June 23, 2015
Once upon a time there was a very small and unimportant imp who lived in an obscure corner of hell. All he had ever known was being kicked around by all the larger and meaner devils who in turn were bullied by tougher and more important devils all the way up to Satan himself. Our particular devil led a miserable life. He started each day, although day is a mere figure of speech in hell, dreading every waking moment. He was not, would never be, a success. He was too small, too weak, and he lacked the necessary meanness. He was not very good at tormenting the prisoners in his charge, not because he was good or kind, but because he thought it pointless. The prisoners were already completely without hope. Small outbursts of spite were all that this little devil could manage and these were more often directed at his fellow devils, who made his life wretched, than at the prisoners.
One day he was summoned by his unit supervisor and sent on an errand to another part of hell. Even devils like an occasional change in their routines and these assignments were coveted. Usually our devil was not even considered for messenger duty, but on this particular occasion everyone was busy getting ready for a big inspection by the district chief and no one else could be spared.
So our little guy was given a message to be delivered to the next sector and a set of directions, which he committed to memory and repeated back to his unit supervisor until the latter was satisfied that he had learned the route cold. Then he started off. He did well at first. Left turn at the big fumarole, right turn at the crossroads, the path exactly matched his recollection of the directions he had been given. But after traveling a few hours he arrived at some hills and ravines that had not been mentioned at all in his directions and he quickly came to the conclusion that he was really and truly lost. That’s commonplace in hell. It’s designed that way, of course. It is a vast and convoluted place and very murky. Certainly there are no signs.
About ten hours after leaving his own duty base he found himself tramping down a little used track in very dim light. He had not seen any prisoners or another devil in hours. He was feeling more than usually downhearted and was beginning to wonder if he would ever see his own sector again. He did not feel the kind of longing for it that we feel for familiar places, but it was all he knew.
Then he saw something that would seem very ordinary to us, but which was absolutely extraordinary to our devil. He saw a small shed, a rickety fence, a gate, and someone digging with a spading fork in a muddy field beside the path. Now there are no buildings in hell and there are no tools. Skrax (that’s what our devil was called) knew that these things existed and he knew what they were. They belonged on earth, not in hell. He had never seen them before, except in pictures.
There is a Chinese proverb that says: Heaven and the Emperor are both a long way away. That is true of any large and complicated bureaucracy. Things go on at the local level of which the higher ups are completely unaware. Obviously no one was paying any attention to doings in this corner of hell.
Skrax was looking at things forbidden in hell–improvements, comforts, conveniences, tools, and work. He was too far down on the totem pole himself to feel outraged. He was simply enormously curious. The light was so bad and the creature digging in the field was so dirty that Skrax could not tell whether the wretched thing was a devil like himself or a prisoner. Skrax turned aside, walked through the gate, and went quietly up to the being with the shovel.
He expected the fellow to bolt. After all, what he was doing was not only completely illegal, it was unheard of, but, instead, the digger merely glanced at him and kept on shoveling with great energy, throwing up clods of dirt, possessed, as it were.
There was a quite wonderful smell in the air that was new to Skrax. It was the smell of, well, a muddy field. It was the smell of earth. When Skrax drew near to the farmer, for that is what he was, whether prisoner or devil, the fellow stuck out his hand, palm up. He was holding what looked to Skrax like to small dirty brown rocks.
“Potatoes!” he said to an amazed Skrax. “These are special ones, too. They are Yukon Gold potatoes.”
Skrax looked with great curiosity at the potatoes. It was the first plant life and the first earthly food that he had ever seen. It all seemed wonderful to him–the small crop, the pale leaves of the struggling potato vines, the muddy field. But it was the smells that particularly excited him. He had received all the standard indoctrination lectures on earthly matters but none of his devilish instructors had ever mentioned these overwhelming, intoxicating smells! He had spent eons as an unhappy downtrodden oppressed little imp but he had never been rebellious. Now, for the first time, an original and independent thought crossed his mind. “What else did they leave out? What else didn’t they tell me?” He had been taught that nothing from earth existed in hell except the souls of sinners that the devils called “the prisoners,” but here was a field and growing things, a tumbledown shed, a garden fork, and all these incredible smells that caused him to tremble with excitement and which aroused ecstatic visions in his mind. He did not know it but it was the smell of life in its bodily form. He stared, as if in a trance, at the two small potatoes.
“I know you won’t give me away.” said the farmer. “I see it in your face.”
Once the door of consciousness has been opened it cannot be closed again. Skrax had utterly forgotten his message and his errand. In one instant he had been completely transformed. He had thought the previously unthinkable. Now he found himself saying the unspeakable.
“How can I go there?”
“Where the potatoes came from. Earth.”
“I can’t help you there, but I can direct you to someone who can tell you. Go straight on the way you were traveling and you will come to a bridge across a ravine filled with boiling tar. Go across. The road forks. Bear right and you will come to a cave in a rock cliff. That’s the local unit headquarters for this sector. Ask for Gronx.”
As if in a dream Skranx followed these new directions and in a few hours he found himself in the presence of a unit supervisor of the same rank as the one who had dispatched him on his original and now neglected errand.
“Messenger, eh?” said Gronx. “Very well. What’s the word?”
“Potatoes.” said Skrax.
There were two small devils hanging about eavesdropping. Gronx sent them away.
“Well, well.” said Gronx. “That’s very interesting.” He stared at Skrax and Skrax stared back. Gronx was a very ordinary devil in appearance except that he had four eyes, two forward and two behind. Eyes in the back of one’s head are very useful for a supervisor.
“I want to go to earth.” said Skrax, although he had no idea how he found the courage to say this and was astounded at hearing these words come out of his mouth. “Not to visit–to stay.” he added. It was the kind of speech that, when uttered in hell, got one suspended by the ankles over a hellfire crevice for a few million years.
Gronx did not appear startled, shocked, or alarmed. He continued to stare at Skrax thoughtfully, with no change of expression.
“There are ways and there are probably ways that I don’t know about.” said Gronx slowly. “I know one way. Indoctrination lectures for the bigwigs are different from the ones for you and me. Actual objects from earth are sometimes used. Aversion training, it’s called. Terrified of defectors, Satan is. That is how such things occasionally come here. After the lectures the demonstration objects are supposed to be destroyed by burning with earth fire and the ashes returned to earth. That’s my job.”
“That’s an important responsibility.” said Skrax in a very small voice.
“You must not imagine that it is a matter of trust.” said Gronx sarcastically. “No one trusts anyone here.” He said this although the very fact of the conversation he was having with Skrax contradicted him. Devils, like people, frequently say things that are flatly contradicted by plain as a pikestaff evidence right in front of their faces. It’s more self-deception than lying and more common. (I can’t speak about saints or the heavenly angels because I don’t know much about them.) Gronx continued, “But it so happens that earth fire requires oxygen and this sector is the only place in hell with an oxygen vent. Therefore it is the only place that supports earthly fire. Now, at the present moment, I have an object on hand to be destroyed. You may see it.” From a small rocky ledge he drew forth a Raggedy Andy doll. “I am required to burn objects as soon as I receive them. I will burn this today and the ashes, every crumb, will be returned to earth. I can include you in this burning and ash shipment, if you are willing, and no one will be the wiser. I will handle it myself and I can arrange matters that the ashes will be scattered on a potato field, if you like. You can go to earth, but not in your present form.”
“I’ll do it.” said Skrax promptly. “I have nothing to lose.” He astonished himself again by saying that, but once the words were out of his mouth he felt an enormous relief and even, yes, for the first time in his life, joy. He did not worry, as you and I would, about the pain of being burned because he knew, as all devils know, that he was originally angelic in nature and could not feel physical pain. Angelic beings do feel mental pain, but their psychology differs considerably from ours. They are not necessarily grieved by the same things that vex us. However, in any world, Skrax’s decision was highly unusual.
Skrax knew he was angelic in his origin and he knew about God and Satan’s rebellion, but only in a vague and far-off way, as a child might know some distant history such as Washington’s winter at Valley Forge, as a story, without ever connecting it to anything personal or to the conditions of life in hell.
Gronx and Skrax went quickly and quietly to the oxygen vent. Gronx carried the doll and a box of wooden matches which was the only earthly thing authorized in hell, besides the aversion training objects, and only for this specific purpose.
Being burned was very peculiar, but not painful. Skrax did not cry out, as we would, because he was being changed, but not hurt. Gronx thought he heard a small cry at the end, but it was clearly a sound of surprise, not pain.
That’s all of the story. I know this is not a satisfactory ending, but I can’t help it. I don’t know what happened to either of them after that or to the farmer, except for one thing. Skrax was gone from hell. Escaped. Flew the coop. Got clean away. He was no longer in the power of any devil.