This story appeared in a slightly abridged form in The Urbanite #9 (Fall 1997).
A skeleton sat by the towering wall, its legs splayed, its neckbones bent over its kneecaps, its face in its hands. Along the road to the Gate, an exquisite and naked cadaver came ambling down towards the opening, idiot expectancy visible in its dead fish's eyes. The black stone wall rose up some seventy-five feet; the black metal Gate itself must have towered over a hundred in its arch. Nothing else relieved the blank black stone landscape.
The corpse came up to the Gate and waited for a few moments. He headed over to the inanimate skeleton and asked rhetorically: "This must be the Gates of Heaven. Why doesn't it open up for me?"
The skeleton lifted his skull and replied: "And what makes you think it's the Gates of Heaven? I thought it must be the Gates of Hell. Still, you can see the condition I've reached -- I started out in yours, after all -- waiting for it to let me in. I don't want to miss out on my just deserts."
"Hell? But this must be Heaven's Gate. You can tell from the weather: the redness in the clouds from the rising sun. Dawn perfectly represents the ascent into Heaven."
"Oh? I thought it looked more like the twilight of evening, of obvious and contrary symbolism. But I have to tell you, that it doesn't indicate any impending change. Those ruddy clouds have been there since I got here, and that's been quite a while."
"It doesn't rain here? That would be Heavenly."
"It doesn't do anything here. Nothing happens; it doesn't rain; the clouds don't even move. That's Hellish."
"Okay then. We'll have to figure it out some other way. What have you ever done to deserve Hell?"
"I'll tell you. I'm Antecessor, no doubt you've read of me in your history books -- I have no reason to doubt that I achieved posthumous fame for my deeds of infamy. Indeed, a great crowd attended me as I leapt from the gallows."
(A start indicated to Antecessor that his interlocutor had indeed heard of him.)
"So you know that I went from one scene of carnage to the next, taking pleasure in nothing but others' pain. I tortured my victims in every manner imaginable, before slaughtering the sheep at the precise moment of my ecstatic spasm. Maybe you don't know why I did so. I'll tell you. I just followed my own natural impulses. Other people don't follow their own -- because of their ridiculous beliefs in the afterlife. The cowards! They hope for Heaven, like you, or they fear Hell, unlike me. But as for me, whenever I would hear their tales of that glorious place of eternal torment, I would become filled with desire, and told myself that I would storm Heaven and topple the non-existent God from his Diamond Throne if I had to do so to merit an eternity in Hell. I doubt you can imagine just how much that vision of infinities of souls, all roasting in infernal fire and stabbed in the ass by white-hot pitchforks, demons jabbing needles into their guts and blowing trumpets in their ears, the smell of toasted flesh and burnt blood and bile, appealed to me. Most of all, the opportunity to myself undergo experiences which I could formerly only experience vicariously. I didn't find it completely safe to submit to everything I wanted to, not in my own flesh! Now, to my surprise, I find that such a Utopia really does exist. But what the devil is the hold-up on their admitting me? I can't tell you how long I've been waiting for this damned Gate to open, and let me in on the rewards I had no hope of attaining to."
"I can tell you how long: about four centuries. But I think you're making a grave mistake in expecting this to be the Gates of Hell. We all know from our history books, as you say, that your victims did not belong to the most pious segments of the population. No, you chose -- wittingly or not -- a vile rout of criminals and cretins, who greatly deserved all the torments meted out to the them by you. If you hadn't gotten to them first, no doubt the agents of the law would have treated them a little bit more harshly. You're well-known in my day as the Atheist Saint, or the Sinner-Saint, who performed acts of the greatest good out of the basest motives of impiety and cruelty. So I think you've just proven to me that I did make it, if -- since you say the Gates haven't opened up in all the time you've been waiting here -- no one else since your death has. I'm sure Hell must have a long line waiting to get into its narrow entryway. I can only imagine the logjam of souls lined up outside its doors!"
"And what could you have done to possibly merit Heaven?"
"Oh, that's right, you wouldn't have had any history books to tell you the story of Malicorne. I headed the great Inquisition, and found out heresy in the most unlikely places. Practically no one would admit it of their own uncoerced accord, but I could sniff it out like a bloodhound tracking prey, and discovered the means to force them to admit their unforgivable sins in the instruments of torture which you had devised. Sometimes it took weeks, even months of the most prolonged torments to get the truth from them, and then, of course, I had them tell me the names of other sinners like them, and started the process over with those individuals, who often proved even more intractable than the first. But not a single sinner got away from me, and I taught them all the lesson of dishonesty before dispatching their souls to the Gates of Hell. You haven't seen any of them pass by here, have you? No? Then that proves this must be the Gates of Heaven."
"Oho! I think you've just proved the opposite, my friend," the skeleton replied. "It's more than obvious from your description that all of the victims of your hypocrisy were completely innocent of the charges you made against them, and therefore martyrs deserving of Heaven. But you, for sins greater than those you could have imputed to them, deserve Hell more than anyone I've ever heard of. This proves to me even better than my own afterlife the wrongness of my materialism and atheism, and now I want to get into Hell all the more. To see you suffer alongside me would give me even greater pleasure than my own suffering, and that's saying a lot."
"And seeing you get your just rewards would please me as well. But that will be in Heaven, which lies just beyond this Gate. I know that I never did anything wrong, as all those who I tortured and killed had committed the most vile act imaginable. They deserved even worse than I gave them, and they're getting it now. Besides, why would a Saint like yourself go to Hell? No, this is Heaven's Gate. But how do we get inside?"
"I've been wondering that for quite a while myself," answered Antecessor. "And it seems to me, that we only have one way to settle a dispute which has enlivened my interest in this afterlife as little else could. Once we get in we'll know which one of us has divined the situation correctly. So, Malicorne, what do you suggest we do to get through this damned Gate? Knocking on it doesn't do any good. Nobody answers."
"Did you just try it with your hand?" -- (Malicorne does so.) -- "You're right. It doesn't make any noise, though. Must need something to get it to make some sound."
"There's no knocker; you can see that for yourself."
"Well, then we must need to make something to knock on it with. Aha, I've got it!"
Malicorne grabbed the skeleton by the back of his ribs and held him up over his head. Then he ran to the Gate and slammed his skull into it, backed up, and made another pass at it. The Gate, if not Antecessor's head, rang with the blow. He slammed his new friend into the Gate a third time. Then he tossed the skeleton onto the rocky ground like an old bag of bones; the skeleton immediately got up, and the two waited expectantly at the massive Gate. After an hour or so, they gave up.
Antecessor began: "Well, even if we can't get in there, there's still some opportunity for me to have some fun, now that you're here. I hope no one claims that I'm doing good by treating such a lousy sinner this way -- "
And he jumped on Malicorne and grabbed him by the head, and as he squeezed, his skeleton hands sinking into the rotten skin, the other's dead fish's eyes popped out of their sockets and his brains started to spurt out, landing on Antecessor's pelvis. He stepped a few paces away, then pulled out a rib and wiped the grey matter off of his hipbone. Then he scraped the last bits off the rib, rubbing it on the stony ground, and put it back into his ribcage.
"Arghh! -- Your brains are as rotten as your reasoning. And almost as disgusting; if I still had guts, I'd puke them out right on the spot. But this is pointless. You don't feel any pain, and in consequence, I don't feel any pleasure. Death just isn't all it's cracked up to be."
"For sure. I always thought the soul would be a little more different from the body. But it seems that the only difference -- aside from its inevitable decay -- is that it doesn't feel anything. And to judge by your current state, the decay just keeps on until nothing's left. Is that right? Did you start out a corpse like me?"
"That's right all right. It took quite a while for the flesh to rot off of my bones, what with no maggots to eat it and all. But let's get back to the damned problem that should occupy our attention. How can we get through this Gate?"
"Maybe we're looking at the problem the wrong way. Maybe we shouldn't assume that we need to go through the Gate. Maybe there's another way past the wall."
"Well then, what?"
"Have you tried digging under it?"
"Of course I have. But you can see that there's nothing but black rock all around. You can't dig through it; I wore my fingers off trying that trick."
The corpse said: "What about piling something up to climb over it?"
"Piling what up? -- There's nothing here to pile up."
"That's true enough, I suppose. Too bad we haven't got more than the two of us here; we could make a ladder of corpses if only enough would arrive. But anyway. Have you gone along the wall to see if there's some other way through it?"
"Of course not. I don't want to leave the Gate in case it opens. What if it's closed again before I get back? I'd be stuck out here. Besides, you can see that the wall goes straight to the horizon without a break. It probably just goes all the way around the damn world, whatever world this might happen to be."
"Probably does at that. How about climbing up the wall?"
"No dice. Damn thing's way too slick. Can't get up a single foot."
Malicorne had to try it, but he couldn't do any better than Antecessor had centuries before.
"Looks like we're stuck."
"Sure does," the skeleton answered.
The two paused and looked up at the unchanging sky.
After a few hours of unsettled gazing, Malicorne said: "That sky hasn't changed a bit as long as you've been here?"
"Not a jot."
Malicorne went back to the Gate and looked at it closely, examining every aspect of it.
"Now hold it. I've just had an idea. How did you keep your victims at your mercy?"
"Why, I'd lock them up in dungeons. Probably only you can imagine the look of despair they'd display when I took them into the oblivion of those oubliettes. Why? -- How did you keep your victims from getting away?"
"Just the same way. I'd put them into prisons. That's just what gave me the thought -- "
"What thought? -- What are you talking about? -- "
"Not all walls are meant to keep something out. We've just assumed that this wall's keeping us out."
"And you think it's keeping us in? -- "
"It's keeping us in -- "
"Does that make this Heaven or Hell then?"
Antecessor walked around in a circle, than stared at the Gate another time. After an hour of silence he slapped his skeleton hand against his skull, so hard that he cracked the cranium: "Oh! Of course! How could I be so stupid! Of course that's it!"
"What? -- What? -- What?!?"
"You know the one way to increase your captive's torment. You taunt him with the thought of escape. You let him think that he might be able to escape you. You let him get out and then, in the most dramatic way possible, you catch him at the last minute, and laugh as you slam him back into his iron shackles. So Hell's no paradise of physical tortures, but just the thought of anything, anything at all other than this unendurable monotony, with the thought of what must be on the other side of this door constantly held out in front of us! And that door could open at any time, giving us the keenest torment of all: Hope! What a monster to submit us to such a fate! Now I really have gotten faith!"
"Oh no, I think you just proved the opposite of what you think you did. Boy, do you ever get things backwards. After all, everyone knows that good is just the absence of evil. And that means that this must be Heaven. Since even the pleasures that people dream about lead to pain, whether through their own nature, or the fear of their disappearing, or the pain that the desire for them or their continuance always causes, it only stands to reason that Heaven must be exactly the one place that excludes all pain or pleasure, and holds out no hope for either one. A perfect and barren blankness, without even any physical feeling, fits the bill precisely, and here we are, the two greatest Saints in centuries. This situation perfectly encapsulates the conditions I described. For we never suffer at all here, nor do we feel any pleasure, and this wall and the Gate, which of course seem to hold Heaven or Hell on the other side, serve as perpetual reminder that we don't suffer as those who have attained to those two places would have to. Besides that, after a while you can't feel any hope that you'll get through, and since -- as you've just argued -- hope is a kind of suffering, even the worst, then the perfection of the Heavenly condition must be the absolute absence of hope: Hopelessness! Why didn't I think of it before? I could have made myself into a great theologian as well as a great defender of truth, if I'd only realized how things stood before I died!"
* * * * *
Two skeletons, their legs splayed, their neckbones bent over their kneecaps, their faces in their hands, sit on either side of the immense unopened Gate in the towering wall. Every once in a while, one of them will look over at the other, and then glance down the road as if in expectation of some new arrival, and then he re-places his hands over his empty eyesockets.
-- Lord Weÿrdgliffe, the Waughters.