Letters from the Waste: Part VII is the seventh part in the ongoing Puritan serial. As we return to the Patriarch’s world, the heaven that he has strived to shape, even ghosts, even the Devil themself cannot be kept out for long. So too its Creator. Click here for the previous chapter.
Fragment Uncategorized – Speculation: Private Speech, Vicar Cret
When I was young, I thought of Hell as someplace distant. I think most people do. Perhaps that’s why it’s often depicted as a valley, a canyon, a pit, a depth: it’s someplace that you can only see from a superior vantage point. From your ledge, you can survey it all–and somehow claim to understand it–without having to venture down into it for yourself. At worst, a demigod or a poet will do it for you.
A lot of people also tend to imagine that perditious depth as a fiery place, burning, scalding, like a volcano, like the core of an infinite star. This is reflected in a plethora of religious imagery. However, I never did imagine it that way. It wasn’t hot, per se. When I imagined its depths, there was no fire, although there was plenty of ash and dust. It was humid. Most importantly, it was empty, except for the refrain of endless cries. It was maddeningly lonely, and that loneliness went down forever and ever into one-dimensionality, every soul so far apart in the expanding fabric that they could never hope to find one another. That was the real misery, the rending, resilient insanity of a swelling universe, until only the echoes endured.
Of course, I never thought about Hell all that much. Who does, besides theologians and the damned themselves? For me, it remained a vague notion, a feeling more than a thought. It was an empty place, a place that I could keep comfortably remote, a place that I never could (or perhaps never would) imagine actually finding myself in.
It wasn’t until I was older that I realized that I was wrong. It wasn’t until then that I realized what Hell truly is.
It isn’t empty. It isn’t distant. At any rate, not like I thought, because it doesn’t need distance. If anything, distance makes things easier.
I was taking the train between Los Angeles and Albuquerque, when lightning quite literally struck. I had already been awake for more than twenty-four hours, hours protracted by packing, taking the bus circuit from Santa Barbara (on the northwestern sector of the current Los Angeles Bastion) to L.A. (the center of the Bastion), and sitting up at the train station until the next morning, when it was finally time to board. In the passing of electric lights, idyllic beachfront had rapidly given way to industrial labyrinth, which in turn would soon give way to expanse.
I found my coach seat, torn deep into the foam. At the very least, I was lucky it was a window seat. The man who sat next to me–from what I could tell of his baggage, a single man returning from a business trip–quickly fell asleep. Although he had slumped over into the aisle, I could still smell the stale alcohol on his breath. Beer, I think, practically acidic when mingled with his excessive cologne. I recoiled from his stench, pressing myself against the window as much as I could.
As the sun peaked out upon the horizon, the flies (unwelcome passengers) danced in the rising heat, and even the powerlines and periodic billboards waned away, the vista’s shadows unraveled before my eyes like a baroque illusion. The natural landscape was certainly beautiful, the red dirt overrun with parched grasses and fallow ridges, but the life there seemed to me reanimated; it had already decomposed, but, like one of Harryhausen’s skeletal, stop-motion warriors, its shell remained behind to contort itself in new ways. Mountains rose up at both ends of the window frame, perpendicular to the path of the rails. On flat ground, in this valley between those uneven barriers, a storm rolled towards us from over the approaching peaks. Wisp of rainfall cleaved the distant air, staining the sky like oil paint, and from amidst the reeds and scrublands, beneath the shadow but not the precipitation of the thunderheads, a different sort of pale husk came about. It was a sallow building, a squared skull whose sockets had long been shut-off by ramshackle planks.
The lone skull, an extinct fossil of the leviathan of humanity’s extent, cruised closer atop the blurred waves of recurring stalks. A palate for sprayed-on words–although it was difficult to imagine how anyone could have gotten out here in the first place–its original purpose, whatever that may be, had long been abandoned and overwritten by graffiti. The place itself, however, was not abandoned. Huddled together amidst broken debris–I say broken debris, but the more accurate term would sadly be broken possessions–a litter of tattered tents trembled in weak defiance of the escalating gusts throwing themselves down from the nearby peaks. Against the grooves of the metal train car, the hot wind shook and shrieked above even the thundering wheels under our feet. Yet we were safe within the car, safe from the wind, safe from the dust.
In the moment or so that we passed directly in front of the sightless structure, a ragged man ran parallel to the rails, chasing after a red blanket picked up by the desert squalls. In the yawning doorway, two women, one too old, the other too young, watched him. I think that the three of them were vagrants, homeless, a rather foreign concept to us now in the Order.
In that moment or so, a thought formulated in my mind, latched a feeling not easily expressed in language. Despite ourselves, I think that most people of my generation felt something like it once, before the Patriarch’s arrival: it goes something like “Thank God I don’t live like this,” or, perhaps more generally, the simultaneous “Someone will help them. Thank God I’m not them.” It was the sort of feeling you had when you ignored a homeless man on the sidewalk or forgot to recycle. “Next time.” Yes, that’s exactly it: “next time.”
I looked back into the car before the skull had even departed my periphery. I didn’t want to look at them anymore. On the far wall of the train car, just barely close enough for me to see, there was a small television infested with burnt pixels. A news channel was on. It was muted, but I could read the headline. Breaking News: dozens more children killed in the most recent atrocity. I felt sorrow. I felt anger, certainly. But that same despicable, irresistible feeling whispered: “Someone will help them. Thank God I’m not them.” I wished that it had remained silent. Certainly, I felt pity. I might even be able to classify it as empathy, or a strange guilt, but these would be too generous. If there was anything of empathy in me in those moments, it was simply not enough to mean anything in the eyes of God, not as long as that nagging, wicked relief remained within it.
It was complicity masked as gratitude, “Thank God” (and it may be damnation for me to admit it) a half-step removed from declaring “I am not the one to solve their problems. They are not my problem.” I witnessed this response bloom in my heart, a barbed blossom, and I resented it in a moment. I rejected it with disgust, as anyone would, or nearly anyone–yet make no mistake, my sensation cannot possibly be unique. I rejected myself alone with disgust.
A solitary billboard on the outskirts of Gallup interrupted my loathing, or at least my object. It had been barely ten minutes since the skull left my sight, and the billboard beamed the words
“Cremations Starting at $639.99!” The words were white against the image of a blue sky, the billboard’s blue sky incoherent against the now falling rain, the dancing lightning, the bleak thunderheads.
“Cremations Starting at $639.99!” While it is never a pleasant thing to confront one’s own mortality, it is perhaps worse to confront how our world treats that death. Greedy death, carnivorous death, carnivorous suffering: in a brief window of time, they reared their heads, yet, still, even they are not the predators I fear most! It is the adjectives attached to them: the permissible depravities of the human soul, to treat horrors of desolation with such apathy, preyed upon me. I had ventured out of Santa Barbara, out of comfort, out of the blind eye, between the valley of the two mountain ranges, and I knew for the first time where I was.
I was in Hell.
I say this without exaggeration. One might ask then, “How can this possibly be? Were things really that bad? And is Hell not reserved for the damned?”, but one merely needs to ask oneself, as I did: What is wrong with me? What is wrong with us? How could so many of us have let the world become like this, careless of our fellow human beings, where death and suffering are appraisable commodities? Sit at your television as an old man freezes outside. Spend your money on a cup of coffee, as a child goes hungry or burns. The world, the human race starved for mercy. But if there is no mercy to be had, there can only be two things: judgment or evil. Either way, there is only damnation. But who is damned? In our world, rarely the ones who deserve it are the ones who suffer. So there is not even justice. If our world is not Hell, Hell may be better, because at least then it would have that justice.
Perhaps not everyone had accepted this apathetic madness within themselves (because it is indeed a certain sort of insanity, a certain kind of delusion), but, before the Patriarch, such revolution would have seemed impossible, or, at best, self-destructive. In the old world, there was no place for common importance, no room for it against the values of money, the values of nationality. The road to Hell may be laid with good intentions–the networks of evil, a web tangling the hesitant and the moderate in their own permissable atrocities–but it is certainly lined with billboards and headlines, as far as the eye can see.
These roads and railways exist in our world. They don’t need to be anywhere else. The only thing that distance achieves is an anesthetic, when our hearts rest at an even greater separation. In short, make no mistake: this is Hell, and we are not watching it from above. We are not passing over it. We are in it.
And it still is. Many scholars and analysts nowadays note with pride the relative destruction of the competitive “Keeping up with the Joneses” mindset brought about by the Patriarch’s standardization, but we neglect the other half of it. Maybe we want to forget that we ever thought this way in the first place: the “Next Time,” the “Thank God.” We celebrate the fact that there is no longer that toxic competitiveness, that need to be the “winners” of the modern society or the modern economy. We live almost in denial of our complicity, our comfort, our peace and quiet, because many continue to deny their past privileges. Until we acknowledge that past, I’m afraid to say that the Puritan’s regime can never be the Heaven on Earth that he advances with an ever-slowing march.
This is still Hell.
We are a light upon a hill, but that peak is meaningless when the walls of the canyons of suffering still surround us, around the world. Where there is not Order, there is needless suffering. Where there is needless suffering, there is evil.
It is our evil.
Fragment Uncategorized – Speculation: Excerpt from Document 0213
January 21, 2054
I have to assume that everyone is dead but Ya and I. Our hotel room was attacked by both EAO agents and soldiers of the PLA. I will write more when I am able. We also have an unexpected tagalong. I will decide what do with him.
Fragment Uncategorized [System Error] – Speculation: Authored by Kilroy, “Creation Story”
For fires have burned before.
began with the smell of ozone.
A storm, clouds like smoke,
from smoke, that fire startling electric:
spoke nothing at a distance.
Still caught kindling.
It struck abandoned cement, gravel, ashes–
They were clearly disturbed,
Visited yearly. Or around that.
A dwelling? A campsite? A camp.
Nothing else of civilization, besides some rusted toilets and overused showers and chain-link fences;
Mimicries of modern luxury, stained and burnt.
We are haunted by the human smell.
“Why is it so difficult to keep things clean?”
~ ~ ~
Everything burns now
except weeds cast as monuments,
weeds painted jingoistic pansies;
blue, red, then white–mocking the layers of the flame:
glorious Technicolor according to the color-blind:
manmade green and certainly not the earthier tones.
Again, we spark a compulsive lyre, growling orange.
“Oh, fire and weeds, but at least they’re growing.”
Bark burns like book bindings, melting, saps out, sowing fewer and fewer seeds.
The storm passes.
The fire will stop
when everything is burned.
~ ~ ~
Through city glass, we watched the glow in the distance.
What were we supposed to do?
Trees burst from the streets and the scaffolds and the automobiles
Only to burn,
Or only after we had burned.
After we all had burned.
It wasn’t good.
It wasn’t good enough.
Fragment 0000 – a – Query 1
[/diagnostic in progress…/]
[/diagnostic in progress/]
[/diagnostic in progress…/]
/display results from most recent diagnostic
/how are you doing this?
/who are you?
/are you responsible for 880?
/are you another human being?
/why was the attachment from F0000a misidentified as “The Second Coming” by John Keats, rather than “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats?