Authors: John Domini
I thought: did the others who were punished continue to search? The punishment was hardly slight. Yet the devils who sometimes traveled through my Division were always alone, and though I had never before thought of them as seeking after something, that could well be their situation. Once a demon is chastisedâperhaps not the first time, but after a few more timesâthe aches and festerings must eventually become less painful than the thought of abandoning the quest. Yet the idea of so many devils on so many private crusades raised the most horrifying prospect of all in my mind's eye, that of a vast place devoid of pleasure, in which there are no overseers and subordinates, no giants and mites, no punishers and punished, but only an infinite calendar of torture and impenetrable silence, in which the ones who can fly are no more free than those who can only walk, and the pain inflicted on whoever happened to pass below was thriftily recycled for a second use higher up, and a two-hundred-million-and-second use, always the same pain, never growing smaller but only narrower and more extensive, until Hell had been dirtied from end to oblivion by that same original drop of blood, or tear, or both, which had been squeezed out at the first instant of the creation of pain. In an effort to break this nightmare cycle, I tried giving up my search for Miplip. Why torture myself pursuing him who had tortured me?
I again took up my attempt to recapture the sound of a human voice. Having so much room to myself, so much time to myself, I was able to vary volume and experiment with echo effects as I pleased. Visiting devils heard me, and no doubt guessed what I was up to, but I felt incontrovertibly separated from them already. I did not care what they heard or surmised. I only wished, from time to time, seeing one pause while flying overhead, seeing him look down at me inquisitively, I only wished that he would lend me a hand. But no one ever mingled his voice with mine. I went on alone. My duties I gave less attention, but after all, considering the doubts I had been suffering, a certain inattention to my duties was the least that could have been expected.
Perhaps it was this laxness, then, or perhaps it was simply the strangeness of a devil trying to imitate human speech, but eventually I began to draw large and quietly attentive audiences from whatever group of damned souls happened to be in the area. Try as I might to chase them off, they always returned to listen some more. My fork caused only the briefest withdrawal, and my renderings of their earth's beauties were now, without Miplip's help, no more than vague glosses out of a confused jumble of memories.
Sometimes, when approximating a human voice seemed like too great a task, I instead tried to recreate the special sound that my runaway overseer's voice had once had, that time he made his odd speech about silliness.
And thenâ¦though I fought against it with every weapon I hadâ¦once more I felt my insensible spirit rising, rising, though I shrieked out loud against it, tried to lose myself in orgies of torture, ripped apart those unfortunate charges of mine that got in my way, even dragged myself down to Dis and had myself punished again. It was all to no avail. I had got it into my mind, never to be driven out, that
I could find Miplip
. I reiterated as many of his injuries as I could recall, marking them off on the impartial face of a boulder, but though the stone was so covered with markings it crumbled to bits, it made no difference. I knew he had to be here, he had to be among my charges, and I would find him.
With Heaven and Hell the way they are, he could not be anywhere else. My overseer is more clever than I, but not so clever as the devils around Dis, and they have less wits than the ones farther below.
Therefore he had become one of the damned. The ploy was characteristically wise: there are more of them than anything else in Hell. How could I know, while working my way through a crush of preterites, if one of the bodies ahead of me quietly metamorphoses into a rivulet of vomit running between my feet, and then into another body behind me? Moreover, Miplip's taking a place among our charges was characteristically proud, as well, for in human form my old overseer would find himself vulnerable to the fearsome geographyâhe would suffer the heat, the stink, the pestilential lichensâand therefore remaining untraceable would require a tremendous effort of will. One cry of pain at the wrong time and I would have him. I knew that the enormous discipline involved in keeping silent would appeal to my own, my old, lofty Miplip.
So I began to inspect my charges, one by one. Never had I been so close to them. I touched their faces, gazed deep into their reflecting eyes, stroked them frankly, boldly spoke to them. They will be here forever, but they have not been here forever: that thought sustained me. I resolved that, on the untold day when I exhausted their number, I would start again.
In the course of my searching, I discovered the man who had once, so long ago, passed through this inferno unharmed.
He was among the Wrathful. Who can understand? Perhaps he had neglected to control his powers, and his poetryâfor even in my present solitude I had heard the news that he was a poetâhad not done the job it was given; instead of describing a pilgrim's journey, in the middle of life's road, down through the circles of torment in this world, back again through Purgatory, attaining at last to beatific Grace, his poetry perhaps had merely trumpeted himself and his petty angers. Having set out to demonstrate eternal values, he instead revealed himself. Or perhaps the Powers had planned it this way from the first, that would be like Them. No man may just visit; he must return to stay. Or maybe the poet with the formidable nose was actually Miplip, Miplip, still a demon, still torturing others with visions of alternatives, of there existing something else, something
. Miplipâmore? More than we have? More than we see? But Miplip was gone, after all. It was unreasonable, very strange, that I should worry so much about him when he was gone.
Whoever he was, this man conversed with me.
We exchanged ideas by means of pantomime. Apparently he was very excited about being given the chance to try. He had jostled his way to the front of the line I was examining, and as his hands and arms flew about he grinned, whenever his mouth was not being called upon to aid expression. Each statement was made with a huge energy, a silent, ambidextrous outburst of human feeling that strove always for the most accurate effects, the thing closest to true speech. He succeeded in getting across a great deal, more than I would have thought possible. He said they had gotten accustomed to pain, just as Miplip had suspected. The reminders of earth were very depressing, he said, as we had hoped they would be, but after a while this sorrow, too, had faded, and the damned had come to look forward to our shows, as refreshing variations in the routine.
He then said that their fondest wish at present was to begin, somehow, communicating with us, because they had developed a great fondness, a great sympathy, for their keepers. A devil's existence is predicated on torture, he said. Since it is impossible to torture anyone forever, we were now condemned to what was originally intended for them: a life without hope.
After that his thoughts moved beyond the range of mime. But I lingered there before him, enjoying his mute philosophy. Others in the area watched us, or else began again their aimless, milling search for something besides the routine. I had no more regard for them than I had for how time was passing, as I watched this man struggling to make his points. Nor did I care how that damned deluder Miplip might be using the timeâalways his greatest allyâto slip further away. The poet seemed to be saying that the problem of hope (hands clasped over heart, raised to forehead, then opened upwards and raised to roof) and the problem of speech (mouth opening and closing while left hand, palm up, moves from lower lip out towards listener and back) were one and the same, and that neither hope nor speech had very much to do, in the final analysis, with pain (face in a grimace, left hand in a fist and jabbing chest repeatedly, in the vicinity of the heart).
This last sight seemed to penetrate me, actually enter and pass through, like that man or any other who had passed through Hell and been reborn, leaving in the wake of its emotion a vacuum that could no longer be filled by mere looking. I had to touch. Moved, startled beyond even the constant abjurations my conscience had made against physical contact since the disappearance of Miplip, I reached out and took hold of his fist as it once more struck his chest. With his free hand he covered mine. All at once there was speech, real speech, in a voice that had been consumed twice over, once by agony and once by the implacable need of forgiveness:
“Don't let go, please, please, don't let go,” Miplip said. “Oh lover, please.”
It was an ordinary urban incident at first, the sort of thing you get accustomed to sooner or later, here or in any other city. One morning I was walking from my apartment to the bank, along the one-ways on the Charles River side of Massachusetts Avenue. It was spring then. I'd been up early, 6:15, hearing the radio report the day's weather with what sounded like a smile in its voice, and that made a fine start. The alarm was set so early because Priss had set it, not the night before but the night before that, so we could get up in time to make love before we had to go to work. She wasn't ordinary about love. Most people don't like to have it early in the morning. But according to Priss, it was much better then than late at night, when, again according to her, you were tired, achey, cold, insensible, numb. I had the house to myself this particular morning, though; Priss wasn't there. And actually that added to the pleasant flavor of events. Because while I never said no to PrissâI didn't like to say no to Prissâit could be nerve-wracking and hard on the body to erupt out of sleep so abruptly, so incontrovertibly. I spent another hour-and-a-half in bed after the weather forecast. I ate breakfast on the porch, in the sun. I decided then to walk to the bank rather than drive. So it was on a small street lined with trellises and flower boxes, just this side of the Square, that an old woman standing in the doorway of a wooden triple-decker called to me.
“Have you seen my children?” she said, or at least that's the way I heard it. “They're right here most of the time and now they're not. No, they're not. They're usually playing right here in front of me and I'm so frightened now. I haven't seen them all
. I'm so frightened, so frightened now.”
She was an old woman. She wore a decent gray wool dress with thin red lines in squares. Her face and hair and fingers were all finely kept, very clean. The house in whose doorway she stood wasn't nearly as cheerless and dilapidated as some of these places. The paint was recent, the front step intact. But she had awfully thin arms and legs, where they showed, where the gray dress stopped. I guessed she felt the cold more than most. It was too warm out for wool otherwise. I asked how old her children were.
“They aren't my children. Oh. I didn't mean to give you that impression. I apologize if that's what you thought.”
She spoke without smiling, her head planted on her neck and her entire thin body still. One hand was on the door jamb, the other on the inside knob of the open door. Only her eyes moved, constantly scanning the street, meeting mine on every fifth word, or possibly every sixth.
“They are little children who play here right in front and over on the other side of the street. All day long they play. I'm an old woman and I live alone and I'm so frightened. I'm
frightened all the time.”
I can't say just when I began to get my idea. As I mentioned before, you get accustomed to this sort of thing. But you never get so accustomed you lose all sympathy, certainly not. In any event I spoke up. I concentrated on sounding formal, because of the strength in sounding formal. The woman needed a friendly touch but also she needed the boost of real muscle. I tried to catch those wandering eyes.
“Ma'am,” I said, and maybe it was with this one unlikely word, a word I never used, that my idea began to comeâ“Ma'am, it's a beautiful day out today. Don't tell me you're so frightened you haven't noticed that. Why it's only, it's only 8:45, give or take a minute, and already it's a lovely day. I hope you're not so frightened you haven't noticed.”
She didn't respond, but her eyes seemed to change their path. They crossed mine more often.
“On a morning like this, Ma'am, those children might be anywhere. They might be up the street buying candy, or visiting the zoo. Or they might not even be out yet. It could be theyâre all still indoors. Now, I don't mean to sound presumptuous, Ma'am, but I can't help wondering if you've got any good reason to be so frightened. Why, I wonder? Think of all the places those children might be on a morning like this. Is that so frightening?”
I paused and waited till her eyes came round to mine again. And by then there had arrived my idea, my crazy idea, something that bore down on me more and more wildly during these few moments of silence, so wildly at last that it couldn't be denied. I deepened my voice.
“You know, actually, I'm not a stranger, Ma'am, not to you or to anyone else. No, I'm no stranger. You know who I am. I've come here from a far distant place, far distant, on a special mission. I've come just for a short while, and just especially for you, Maâam. To help you in your old age.”
Suddenly she gasped, cutting me off: “You've come, you, you've, you
And then, though she still couldn't stop her glancing across the street, her face changed shape and took on a terrific smile.
I thought, well.
was easy. Success came into my chest with a sensation that made me think of a well-kept pocket watch opening and showing its face.
“That's right, it's me, I've come. Just for now, and just for you. I can see there's no need to tell you my name, and actually I prefer not to speak my name if it's not absolutely necessary. But I've come a long way, just to help you and to tell you that your life isn't so bleak and frightening as you think, living alone as you do. I want you to remember that. Goodbye now. Goodbye, but remember what I said. You won't be seeing me after this.”