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This selection is paired with Canto XXXIV of Dante’s Inferno. Get NonBinary Review #19 from Zoetic Press.
My feet were bloodied, hands mashed and freshly scarred, face white and streaked with purple tears, because my very eyelids were bruised from the treacherous trek down the dizzy mine shafts to the center of Hell. I could still see though. That’s one thing they made sure of. And let me tell you, just because His mouths were wide open maws with no one wriggling inside them, they were no less scary. This is the Prince of Darkness. His lair and presence as you would expect: repugnant and bleak and void of hope.
He’s a monologue reciting villain now, when I look at Him, when I have the rare opportunity to look at Him. He looks like a sphinx locked inside His personal tower of babble, and His shape is mighty and beautiful, and maybe I will never fear again, all the fright sucked out of me like the juice off a lollipop. Where once I looked at Him and cowered, now His muscles aching from the constant repetitive motion of gnawing are a lullaby to me, a love song of all the ways in which He delights in the flavor and crunch and roll inside His mouth of my naked and leaking body, limp with the ecstasy of pain.
A few thousand years ago we met, of course He’d been waiting for me, and He drooled at the sight of my flesh before Him on the ice rock floor. I shivered and pissed myself. At first I thought what cruel prank am I the victim of now? Someone thinks it’s funny to bring the two of us, such opposite creatures, together for all eternity? That’s why first impressions are so precious. You can’t get them back. For me He was the pinnacle of horror, and to Him I was the lowest form of human that would ever be born in all the futures and pasts. It only proves that we should never judge each other by the outer, because we are stuck together now, both of us privileged to a part inside the other no one else has ever been witness to.
Of course I romanticize it now, what else was the point but for us to fall mercy to each other’s charm, to learn to push past the nausea and the trembling and the awkward getting to know each other stage. Has He learned my deeper dreams by now? Could He recite by heart a list of my favorite flowers? I know Him as a maniac and brute with sensitive gums. I know Him as a power that could shred the Earth to confetti. But He’s also encased in that ice prison. I didn’t know that on the first day, so of course when I first saw Him, I fell to the floor bawling and waiting for Him to snatch me up and murder me. He’s locked here too though, it’s not like He could reach down and scoop me up and nibble at His whim. I remember watching His massive jaw open and close as if to a pulse of music, maybe wailing, but I could tell no heart lay inside that fire red charred skin over massive sharp and angry bones. His toothy lips smacking, claws click clacking on the icy ground, and the stench made me wretch. The fur was moldy and matted and maggots crawled through the holes in His skin and hair, comfortable, unperturbed.
I was to strip naked. That’s what the guide told me. So much tastier without a wrapper of cloth I suppose. I was to climb into the clawed paw, but my legs buckled. I must have cried out but I don’t remember what I could have said. Probably begging, since I had paid my penance. I had tossed back that blood money. In my grief I had wanted to repent and join my Lord in the eternal stretch of Heaven’s light, and yet, upon a planned and welcome death, only the ogre ferryman to pity me and mock me and swim me across the river of death into the dark and dense Hell that is actual Hell. Wouldn’t you know through the whispers I’ve heard, that many years later repenting can keep the sinner from this damned and disgusting place?
Where were the priests and pardons when I rocked the nerve of holy men and sent my God to a slow and martyr’s death? Ironic I suppose. What church would bless my name and make me a saint? Every other bumbling and glory/obedient blind apostle has their day. I do pray. That the name I bore in life holds no more weight than a cheesecloth water jug. Of course the damned speak it, pass through the walls of the Cocytus named after me. Long before I was even born they wondered at the way God’s biggest traitor may look hanging from the mouth of Satan.
I was only fulfilling my destiny so why should I be punished? Free will is the joke of the living soul. The lie men tell themselves to erase their guilt. And then looking on me they pass by through death and scoff, as if they know better.
Well, do they love watching me enjoy the mastication? Did they expect a screaming and unrecognizable terror? Do they linger their gaze upon my bloody ass cheeks? Do they marvel at the paleness of my blood starved limbs? I wish I could look past these razor lined lips and spit in their eyes as they glimpse at my torturing. I have resented every other figure/creature/angel I’ve ever seen since death, except maybe my beloved gnawer.
My guides when I first arrived were pleasant enough. Stony faced and red robed and pushing me through the torturous torments of each layered concentric tomb, and I wept thinking where we stopped next would be my forever resting place. Even when I felt that pang in my spirit to turn around and run, my escorts would only shake their horny heads and look at my cowering soul with their expressionless faces and point onward. My body moved on, even as I struggled to stop. Past the lovesick and the jousters and through the walls of the wicked city. Past the flames and the boiling arrows and the haunted woods. I crept with my keepers past the whips and empty eyes and eviscerations and starvation and I thought oh, thank the Lord, I am safe from all these punishments.
Ha! How naïve and blessed I was then, with blisters and boogers and an imagination.
It must have been years that I spent crying out in pain and agony, listening to the pop and sizzle of my ripped flesh. Feeling the burn of acidic saliva on my cheeks and in my ears. Wondering if it were His frothy tears a river down my thighs, or my own open wounds and seeping veins. My feet dangling from the mouth of the beast as he never ending chomped on me, but was never satiated. Eventually though, I stopped worrying about the pain, stopped caring about the sounds and smells and repetition of my punishments within the mouth of the most awful creature of Earth and Heavens. What could I possibly worry if the worst no longer bothers me. Not even a little.
It’s complacency, I suppose, and what’s a bigger sin than never learning your lesson from the original sins you committed? That’s why we are all cursed to the outcome of Eve’s curious and hungry mouth. A mouth never as hungry as my new master, the feaster, the one who flays and devours me without ever swallowing.
Eventually there were more. Two more. One for each other mouth. And the landscapes around us in the freezing cave became tombs for those with evils inside them so much greater than the other lairs could provide chastisement for, but no offense was ever as great as mine. And as time passed above, it felt too slow here below, and I began to hate the places I had come from more than I ever did as a mortal basking in the sun and betraying those I loved. All I love now is the subtle difference in each pull of sharp dirty nail in my skin, each crunch of my skull and taste of him inside my mouth mixed with blood and disappointment.
Some small part of me maybe thought Hell would be a lot sexier. But the only lustful things I hear are the whimpers and hearsays echoing off the walls of our chambers. My ears remain un-punctured, always listening. And there. Footsteps on the stone. That smell of human. Minty and rusty and the chewing of my flesh slows and that’s almost agonizing again.
Maybe they think I can’t see them, with their stupid little poet hands. But everyone knows they’re here, the rumor persists even through the frozen solid wraiths that line this wretched cave. They’re bumbling shadows, keeping their distance, and philosophizing. What have they come to know about the world having witnessed the pathetic dead? And look at them just staring in contempt at me, my blood and strips of muscle bare to them, my feet dangling down to almost ice, but waiting, hanging, and the drip off my toes into a puddle of blood. Oh, I’d sell them for a sack of silver, no question, no worry, even though it buys me nothing here.
“What are you looking at?” I shout at them. But they are weak and mortal and whisper among themselves at the greatest sinner of all times and all their sneering as if they are better than me and could have loved their precious Son so much better than I ever did. With my own hands, with my own eyes.
They have a mission and a lesson and a bottle of ink.
But they are already gone from here. Already spiraling through the reverse gravity of leaving the center of Earth and back up towards the sky and the birds and the green. I think that I miss the color green most of all. Grass and wings and grape leaves and mold and once I saw a shooting star and it zipped green through the stars towards the horizon on a journey I wished I could be a part of. Anywhere but here. Of course that’s how a living man would feel, a poet, a pompous righteous gothic wordy freak. But full of reverence, I’m sure. Not one ounce of doubt.
Please. Let them wait here another thousand years and see where their minds wander.
Who wouldn’t have as I’d done? A bag of silver, a little tip off. I broke no promises. I was no one’s best friend or blood brother or all-knowing keeper. Stupid to think that I deserve this as worst person ever to live of all the stupid and feeble and haughty believers. Each one a betrayer to something. Someone. How is it all not endless backs turned on God? And you know, I’m as much His punishment as He is mine. Always hungry and never full. My lover now in that infinite embrace and neither of us ever satisfied. I think I’d miss Him were He to suddenly drop me to the ground. And doesn’t His diet change from year to year? But never when it comes to me. Where are Cassius and Brutus now? Not here. Not bouncing by their ankles in the lusty roiling mouth of the One True Foulest of us all. No, their sins were overcome by others who had committed much worse crimes of betrayal and spite. They got to fall from the jaws and lie in the floor of the ice, immovable and cold but free from the incessant chewing. Do they long to be back in the hot and acidic space I call home?
Who’s the beggar to my left? Arnold, a coward, and talks too much. And now on my right a woman who only screams her propaganda, the orphan Toguri, she never rests her breathing. When I was first sent here they weren’t hardly letting women past the seventh circle, nor children. They swim now. Fat hips and tiny little feet, all blocked up in the cages of frost and folly and they must have a different, sweeter taste.
Gently I push against my master’s tongue, turn my face the other way and look down His throat. It’s the deepest absence of light that exists anywhere, and I’m the only one allowed to see it. My nostrils burn and reek from the air that passes through His teeth and gullet. My hair is wet and matted with saliva and blood. His index finger pricks too deep, for a second catches on my hip bone and I’m thrust just a little bit farther into His mouth and for one glorious second, it feels like three hundred years, I think that He might finally swallow me. Whole and rotten and writhing and His.
Instead He gags a little, the muscles of His cheeks push me back, I feel the sand grit of His lips on my thighs, the bubble of His stomach clangs in my ear drums. This is where I belong. I relax. And imagine that this is someone else’s Heaven.
Liz Hart is a full time queer, mother, wife and hobby farmer. Published in Open Eye Review, Line Zero, and creator of one chapbook entitled Sacred Names from Fir Tree Press.