, to be consumed and left as a hollow carcass of a soul on a silver platter?”

“Almost. We’re left with a hollow carcass to wander the underworld indefinitely, but he puts more valuable things on his silver platters and in his golden goblets. We’re not fit to be consumed at his banquet, for we are now of the stuff that even a famished worm will not touch.”

“Well, I see talking to you has done wonders for my mental health. How does that slave driver get so much satisfaction from his job ushering us into hell?”    

“It follows logically from his work on Earth, I imagine.”

“How did he keep himself busy there?”

            “He was an officer, a lieutenant in some paramilitary organization in Saxony … or was it Bavaria? I think it was called the ‘SS’ or something like that.”

“What does ‘SS’ mean?”

“Don’t ask me. My term on Earth expired centuries before that notion was conceived. But one might say that his zeal for the cause exceeded even that of its most loyal and ardent followers. He ushered thousands or millions to their death—men, women, and children. Not a tear or a smile ever chipped his stone expression. It is said that, were it not for the cracking of his whip, he could pass for dead.”

“And now he leads us to our eternal death. I can’t bare it any longer!”

“That’s why it’s called ‘hell’, sir.” The taller man chuckles.

“You find this amusing?! We’re not even there yet and we’re suffering!”

“Well, then you have a pleasant preview of what awaits us, don’t you? We are being exposed gradually to it. I believe the constancy of this stroll is an indication of what is to come—stagnation, changelessness. Therein lies the true torment of hell.”

“What do you mean?”

“Exactly what I said. Though it may be hot, we shall be frozen in our infirmities without the possibility for growth and development. It is this static state that will be so unbearable to endure.”

“What makes that particularly painful?”

“Have you ever known existence apart from that which is transitory? For whatever purpose, be it good or bad, we depended on transition … no, we lived on it. But with no possibility for variation or novelty, there is nothing to hope for, or to look forward to. Without hope, there is no fertile soil for imagination to take root in. If imagination is extinguished, then our passions are subsequently extinguished and our lives have effectively ended. The Devil has done his work well, for his victory is achieved in our deplorable immutability.”

“Your argument loses its efficacy if you consider heaven, where souls achieve a state of perfection. Perfection doesn’t require change, so the highest good is to be free of that blessed transition you speak of.”

“Yes, that occurred to me, but it is not quite a state of static perfection which you describe. With no more fear from God, I argue that heaven does not merit perfection, only the false promise of its attainment. In other words, celestial souls find the greatest fulfillment in inching towards that divine state without ever realizing it. Through a dynamic existence, they avoid boredom, nourish hope, and stimulate the imagination for all eternity. Salvation is found through this unrelenting, forward momentum towards an unreachable target.”

            “You have an uncanny way of trivializing everything, you know that?”

            “You remind me of someone, a gentleman named Castlemaine.”

            “Was he descended from royalty? That surname sounds like he might lay claim to a title, and to a few mistresses as well. Ha-ha.”

“No, he was just a commoner, I think. He was from some place called Cat-kill or Cats-till in the New World, near an island called Manhattan.”

“Yes, I’ve heard of that island. It was owned by the French, or the Dutch perhaps. What did he do?”

“Not exactly sure, but several theories were floating around.”

“Is he still here, or was he taken?”

“Nobody knows. He was chatting with a busty harlot the last time he was seen, and then disappeared shortly afterwards.”

“Maybe he got lost somewhere in that crevice between her bosom.”

“Perhaps. It is speculated that it could swallow up three men whole. But back to my story. Castlemaine …”