It took James Washington forever, almost literally forever, to remember that his wife and children were as dead as he was. For a while, he barely even realized that he was dead himself. Heaven, for lack of a better word, is bliss, and as anybody who has known euphoria can tell you, bliss doesn’t always allow room for rational thought. Bathed by otherworldly radiance, lulled by the music of the spheres, every atom of his being screeching a level of happiness impossible in any terrestrial realm, James was as stupid in the moment as any opium addict had ever been.
But the nagging memory of those he had loved marred all this perfection in the same way a single mosquito bite can ruin a perfect weekend in the best tropical resort in the world. The more it itched the less he could ignore it. And so, after a period of time that may have been longer than civilization had been extant on Earth, he managed to ask, “Where are they?”
One of his perfect golden servants murmured, “You will be happier if you do not ask.”
For many lifetimes more he allowed this to mollify him.
The golden servants were beautiful. He knew that they were angels, by all useful definitions of the term; they didn’t have wings and they didn’t walk around with little halo-rings attached to their heads on sticks, but they were beings of glowing vitality who embodied all the grace and nobility possible in any version of the human form. They were his dedicated caregivers, his wanton lovers, his tireless servants—given how little his own participation was required of him, they were more than capable of delighting him all on their own—the dedicated gardeners of a crop that consisted of only one flower, himself. They should have been enough.
But memory’s itch remained persistent. James’s car had been t-boned by some lunatic asshole who hadn’t even slowed down, not even a little bit, while running the intersection. It came to rest lying on its back, the passenger cabin crushed on two sides, the two adults and two children inside broken in ways that might have been already been terminal, even before the fire. His own legs, pinned beneath a compressed steering column, were like a pair of meat-sacks filled with gravel; his chest was so battered that breath was an exercise in arguing with a chest full of razors. Six-year-old Keisha was behind him, maddened by agony and fear, screaming for Mommy. But sweet Tish was not answering, and throughout this little Ty was not crying, the way a toddler in a car seat should have been; he was just silent, and despite waves of unimaginable agony, James had felt his sanity cracking from the understanding of what that likely meant. Then tongues of bright orange began to erupt from the upholstery. The afterlife had been kind enough to edit out the rest.
“Where are they?”
Those responsible for maintaining him in an eternal state of joy turned down the music, diluted the perfume, drew the shades on the euphoric lamps, and led him from the chamber dedicated to sustaining him in an eternity of bliss to some sort of balcony where, for a while, he was stupefied all over again by the skyline of the creator’s capitol city. Imagine Paris or Manhattan if there were no ugly parts and every glittering light was part of the substance of God. Now wipe away your feeble imaginings because it is by infinite orders of magnitude greater than any being shackled to Earthly existence can summon. That’s what his new home was like. But though other balconies were visible from where he sat, and indeed the broad light of the eternal day illuminated any number of public spaces where he would have expected other human beings to gather, James did not see so much a single human figure, anywhere in that immensity; it was a city that appeared to be absent of people.
The new arrival on the balcony was another of the achingly beautiful golden people. He was not clad in the diaphanous robes of the more modest Earthly renditions, nor in the spotless white suit so common in pop culture. He wore no clothing at all, but though he had a magnificent set of Earthly equipment, this was not coupled with any sense that he was naked. It was just his nature, sans artifice, and his dangling immensity was neither homoerotic nor confrontational, just part of the truth of who and what he was.
James said, “Who are you?”
“The Blessed has not seen fit to provide your humble servant with a name. If it makes things easier for you, you may call me Isaac.”
James was still too drugged from Heaven’s ministrations to manage more than a bland reiteration. “Isaac.” Then: “But who are you?”
Isaac sat down opposite him and regarded him with a combination of infinite patience and infinite sadness. “The closest word to your Earthly experiences is ‘concierge.’ It is my privileged duty to serve as your advocate in any disputes you might have with the accommodations offered by a loving God.”
Laying eyes on Isaac was not like staring at the sun, but it was close. There was just too much beauty there, so much more than the human eye, even the human eye adapted for the afterlife, was capable of perceiving. Out of self-preservation, James averted his gaze toward the streets below. They were still spotless, uncontaminated by so much as a single moving figure. They were so empty that for the very first time he felt uneasy.
“People are imperfect,” Isaac said.
“I answer your unspoken question. People are imperfect. Good people mean well. But they argue. They fight. They force you to contain your preferences to humor theirs. They have bad breath and BO. Many who come here try to be social, seeking out others for stimulating conversation, romance, and joint ventures of mutual interest. We’ve seen our share of Stratego tournaments. But these are all things that come to pall when existence is asked to last forever. It is one reason the eternal, those who stay, tend to the solitary. And why would they not, James? Next to the pleasures we offer, a social life is redundant.”
James considered this. In the chamber where the golden had dedicated themselves to servicing him, playing their music for him, applying their oils to his skin, inciting every millimeter of his self that was capable of feeling pleasure to heights he had never imagined, he had lost time and radiated contentment from every pore. No; loneliness, the need for companionship among his fellow human beings, had not been a problem. But now that the memories of those he’d left behind had intruded, he could not blithely put them aside. “What about my family?”
“Oh, James. Don’t ask me that question.”
He felt something tearing at the edges of his happiness. “Tell me.”
“You’re the only one, out of anybody you ever cared about, who ever made it. Everybody else suffers eternal torment in Hell.”
Whereupon Heaven knew a sound it knew too often, from too many of those who made it there: the anguished screams of one who had made it to that blessed place, while leaving loved ones behind.
• • • •
How could James retreat to the ministrations of Heaven’s eternal joy, after that?
Truth to tell, it was distressingly easy.
Imagine the most clichéd cautionary tale beloved by those who seek to warn others about the dangers of recreational drugs. In this fable, a young mother, kind and good and with only the best and most loving intentions toward her child, indulges herself when she thinks it’s safe, and gets high. Lost in her induced haze, she hears her daughter crying for help but cannot muster the mental energy to interpret what that sound means. Lost in her induced haze, she hears those calls become violent thrashing. Lost in her induced haze, she relaxes when those sounds turn to silence. It is only when the effects of the narcotic recede that she wanders into the bathroom and finds that her child has drowned in the tub, while she herself lazed in stupor.
Now imagine that the narcotic of the fable is not a mere chemical but the radiant adoration of the divine, experienced in a realm where all Earthly concerns, like the horror a man just naturally feels at the unimaginable suffering of those he loves, are distant and beyond his capacity to worry about. Imagine that the divine will is bent to making that man forget all about it, and remember that for all his best qualities as a father, he still only possesses the limited will of a mortal.
You can understand why, faced with knowledge too terrible to be borne, James could not be blamed for fleeing back into the infinite consolations of the chamber he’d just left, losing himself into the massaging caresses of those whose merest touch could make his every cell erupt with spasms of delight greater than the sum total of every honeymoon night experienced by every loving couple since the dawn of the civilization he’d known. It is far more impressive that, in less than the time it would take some Earthly mountains to crumble to dust, James was still able to drag himself away from their attentions, and return inconsolable to that balcony, where Isaac was still waiting to answer his questions.
Like a gentle old country doctor imparting the news that there is no point in a given patient making plans for New Year’s, or that creeping paralysis will soon leave him a motionless figure who will need to be turned regularly to avoid bed sores, or that the recent forgetfulness that has left him groping for the names of old friends will soon grow to encompass all he knows of this life, including who he is and where he lives, Isaac never raised his voice, never condescended, never delivered a soul-crushing detail until the last one had already been weighed and accepted. He many times said that he was sorry and that he deeply regretted having to share his terrible knowledge. He was practiced, of course, having had to say it before. But if the test of how well any being has learned how to share such bad tidings is how little the recipient comes to hate him in the process, this was a test that the golden man passed; for while James was left devastated by what he learned, he did not in the process come to hate the golden man at all.
The cruel truth Isaac shared with him was that the rules of virtue, as Mankind had always understood them, had always been far subtler, far more subjective to the whims of the divine, than any terrestrial sermon could have portrayed. Even now, it would have been a waste of time to even try to explain it to him. Imagine having a great legal mind and trying to explain the laws of inheritance to a dog. You can’t. The most you can manage, in teaching that creature the rules of right and wrong, is getting it to comprehend a few basic prohibitions against pooping on rugs. So it was with Man. In truth, the Ten Commandments were irrelevant; the Golden Rule was whimsy; everything said by the carpenter from Nazareth or any of his peers in the salvation business had been a very rough approximation, ventured only because the actual requirements were literally impossible to explain in terms mortals could understand. A human being can earn his way into Heaven only by blindly stumbling past obstacles he cannot comprehend, by randomly following rules he would never be able to fathom, past a set of goalposts he could never imagine.
It happened more often than anybody would have expected, mostly because of a forgiving God; one human being out of every ten thousand born.
Otherwise, Isaac concluded, almost everybody went to Hell.
• • • •
It was a good thing that James was still dazed by his eons of reward, because otherwise he would have been screaming.
“My children are in Hell?”
“Your children,” the golden man said. “Your wife. Your parents. Your sister. Your best friends from grammar school: Titus, Lamar, Ceci, Jason. Every single member of your extended family, including both sets of grandparents, your uncles and aunts, and your most distant cousins. With very few exceptions, everybody you’ve ever known, everybody you’ve ever heard of, certainly almost everybody you’ve ever believed in. Saint Nicholas, for all his Earthly celebrity, is in Hell. Who else? I am aware that you loved the Beatles; they’re in hell. I know you loved Ray Charles; he’s in hell. I know you admired Norman Borlaug and Jonas Salk and Abraham Lincoln and Samuel Clemens; they’re all in Hell. Ellen Greene, the lady from the school who makes the pies your wife used to bring home once in a while; she’s in Hell. Lincoln’s in Hell. Gandhi’s in Hell. Audrey Hepburn is in Hell. Nelson Mandela is not in Hell, but I assure you, he only made it to a brighter afterlife by the skin of his teeth, and not by any of his achievements as a man of peace; they had nothing to do with it. He just happened to fit entrance requirements he never would have been able to understand. As did you. And I’m afraid there’s no point in allowing this to upset you, because there’s nothing you can do to change that. It’s just the way things are. The only question is, will you allow this to ruin Heaven for you?”
In the other room, the music started up again, inviting him back to the infinite consolations of happy and stupid oblivion. But James found he wanted nothing more in that moment than to torture himself with a full accounting of the ways in which he’d fallen short of perfection in his own life. He thought of the times when he’d made himself a trial to his parents, two teen years in particular, when adulthood had been on the horizon and the little bit of childhood he still had left had seemed more than he should have had to bear. He thought of the girls he’d lied to, when he was still figuring out not just what he wanted from them and had yet to incorporate what he owed them in return. He remembered Tish, the first to really see through him, pointing her elegant finger in his face not long after they met, and telling him, “You want me to stick around, you had better be a better man than that.” He remembered almost taking too long to decide on which side of the fence he should fall, hurting her in that way, too stupid to realize what it meant that she was waiting him out. He remembered the little lies that accumulate in marriage, and in parenthood, some necessary and some unworthy of him. He remembered holding little Keisha when she was still young enough to think of Daddy as the all-powerful center of the universe, and telling her that he would never let anything hurt her; he remembered knowing even then that this was a promise he’d never been able to keep, and felt his insides curdle at the grander implications that broken promise had taken on now. He remembered Ty, little Ty, still buckled in the toddler car seat before the accident, during the last taste of the world he’d ever know; happily shrieking just to make noise the way children his age always have; falling silent but for snuffles when Daddy got angry and told him to be quiet, which was the misery he’d been living when that maniac burst through the intersection and cut off any further chances of exuberance he might have still had left. In context, making him cry now seemed an unforgiveable crime. But how could James have known that there would be a context, one with death only minutes of pain and terror away, and something worse than death waiting on the far side of that?
All that and he had not been condemned to Hell.
“You should go back inside,” Isaac said.
“No,” James said, choking. “I should not.” He thought of Keisha at four, wrapping her little arms around his shoulders, giggling, saying in her childish voice that she loved her daddy, and then he thought of her in Hell, whether Hell matched or exceeded its reputation in legend. He thought of the requirement Heaven now required of him: that he forget this.
Because he wanted it, and not because he traversed any stairways or descended any elevators, the next instant delivered him far from the golden man, far from the temptations to be found in his celestial home. He was down in the eternal city’s streets now, streets that were as empty of other people as the deserted apartment blocks of Chernobyl or the suburban residences closest to the toxins at Fukushima. The whole metropolis seemed to have been built as a stage setting for his own devastation. Stumbling on pavement as bright and as false as any Dorothy had found in Oz, he fought to hold on to this fresh feeling of grief and misery despite the drugged perfumes that made up the air and the overwhelming radiance that shone down on him from the sky. It was surely his duty to hate this place where he was, hate the beings that staffed it, hate the being of unimaginable power who had compiled the criteria deciding who was fit enough to dwell here. It was the least that could be expected of him as a man and as a father.
But denying all the power urging him back to joy was as impossible as trying to blot out the direct light of the midday sun with nothing but that thin strip of flesh known as the human eyelid; looking straight at the sun, such measures are inadequate, and the limited capacity of the human soul to hold on to grief was inadequate against the determined light of Heaven. In instants, he felt it slipping away, and raged; felt the rage slipping away, and despaired; felt the despair slipping away, and tried to hold on to the self-loathing he knew he deserved to feel, for betraying everyone he loved. But Heaven, damn the place, would not allow him even that.
Isaac found James sitting in one of the eternal city’s many sprawling parks, a place where soft breezes carried flower-scent across lakes as placid as crystal. James sat alone on the grass, hugging his knees with both arms. He was happy, but twitching just enough to reflect the failing war he fought with everything that urged him toward an unwanted sense of contentment.
James said, “I’m a terrible person.”
“By the standard of Heaven, of course you are.”
“I don’t want to be here if everybody I’ve ever loved is suffering.”
“You will have plenty of time to get over it.”
James felt himself beam. He felt himself glow. He felt himself wearing the expression of a man who had won the lottery, been nominated for an Oscar, fallen in love, gotten his dream job, found religion, eaten his all-time best slice of chocolate cake, bungee-jumped, and first had the tip of his nose grasped by his own newborn child. He knew this, and it cost him serious effort to contort his beatific mask into a frown. “I’m sorry. But I’m not sitting still for this. You will either take me to talk to God—”
“Impossible. Nobody gets to talk to God.”
“—or you will bring me to them.”
• • • •
Nothing is denied in Heaven. Or at least, it seemed, almost nothing. And so, faced with a direct command, Isaac produced a vehicle for the journey: a palanquin for a visit to hell. It was a plush throne in a sealed transparent bubble where the anesthetic scents of Heaven were recycled via some means not far removed from that which once kept the most recent strains of viral misery re-circulating through the air pressurized atmosphere sustaining airline passengers; all while the joyous hymns to the infinite majesty of the universe kept playing in the background, at a volume that he was not allowed to lower for his own good. It kept him serene during the journey even as the golden streets fell far away and the skies began to darken, first to the gray of approaching thunderstorms, then to the sickly black of a topsoil whipped loose by cyclones, then finally to a look like bile finger-painted over a fresco of stacked corpses.
Hell turned out to be much larger than Heaven.
There were outskirts, inhabited by filthy teeming masses too numerous for the land they occupied, who fought an eternal war slashing at one another with razors, to cut themselves a bit of standing room before the press of humanity trampled them underfoot. They waded in ground made up out of those whose entrails they’d spilled, always at danger of sinking beneath the muck, always bleeding from the wounds others had inflicted on them. Isaac flew low to point out James’s childhood pastor, the first woman he’d ever loved, the next-door neighbor who had always been available to babysit his children when asked; they were wild-eyed, insane, lost in the endless parody of killing, deprived of even a moment’s rest from cutting and being cut.
“Hitler’s in there,” Isaac said, as chattily as a tour guide at the Louvre.
Then they flew further in, past Hell’s first set of walls, past the plain of crucifixions where millions (including several of James’s past friends who Isaac did not hesitate to point out) hung in eternal misery while vultures picked at their livers; past another plain where shrieking people stood chained by the wrists to a ground hot enough to bake the soles of their feet while burly creatures the size of subway cars wiled away the eons whipping gobbets of flesh from their backs—the home, Isaac said, of James’s grandparents; past a writhing bowl of blood-bloated worms that slithered in and out of the carcasses of things barely recognizable as humanoid, whose half-devoured flesh sealed behind every bore-hole, thus obliging the worms to chew their way back out—the fate, Isaac said, of James’s sister, and in fact there she is, right over there.
His beautiful wife Tish was on a mountaintop by herself, bloated into immobility, her breasts inflated into shapes like sacks of grain, her jowls hanging to the ground. She was too defeated to protest as an endless parade of razored cockroaches the size of footballs marched in single-file across the blasted earth, skittered up her rolls of fat, and forced their way down her throat, cutting septic furrows at the corners of her ruined lips. Her eyes flickered with vague recognition when James called to her. But by then the next roach was at her mouth, and she shut her eyes, refusing the additional hell of being seen by one who’d known her in life. Tish had been a kind woman, a loving woman, the possessor of the sweetest and sexiest whisper that James had ever known; a woman whose deepest rages had been soft and dangerous rather than loud and berating, now being violated anew at the rate of once a second, without surcease, for more years than there were stars in the sky.
Isaac said only that there were worse places, and that James did not want to see where the powers that be had put his children. James, struggling to feel anything but contentment, said that he did.
And so Isaac flew on.
He took James low over a boiling ocean of something not water, so super-hot that James could sense its radiant heat through his protected bubble. Isaac assured him that it was not that hellish cliché, lava, but something even hotter, something more akin to the center of the sun, churning at impossible depths under impossible pressure. “The fuel should have run out eons ago,” Isaac said, “but this is Hell, where nothing is ever allowed to change states after the docents here have decided what to make.”
“What is it?”
“Everybody born in the course of your thirteenth century, with a few additional thousands added in the years that have passed since. They are all molten. They inter-mingle and stream by one another, not understanding where they are, not knowing why they are here except that they are being punished. Your daughter, Keisha, is with them, her substance blended among the rest, one drop per every four or five hundred million; I therefore have no way of showing you her face. But I should tell you that she discerned no real difference between burning alive in your wrecked automobile and burning where she is now, and therefore failed to notice the brief intermission that marked her death. She still cries your name, asking you to make it end. Do you have any questions?”
The trembling James had none, and so Isaac flew on, leading him past any number of similar atrocities until they reached the special mountaintop that had been reserved for his little boy, Ty.
This was the only revelation that got past the numbness that had been inflicted on him by Heaven.
James saw what had been done and hurled himself against the walls of the bubble, hammering at the walls, and screaming obscenities at an afterlife that had ever allowed things like this to exist. His heart shattered into more fragments than he could have thought it could hold, and his mind shattered into more, and the voice he would have spent damning Heaven was instead spent burbling incoherent noises, which just happened to be the only eloquence possible.
Given the ability, he would have shattered the bubble and leaped into Hell, grateful for the chance to mingle his pain with so many others.
But he did not have the ability, or the chance.
The bubble filled with soothing mists, and Isaac brought him home.
• • • •
This was the moral that itched at him, during the few scattered moments of coherent thought that his bruised soul was still able to muster, over many of the years that followed.
Heaven is as corrupting, in its own way, as they tell you the devil is supposed to be. The human animal, or even just that part of the human animal that can make its way to Heaven, is hardwired to prefer reward to punishment. Reward is feeling secure, cared-for, happy, and undisturbed by any suffering that may be taking place elsewhere. It can be just being oblivious. Punishment can be just having what you’d rather not know shoved in your face. When the truth you cannot bear sits to your left, like a sharp edge that cuts you if you ever forget and turn that way, you soon learn to not turn to your left. You retreat in the other direction, the padded one, the one that coos to you, the one that plays the soft music and summons pleasure, that makes everything good even when that good should be overwhelmed by a far more encompassing bad.
You try to make that enough.
But sometimes, even that escape proves inadequate, and you push away the ancient beings tasked with anticipating your every whim. You make your way back to Heaven’s deserted streets, pursued by the lulling melodies that insist on comforting you, wherever you try to find the shadows that better fit the way you know you should feel. You close your heart to the sincerity of your creator’s boundless love, and your soul to the effervescent breezes that bathe you in more adoration with their every touch. You hammer boards over your unwanted feelings of well-being and joy, and you find that one spark of resentment and injustice and you fan it into an open flame that is little more than a wisp at first, but that nevertheless remains defiant, in that it can even exist in this place where such fury should not be able to survive.
You make your way to one of the parks, where you sit beside one of those mirrored lakes and you find enough rebelliousness inside you to toss a stone. It lands in the middle of the water with an audible ker-plunk, but no ripples spread from the sight. Of course. Ripples are disturbances; ripples cannot be borne. They are what makes the measurement of a placid surface possible, but this is a place that cannot tolerate any state but the placid, that insists on preserving the illusion of peace even when the perfection is a lie.
For a long time, merely acknowledging this with your regular visits to the park is enough.
You are human enough to keep returning to those responsible for your induced state of happiness, because they are the only possible escape from what you know and can do nothing about.
But even as you do, that wisp of a flame keeps growing, and you know you’re approaching the day when you can no longer control it with comforting lies.
And inevitably, that day came.
James walked the golden streets, closed to Heaven’s consolations, indeed immune and resentful of them, his eyes stony and incapable of tears. From time to time, a golden servant approached him with blandishments, offers of rewards that once he would have chewed open a vein to receive. He listened to the offers and each time he shook his head, cold in his rejection of their kindness. Some of the golden fell back as if slapped. He realized that his dissatisfaction hurt them, and he made the journey to his habitual brooding place in what amounted to a rampage, every no-thanks filling him with such savage glee that for a time he found some satisfaction there, until realizing that this was only enabling them to serve him by other means.
It was while he sat on the shore, stewing and unable to think of what he should do next, that he became aware of his old guide, Isaac, standing behind him.
Isaac said, “We want you to be happy.”
James did not turn to meet his eyes. “Fuck you.”
The golden man sighed, which startled James, for it was the first time he had heard any sound like that from one of Isaac’s kind. The angel sat down beside him, regarding the clear surface of the lake with the same seeming helplessness that James had long since experienced at the sight, and could only offer a petulant, “They’re damned.”
“I don’t give a shit,” James told him. “Un-damn them. Bring them here and make up for everything they’ve been through.”
“It can’t be done. You must understand. They carry the taint of Hell upon them. If they so much as set foot on any ground belonging to Heaven, the corruption will spread everywhere they touch. The streets will crumble. The gardens will wither. Any of my kind who encounter them will be infected with the darkness, rendered useless to Heaven and good for no other purpose other than being sent down to Hell and set to work as tormentors. They will all have to endure an eternity of assisting in the torment. Do you not understand that, for those whose holy duty was providing joy, that is also damnation?”
“I don’t feel sorry for you. You’re assisting in the torment now. Bring them to me.”
“Assuming that we could even transport them out of Hell, we are by our nature physically incapable of assisting them. You know this. It would be like asking you to handle some of the burning matter at the center of your sun. Once, that would have vaporized you in a nanosecond. Accept my word that even laying hands on your loved ones would have the same effect on us.”
“I accept that,” James said, “and it makes no difference. Heaven is supposed to make me happy, from now until the end of the time. The longer it allows what has happened to my family to go undisturbed, the more it becomes like Hell, itself. You’re destroying yourself anyway, even if you don’t see it yet. Do you know, Isaac, that to my mortal eyes you look twenty years older than you did when I met you? It’s not much, but at the time scale we’re talking about, how much more can you afford? For your own goddamned good, stop telling me what you can’t do and start telling me what you can.”
Isaac said nothing, staring at the mirrored water with the same inconsolable attention it was receiving from the man. Perhaps he saw it as a lie, as well. Or maybe he was just trying to come up with some way to shatter the impasse. But for a long time, even by the standards of this place, he just sat, and there was no way of telling whether that amounted to a heartbeat or an epoch.
Then he said, “I hoped that you be one of the few who never insisted.”
“My kind cannot touch them. But yours can. There is a contingency, almost as cruel as what your family suffers. It is available to you if you can bear it. I need you to know that if you choose this option, I will hold you in an esteem that rivals what I feel for the creator. But I also need you to know that I pray, with all my being, that you choose otherwise.”
James studied the golden man’s eyes and saw no signs of deception there. But how could he tell? He had always heard it said that the devil was the master of all lies, but who could tell, when it was an angel offering the lie? Or, worse, when the lie was part of the plan of that angel’s master? He almost retreated, but knew that if he surrendered himself now, it would only mean having this conversation again, in another thousand years, or another billion after that. For him, it could never be avoided. “Tell me.”
Isaac told him, “You are only capable of choosing one.”
• • • •
It was not Heaven. Nor was it Hell. Instead it was a dun, featureless shallow sea, far larger than Heaven, sprawling beneath a sky lit by only a few resentful stars. The water was only a couple of inches deep, by mortal reckoning. Thousands of people, maybe tens of thousands, already knelt in it. They did not look at each other and they did not converse, but rather addressed their full attention, forever, to the various shapes lying broken and twisted and burnt in the water, shapes that writhed and moaned and sometimes cursed the kneeling ones in the manner one would expect from those to whom even the slightest touch meant unbearable pain.
Each caregiver held a cloth, and each caregiver dipped that cloth into the waters that fed the springs of Heaven before dabbing it against the skin of the ruined beings before them. No touch seemed to help much, but then the rate of healing always reflects the scale of the original hurt. These people rescued from Hell had been hurt to a nearly infinite degree and therefore would likely need a nearly infinite amount of nursing before the taint was washed from them and their bodies were healed enough to allow their entry into the paradise their caregivers had forsaken.
James, offered his choice between everybody he’d ever loved, could have pulled out his parents, or any of his friends, or Tish or any of the other women he’d loved, or his sweet Keisha; anyone, really. It had taken him an unbearable length of time just to get over the idea that choosing any one would mean betraying all the rest, even longer to figure out who he would kneel before and try to heal, until even the stars were rumors forgotten for eons. But in the end there had only been one choice, the one whose suffering had seemed most disproportionate to his innocence.
What was left of Ty, after everything they’d done to him, was not recognizable as a little boy. He was broken and twisted and parts of his flesh crackled like burnt parchment when he moved. His gaze was no longer innocent. But as James touched the cloth to his kin, some of Hell’s grease seemed to come off; some of the corruption at the surface seemed to turn watery, dissolving in the thin bath his father had arranged. For James, it was hard to imagine, but not beyond all possibility, that with enough attention he might one day be clean.
It was heartbreaking and unrelenting labor. But since when had love been anything but?
James dipped his cloth in the water again, moaned a little at the thought of all those remaining, who he had not been able to pull out, whose own circumstances he might never be able to address, unless he summoned the fortitude to keep going whenever Ty was better. He wept for them, and his tears fed the waters. Maybe that was what made them so therapeutic. But that kind of thinking, like any kind of thinking, was just a distraction from the job at hand. He dabbed again at his son’s ruined flesh. And again, weeping each time for the many he was not yet available to help, resolute each time in his renewed attention to the one he could. He could only wish that Isaac had not told him it would be possible to declare the task too overwhelming and return to Heaven, without penalty, at any time. It was a thought that would be coming up all too many times, in the eternity that awaited.
But he knew what would keep him resistant, and it was not, so much, his love for his boy.
It was the sheer revulsion he now felt for any further acquiescence to the place where the virtuous received their reward.