Babycart at the River Styx
Three hours later and my shout of bored now is still echoing round the caverns of Erebus when the darkness finally splits and, out of the streaming light of the temporal plane, the Angel of Death hands me the stillborn babe. It's screaming loud enough to wake the dead—no pun intended; I was nodding off waiting for the fucking portal, but the kid's caterwaul is audio adrenaline, delivered by syringes in the ears. I wrap it—him—in the swaddling clothes and rock him in my arms.
—No name, says the angel. They hadn't decided yet.
—Bollocks, I say.
—Ah, shusht now, kid.
I hold the wrinkly runt in the crook of one arm, reach the other into the pram, groping for the bottle.
—Yeah, death sucks. I know. But this'll fix you right up.
The formula feed is basically cold water, but the babe still locks his cherub lips around the rubber teat like it's the mother's breast he'll never now taste. They always do, right enough. Who doesn't love the sweet salt tang of the Cocytus, river of lamentations? Who in Hell doesn't love the liquor we all live on, the quenching, quieting tears of the bereaved?
What? It's good for them. The Acheron spring water heals the holes in their hearts, the diseases in their blood, the damage in their genes. And the Lethe takes away all those nasty memories of being born and dying . . . or dying and being born, I guess . . . or just plain dying. As the babe sucks down on it, I lay him in the pram so I can slip my hip flask from my pocket. I prefer a little vodka and Kahlúa in my mother's milk: the firewater of the Phlegethon, hot as wrath; and the rich dark hatred of the Styx.
—It's not so bad here, I say to the kid as I trundle the pram onward through the cavernous wastes of the underworld.
He looks up at nothing in particular, eyes unfocused, tiny hands grappling air.
—Well, not here per se, I admit. Erebus is pretty fucking crappy. But where we're going it's not so bad. You'll see.
Cold grey catacombs in rock riven by chasms. Spines of stone that arc through the hollows of the afterworld. Slopes of bone scree that descend to plains of dust and ash. Man, I'm glad I know the shortcut to the River Styx.
A Conversation with Charon
—And if you look out on your right, says Hermes Trismegistus, you'll see the Old City, founded by Ereshkigal in the eighth millennium BC—and if it looks desolate now, you should've seen it in its heyday! Men, women, children in cloaks of feathers, feeding on mud and drinking from ditches, languishing in lamentation! And it wasn't a whole lot better, so I hear, even after Queen Ereshkigal found love in the form of Nergal, back in the fifth millennium. That was before my time, of course. . . .
—Fuck, I say to Charon's back. How often have you heard this spiel?
Standing in the door to the riverboat's bridge, babe cradled in my arms, I look back over my shoulder at Hermes—spiff as ever in his tour guide's blazer, radiating honest charm to his audience of however many pram-toting nurseryfolks on stork runs, some listening intently, others looking bored, chatting, snoozing. And one Amazonian tribesman in a Coca-Cola T-shirt. Poor confused bastard; given you only qualify for Limbo if you never had the chance for salvation, I'm guessing he's no more au fait with riverboats and Sumerian deities than with the Gospel of Jesus Hallelujah Christ.
Hermes is onto the War now, the palace coup pulled topside by Japheth—or Jove or Jehovah or whatever He wants folks not to call Him—how He exiled the previous incumbent down here, with his giants and whatnots. To the abyss at the heart of the city.
— . . . the Phlegethon flowing into it, says Hermes, a crashing cataract of fire! It was quite a sight, the King of Gods dragging his fallen foes in shackles through the city of death, hurling them over the Gehenna Falls. Just imagine it! Titans tumbling down in flames into Tartarus. . . .
Fucking marvellous, I think.
Charon stands at the wheel, guiding the riverboat downstream, steering for one archway of Perdition Bridge—with its endless parade of damned souls, all trudging on under the scourges of hideous angels and beautiful demons, all headed for the New City, the prison built into the walls of the pit itself, the panopticon Pandemonium.
—Originally, of course, Hermes is saying, the maximum sentence for the Chosen People was twelve months, then it was off to Olam Ha-Ba. But since the Reforms . . .
I try again with Charon.
—I said, you must have heard this spiel how many times?
The Fields of the Lord
—Isn't it pretty? I say to Junior, holding him up to see the shimmering coast of Elysium, the low rolling hills of green and gold fields where work crews in orange jumpsuits toil in eternal summer, harvesting the asphodels. Off in the distance, even Mount Purgatory itself is kinda . . . industrial picturesque, slopes built up in a collage of concrete factories, sandstone and adobe dwellings, like some little town of Araby or Europe, I'm told, only city-scaled, with a mooring tower for its minaret or steeple. Silver zeppelins rise from the smog haze, sail off into the blue, for Heaven.
I wait patiently on deck with the other nurseryfolks while Charon lowers the gangplank and Hermes, still spieling, leads the Amazonian tribesman down onto Limbo's docks, introduces him to his Purgatory liason, here to sell the poor pagan the salvation scheme he missed out on in life. Fucking Purgatorian vultures. Might at least give the heathens time to settle in before trying to shill them with that Short Shrift Gospel. I clock an old couple headed for the Amazonian, waving. Get in there quick, I think, before your boy buys a speedy trial and a slow walk over Perdition Bridge.
I shouldn't be so down on the Purgatorians, I guess; this city of the innocent and ignorant would be Stone Age misery without their labour and trade, without all those new inmates and their new ideas . . . riverboats and such. It's just weird for us Limbo kids, being . . . free. But always wondering who you left behind, where they ended up. Sitting sweet in Heaven? Suffering in Hell? Slaving sixteen centuries on His holy asphodel plantations?
I dig a softpack of Ambrosias from my pocket, spark one up and earn a hard stare from a nurseryman beside me.
Fuck you, I think.
—Fuck you, I say to the Purgatorian as I bump the pram down off the gangplank and over his foot. Save me the suffer the little children speech.
—Friend, he begins.
I cut him dead.
—No sin but being born. Fuck. Off.
It's the one loophole in God's Law, the original sin exemption clause: dying unbaptised is . . . decriminalised. Which, given His nutjob notions of sin as a stain of temporal temptations, means He can go smite Himself, cause legally my immaterial ass is incorruptible as gold even if it farts the Lord's Prayer backwards.
So much for His almighty omniscience.
A Pram on a Tram
—Coming through, coming through. Come on, delivery for the Nursery here.
I flick my cigarette away and, with no small hassle, haul the pram up the steps into the tram, flash my pass at the driver. Shit, a city built around a nursery, and the public transport system is a fucking obstacle course. Yeah, yeah, all the cool storks are using those papoose things these days. I am not wearing a fucking baby like a fucking backpack. Or frontpack, whatever. I'd only end up blowing smoke in their eyes, flicking ash on their heads by accident, or some such shit.
—Hey, bro! says a voice behind me.
I give a back-slapping hug to my old dorm-mate, Suze. She scruffs my hair just like she used to—what, sixty years ago or more? Must be five or ten since we last met. She still looks like the twentysomething punk kid I used to mosh with in Club Oblivion, albeit in indie hipster togs now.
—Another for the brood? she says.
—They keep coming, I say, so I keep collecting.
—If you're that committed, she teases, you know they have those foster schemes these days.
—Fuck that shit.
I'm a traditionalist, I guess. Or maybe I just click with the old-fashioned ways because that gives me a sense of . . . paying it back. Like, Aunt Euphemia did this for me way back when, and for all I grump that she'll never let me forget it, crabby old broad, I'm glad she was my stork. And glad, weirdly, that my first memory is her rooking me at Texas Hold 'Em.
All that hugs and kisses nurturing shit? Schooling and scolding? That's what the Nursery's for.
Fuck it, OK. I just don't have the patience to be an actual parent.
—Don't blame you, says Suze. If it goes in as asphodels, what comes out don't smell flowery. A decade of diapers? Not for me either.
I shrug as the two of us lean in over Junior.
—Meh. This one's a spurter, I reckon. Look at him grasping, the curious little sucker. Don't worry, Junior. Law says you grow as you grow. Can't starve you of experience if you're hungry; that'd be cruel and unusual.
Suze arches an eyebrow at me, grinning.
—You so totally want to raise him.
—Bollocks, I say. You remember how long we were eight-to-ten?
The Nursery of Limbo
I push the pram down the Avenue de Pépinière, grumbling all the way at the juddering cobblestones and high curbs, the distance from the tram stop to the Nursery, the pram-rattling ridges of tarmac buckled and ripped up by tree roots underneath—but kinda happy, to be honest, to be back on my home turf, humping the pram up steps—that really shouldn't be there—to the great ornate iron gates of the Nursery. Those gates. They're not pearly but they don't have Abandon Hope over them either, and the most important thing is they're always open.
Kids running and playing. The Nursery of Limbo was founded in the fourth century or so, maybe before—not that it really matters. Kids shouting and shrieking. It's kinda like a city within the city, huge and sprawling, buildings built onto buildings, a labyrinth of dormitories, refectories, libraries, its boundary ever-expanding. Kids fighting and laughing. Courtyards and cloistered quadrangles and archways between them, stone steps leading up or down. Kids crying and skipping. Gardens with signs that tell you to walk on the grass, go on, you know want to, dance on it barefoot, with a water pistol.
In the motherers' office Aunt Euphemia is in full flow, arguing with the Dormitory Mater, waving away protestations with her usual disregard. It's something about Styx water and a sippy cup, I think, but my arrival and the ensuing fuss cuts it short. She stands, arms folded, as I lift Junior from the pram, hand him over to the ermine-uniformed motherers. (Or smotherers, as Aunt Euphemia calls them.)
—No name, I say. Parents hadn't decided.
There's much tutting. At the door, the old stork gestures: a drink?
—I'll catch up with you, I say as I follow her out.
—Unca Sal! Unca Sal!
—Did you go to Hell again, Uncle Sal?
—Did you bring us something back?
—Uncle Sal, what was it like? Did you see Sharon?
—It's Charon, dummy.
—Uncle Sal! I won at blackjack!
—What was it like, Unca Sal?
—Cold and dark as God's heart, I say. Cause it's where He buries what He hates.
—Except we're right under His nose, aren't we, Uncle Sal?
—Damn straight, I say.
I tweak a freckly sniffer between two knuckles.
—Uncle Sal, the kiddies' pal, says Aunt Euphemia, who's standing at the door. Who knows me all too well.