It must have been I am here because I have asked to see this place. When did I ask? I cannot remember and my guide will not tell me. What strikes me as I travel down the circles is how scarcely populated they seem to be. I had expected more people. Are they all in Heaven? The virtuous pagans cluster around small fires in the vast emptiness where they dwell, a place that must have been constructed for a much larger population. At the second circle where the wind picks up and flings those who could not deny their bodies’ need to give themselves up, my guide gestures at all the damned carried by cold gusts and says, “You.”
“Yeah, I know,” I say. “I thought there would be more of us.”
On through the icy rain, past all the ones who could never have enough, those who push and pull weights against each other, past all the ones who gurgle in impotent fury in their mire, we come to the flaming tombs of the heretics. “Hey,” I touch my guide on the shoulder, “there’s nobody here. The tombs are burning nothing.” “Well,” he says, “turns out God doesn’t care as much about heresy as He used to. But here, there are more people in the three rings of the seventh circle, look at all the violent.”
Here they are all boiling in a river of blood, those who destroyed things and hurt others. I look over the screaming multitudes, and note, “Yeah, there are a lot, but you know, for the whole history of the world, it seems like less than I would expect.” My guide shrugs and leads me on through the forest of the suicides. I look at the gnarled branches on the squat little trees. I do not have the stomach to snap off a twig to listen to one of the shrubs sing its story in blood. “Seems you do not have any quips or questions,” my guide observes. “You were almost here.” “I may be yet,” I answer. “Well, try not to be,” my guide says. It’s not pleasant.”
Past the trees is a flaming desert with flakes of fire wafting slowly down from the sky. There is no one and nothing. “Who used to be here?” I ask. “Blasphemers and sodomites.” “I’m guessing, God doesn’t care for them as he used to?” “It is so. He is very busy, you see–with them. With Fraud,” he says, as he gestures to what comes beyond the narrow desert. The eighth circle, the place for all the liars, built in stone ditches. The Bolgie. They are packed, so that the damned cannot move, so tightly are they pressed together–down as far as they eye can see, waning off into the blackness. I cannot find the outer rim of the center circle, the place where Hell freezes over. It looks as if this Malebolge goes on forever. Nearly all the souls that I can see are covered in human waste, and sealed into lead cloaks gilded on the outside. “Wait,” I say, “this is not what it’s supposed to look like.” “It didn’t use to look like this,” my guide explained, “but due to the sheer number of the incoming, we did not have the resources to determine which is the liars were guilty more of hypocrisy, which more of flattery. So we took them all and gave them the punishment for both. More efficient, and apt, if you ask me. You see this infinity of false humanity? This is where almost all of you end up. Packed here. There is no one in Heaven.”
I watch in horrified silence. Where is the end of this place? It seems there is none. “How far is the ninth circle?” I ask. “It no longer exists,” explains my guide, “the heat from all Fraud’s bodies melted all the ice. And Satan is dead. Only us now.”
Among the shit-covered, lead-cowled penitent, a solitary woman stumbles backward, naked and groaning, her neck wrenched to that her head faces the back of her body, fat tears rolling off her face and onto her back. “A false diviner?” I ask. “Yes. If you make yourself too much of what you already are, you could be one of those. Which is a kind of honor, very few of the false are something else than plain flattering hypocrites. Good luck finding a simoniac. They’re in there somewhere. If you would like to visit a few of your nation’s presidents, I could take you to the lake of pitch where the barrators still drown.”
I would answer my guide, except I am mute with distress–for here you are. Yes, you. I’d recognize your blank eyes and your pretty mouth no matter how much shit covered your face. Can you see me, or are you too preoccupied by the weight of your leaden priestly robe? Seeing you here with all the others, my flesh turns into pain, and I fear I will not be able to escape my own hand. You, and everyone–liars. Is that not enough to tear myself out of my body and turn myself into a tree? Look up, darling, on the Day of Judgement, into the forest of those who have killed themselves, and you will see me, my corpse finally returned to me, its limbs tangled in my branches. When you see me, I will know, and I will quake to make my body shiver for you as it used to when I was alive. When I was in it. When you were in it. And maybe, if God is watching, He will laugh.