As I understand it, a soul is a cross between a witness and a hostage. In the normal run of things, it accompanies a man through life, seeing and remembering everything he does. At death, the body reveals its inborn perfidy, resolving itself into unsullied dust, and the soul trudges off to punishment or reward or to another alliance with the material world. Not, perhaps, ideally just, but traditional. Thus, when the body I’d accompanied for 46 years was safely, smugly, buried, I slipped off and made my way to Hell.
I hadn’t been able to commit epic sins, but my opportunities had been limited. I had never murdered anyone, except when I was a soldier, but only because I feared the gallows – I cared not a fig nor a firkin for anyone else. In my small way, I had made life a misery for those around me with petty persecutions and cruelties, and the neighborhood had breathed a sigh of relief when I died, having made not the least sign of repentance. Still, I was no coward and, as much as something immaterial can, squared my shoulders and set off.
Those who write of the easy path to Hell, the broad way, the smooth descent, have, I strongly suspect, never made the journey themselves. I found it preposterously difficult to find. If a small grey cat with a cast in its eye hadn’t directed me at last I might be searching for it yet. The right road, when at last I was on it, looked ordinary enough – dusty, to be sure, but neither inviting nor sinister. The Gates of Hell might have lead to the suburban villa of a minor country lord.
As one would expect at such a villa, there was a guard, and obviously one who had seen better days – a shabby fellow, with a tooth missing from his grin and small, mismatched horns. Still, he knew his duty and challenged me, blocking my way.”What business?” he said, brusquely enough. He sounded so much like I had when I’d spent a season teaching I felt like saying “Please, sir; I’ve come to be damned!” I had more dignity than that, though, so I looked into his impudent red eyes and said “I am a soul come to judgment.”
“You’re a what.”
“A soul, I said, blackened with crime and sin and without a speck of remorse.”
“No, you’re not.”
“My good man, I cheated and lied and stole. When I was handsome I broke hearts, and when my looks were gone I made the weak fear me, and they were right to, since I doled out pain and humiliation. There was nothing generous about me and Virtue and I cut each other in the street.”
“A lovely speech, mister, but you’re not meat for Hell.”
“Not mete for Hell? You must be far pickier than men say. Ask anyone who knew me; they’ll say that if ever a soul was bound for Hell it was me.”
“Maybe so, but they’d be wrong to say it.”
I was, I confess it, stung. “What, was I not evil enough? I lived in a quiet part of the world, without any chances for great villainy. What evil I could do, I did.”
“Oh, it’s not the evil that’s the problem. I can see you were thoroughly loathsome. It’s … well .. that is to say …”
There was a pause, until I grew impatient.
“That is to say what? What let or hinderance can there be to my going through your gates and starting my well-deserved eternal torment?”
“Hell is for souls, sir. And you’re not one. Or, at any rate, not a real one.”