Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
In case you missed it: Below is the text of the piece I wrote and performed at Monday’s night Write Club Chapter 46: Beach Blanket Bloodbath. I was charged with creating a piece in support of the concept of Soothe, facing off against Rachel Wilson and her advocacy of Burn.
I was defeated in this bout, dropping my Write Club record to 2-2. The charity I was fighting for was War On Want, a group that does work to ease poverty caused by globalization and predatory capitalism in underdeveloped countries.
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The story starts thusly: Once every year, the gods gather in a predetermined location and hold a competition to decide which of them has crafted the most impressive Hell. This is a story that is neither believable nor true, but it is also not something that anybody in the audience can prove to be otherwise, so the storyteller speaks with confidence and certainty. Once every year. The gods gather. And they hold a competition. To decide which of them has crafted the most impressive Hell.
Understand that when I say gods it is because we have no better words for what they are, and when I say every year it is because we have no better ways to talk about how they measure time. But competition and crafted and Hell mean exactly what you think they mean, and location still means location although said location is never the same place twice.
They once held the event in the center of a distant dying galaxy, spending their off-hours cracking open dwarf stars and getting drunk off the contents therein, scream-shouting songs that echoed into the final dreams of the sentient, silicon-based inhabitants.
They once held the event on the hair of an organism too small to be perceived even by other organisms of its own species.
They once held the event within the signature of an attorney at the bottom of a will belonging to a man who had faked his own death and then run off to Amsterdam with a husband and wife whom he could not decide which one he loved more and so in the end he chose both of them.
They once held the event in Florida, the first time they had ever done so within a previous winner of the competition.
For while we physical ephemeral creatures may vent and preach and purchase airtime to declare our chosen deities superior to all other deities, the deities themselves do not enjoy the luxury of self-esteem, and must stake their influence instead on the ambiguous concepts of torment and anxiety. A god is not a god that does not punish, but pain ceases to be pain once it has become constant and predictable, like a burn victim who has hit the end of their scale and has spent a month saying nothing but 10, 10, 10, 10, 10, until the number itself has lost all meaning, until it threatens to unravel mathematics and take all of physics with it. The contest is a necessity for such cosmic entities, who are defined by their capacities for mercy and justice. The goal, after all, is eternal anguish, not eternal dull ache that you can learn to manage through breathing techniques and guided imagery.
So they gather, and so they display, and it gradually becomes clear that some of the work is more exceptional than others. They are beings of limitless power and knowledge but neither of these attributes guarantees them limitless imagination.
Were you to walk through the event, your mind would perhaps perceive it in the form of a fair. Perhaps the junior high science variety; that rare occurrence when the bespectacled and awkward are allowed to feel victorious in the center of the basketball court. Perhaps the downstate county variety, with table after table covered in vinyl and sweet or savory pies; pen after pen containing soap-scrubbed, engorged hogs, rank in feces and apple peels, destined in the end for breakfast.
You would see several of the old standbys, the classics that we have always assumed out of the corners of our souls, the lakes of fire, the iron manacles, the rending claws and tearing mandibles of nightmare. You might linger for a moment on a dark void, hearing the faintest and most heartbreaking of sobs beneath the shadow. There would be a handful of pieces that were strangely avant-garde, hells that their creators could not explain per se except to insist that were you inside it you would pray that you’d never been cursed with being. There are hells set aside for specific types of sinner, for specific groups of believer, for an unborn child who has not yet risen to become the scourge of the world.
However your primitive senses envision it, at some point the low rumbles of conversation and ego die down and the judging begins. And what stands in judgment over such beings? We do not know, and neither do they. It is their one momentary glance at what it means to have fear and faith, not merely to be feared and had faith in.
And while we cannot comprehend the criteria used by the jury in this case, existing on a metaphysical plane at least twice removed from our own, we do come to understand that the procedure is a battery of tests, administered simultaneously to each entrant, examining metrics of creativity, of brutality, of dramatic irony, of consistency within a stated belief system. There are noises that sound like squeals of delight. There are noises that sound like indignant argument. There are the gods’ sighs of defeat, sighs so heavy that not even they could lift them.
But after the primary inspection, after the stragglers in the pack have been culled and sent downstairs to be autopsied, the only sound left is that of collective breath-holding, as the final hurdle is placed on the path. For it is at this point that all remaining Hells find themselves squaring off against the possibility that those incarcerated within each dominion might one day be soothed of their suffering.
This is not a question of Heaven. This has been misunderstood by every age of mortal protein. Heaven is not the opposite of Hell. Heaven is contemplative bliss and rapture with no understanding whatsoever of Hell, not even the now-discarded terror that one might be sent there. The opposite of Hell is relief, and relief is a thing so powerful in the face of Hell as to be transcendent, to be transformative, to be, as point of fact, transportation. “There there,” say the nurses and the therapists and the parents, “there there,” to take you away from “here here,” to give you an alternative to the moments you merely think last forever. Eternal, as I said, the goal is eternal punishment, and so the judges take their time with the finalists. They pluck from each horrific diorama a single quivering victim, assess the bruises and gouges in flesh, the nerve endings exposed and phobias coursing through capillaries.
Then the judges…soothe them.
And if the judges perceive for even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a instant that the test subject has forgotten their pain, the contender is considered to have failed. There is no uncertainty. There are no appeals. It is the fundamental failure of any Hell to be a place that one might be able to escape on the wings of relief. It defeats the very purpose of having a Hell, which in turns defeats the purpose of being a god at all.
So it is that the contest is decided. So it is that the best of the Hells are declared. And after the convocation has disbanded and all contestants have gone off their separate ways, you may find yourself seized of the dread that comes with mere existence. But the dread will somehow, in ways you cannot imagine, feel different than it did the last time you felt it. And all of your usual methods to ease that dread won’t send it away entirely.
And the judges will know that they chose correctly.