I died in a flash of screaming light on the highway at the age of twenty-six. My trial was brief and unmemorable. I was sent to hell on the charge that I had never told the truth in my entire life.
Though there was no arguing with it (you understand this implicitly in the hereafter, the way everyone somehow knows not to ask Uncle Louis about his very good friend at Thanksgiving dinner) the attendant was willing to make small talk as he readied the indescribably complex transportation mechanism. “Shouldn’t it just be instantaneous,” I asked him, not speaking, because I was a soul, and he was the platonic form of the smile the nurse gives you on the sick side of the waiting room and did not have ears.
“There are no quick solutions here,” he sniffed. I liked him instantly. I had lived most of my life hating the world from the inside, and here was a guy (or whatever) who looked down on the whole affair of the universe with justified detachment. “Everything here happens exactly as it needs to. We plunge to the depths of Gabriel’s horn.”
I shrugged. He could take as long as he needed to. Hell wasn’t the most exciting prospect. Maybe I could distract him. “The Gabriel?” I asked.
The attendant became nonexistentially indeterminate for a while. I was shocked to recognize, through layer upon layer of ontological, societal, linguistic, aesthetic, and corporeal translation, that he was basically shaking his head. “You weren’t a mathematician, were you?”
“Weren’t you at the trial?” I asked. I remembered him being there, waiting in the wings with a vague aura of impatience. And if he was there he surely knew I was a writer.
“I was,” he said with long-suffering patience. “I thought I’d help you try to distract me.”
“Oh,” I said, taken aback.
“It won’t work, of course. Everything here happens exactly as it needs to.”
“Right,” I said.
“We’re almost ready now.” Strangely, this pronunciation didn’t scare me. Everything seemed so inevitable. Because it was.
“Will I see my family after this?” I wondered.
“You will,” he said. He said it so mournfully that the diffuse light seemed to cower and darkness draw close.
“Will you stay with me?” The question emerged from somewhere deep within a young part of me. I could tell the attendant got asked this all the time.
He shook his head once more. “I’m afraid not. You must travel far beyond where I dare to tread.”
I smiled nervously. “I don’t want to go down there.”
“You’re not going down, my love. You’re going up.”
There erupted from everything a hideous screech-roar as reality elongated and stretched with unsettling determination beyond its breaking point and everything ceased to cohere. The speed of light tumbled; pi came loose of its moorings; 1 + 1 = 2 was suddenly, inexplicably gone, and I felt drawn toward the locus where Euclid’s parallels converged and this statement was false. A tower that stood only on itself rose beneath my feet, its spiraled tiers pushing me up and up, clouds of greater and greater illumination fleeing before me. Just as I began to truly fear whom I would find behind the final veil I was encompassed by the deepest, truest, emptiest silence I had ever known.
I was aware of the silence; intimately aware of it; it was an extension of myself. There were no words, there could be no words; there was nothing, and there could be nothing. I idly wondered if this was the solitary confinement chamber, but I knew that was false even as I considered it, or rather, my considering it made it false.
Hell simply wasn’t.
I simply was.
Well, I was certain there was no time.
So time simply wasn’t.
I simply had been, was, and would be, at once.
I was alone, and everything, and utterly satisfied, and I found, to my surprise, then astonishment, then delight that I knew the entire story. I knew about the beginning, and the end, and everything in between to its infinitesimal details. It was something I did once, or would do in the future. I remembered designing the laws of the universe, elegant restatements of my deepest self. I saw the moment I breathed into a pair of dusty nostrils in the shade of a young sun, and the moment a whale surfaced to offer its dorsal side to me in glory, and the way Borges held his pen. Everything as it should be. Everything the only way it could be.
Everything happening exactly as it needed to.
This reminded me of the attendant, who, like all of creation, was in my head. I saw him both from without and from within; I knew him as speck of dust and as the entire universe from within his head. I knew his entire existence, his programming, his service in bringing souls to their punishment. I knew he would smell of mints and old cigars if he were made physical.
I saw my conception and my own birth, so small, fragmented, temporal. I saw myself grow up and kept myself from harm; watched me curse myself and forsake myself in adolescence. I watched the first time I wrote a story, smiled my own joy, so small and so perfect in its smallness.
I saw my pain, a skinned knee, a broken arm, and I sewed my body back together.
At fourteen, mom caught me smoking and we got into an apocalyptic fight. She cared so much it hurt, which made me hurt. The fight was over the next day when we laughed over eggs, but we were no longer as one, I found other things to lie about, and our love was no longer perfectly my home, and I suddenly knew it.
I knew the darkness.
I knew the suffering, an endless procession of it, the sea of tears.
And I didn’t care.
None of it was real. It was all in my head, memories of something that happened long ago or something that might happen one day. Treblinka was theoretical, the killing fields a sick suggestion I could create, by speaking it.
I considered it all, whether it was worth it, whether it pleased me.
I considered it forever.
I knew that none of them, not a single one, would ever come close to the truth. There would be strong men; I could do anything. There would be beauty; I was ineffable. There would be holiness; I would forever be alone.
I needed nothing. I lacked nothing. I was the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end of all potential things.
I didn’t need it.
They would spend their lives building towers, but me they would never reach. And the pain it would cause them, only I would ever describe as I formed it and imposed it upon them.
They knew nothing.
They did not need to be created.
It was bad for them.
At the end of an eternity, I said it.
“I will not create the world.”
All receded, and I found myself to be only myself and alone with the attendant once more.
“You have failed,” said the attendant.
“Failed?” I muttered, disoriented. His presence was oppressive; against his otherness a skirling scream begin to well within me. “Failed at what?” My voice was choked with emotion, my words sloughing sideways like bricks from a collapsing wall.
“You have not yet learned to tell the truth.”
I remembered…I remembered! But I could not speak. My words were slipping away. With the force of all my will I managed, “I am the truth.” What a strange tale this will all make one day, I thought. They’ll all love it.
The attendant could only shake his head. “We will have to resort to the river —”
Some messenger, an underling, appeared, out of breath, and said, “Sir, this one isn’t ready.”
The attendant’s eyes would have narrowed if he were not the platonic form of the smile the nurse gives you on the sick side of the waiting room. “Why not?”
“He wants to write a story about it all, sir.”
“Some of them never learn,” said the attendant sadly, and I found myself toppling from heaven, wailing incoherently, my memories stripping away in the wind, a womb fast approaching —