Writing in short bites

A Walking Tour of Hell


(This was the first story vignette I ever did on my blog as part of the In Media Res series which are a bit longer than my 15-minute exercises.  Later on, I did the ending vignette here.)

It was the thirteenth month of the Year of the Fish when the suicide boy first came to bustling Larque City, that ancient city of the dead.

Jaded Tommy had been walking since sunup, having crossed the Lake of Burning Ice and the Screaming Forest of Regret (which had burnt down in the Summer of the Flies and was now reduced to a whining grove) with a steady consuming pace. His feet, clad in moccasins, hurt by then.

Though he would have said he had traveled with alacrity after crossing over the Miasmic River, as the noonday sun passed over his head, Tommy had become quite bored with the country-side: a barren, wind-dusted yellow wasteland that bore only broken grass stalks and ancient machinery as evidence of change. That, and the trail of footprints he left behind. But even those were soon swept away by winds that snapped and snarled like malevolent whips.

By sundown, he caught a glimpse of the smoking pillars of the necropolis. And when he crested a hill of pale bones that could only belong to titans, he saw the city of Larque stretch a mile before him like a gigantic, sprawling mat of carnivorous fungi.

The City of Larque! It was a metropolis of cemeteries, mausoleums and catafalques, petrified trees and haunted barrows. Tall, dirty-white bulb-shaped towers and bulging, red-rimmed black cathedral domes dotted the city landscape while decrepit chalk-colored buildings shaped by diffident hands crowded each other like children’s blocks a-top one another. Spike-lined walls that stretched from one end of the horizon to the other jutted sharply like landlocked sea-cliffs guarding the city from the outside (or kept its inhabitants inside) as a thousand stacks of a thousand factories churned black, lung-burning smoke to cover the city.

Though he was still a distance away, the stench of rotted flesh and acrid brimstone was so overwhelming that he gagged at the noisome smell. With great reluctance, he hitched up his pack and proceeded down the hill.

Halfway to the city, he saw the first sign. A board made of metal and bolts hammered to the ground, it had been seared black with words that read: WELCOME TO THE CITY OF LARQUE. ENJOY YOUR STAY…

A third of the distance, he saw another sign, a stone arch with writhing, swirling cavorting serpents carved into it and these words: ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE…

Finally, he saw the third sign, a forlorn termite-ridden piece of plank that some wit had smeared with a dark-brownish color and then nailed to a post: YOUR CREDIT IS GOOD BUT WE NEED CASH…

He reached the first gate of the city just as the Lord’s Star peaked at the apex of the cold night sky. Fortunately enough, the road to Hell was lined with burning torches on bamboo posts stabbed into the ground to help travelers see their way (how helpful of them, he thought wryly). However, the smell and smoke from the human fat used to fuel the torches soon had his eyes tearing badly and his stomach turning queasily that he swore there and then never more to eat meat.

Standing before the monolithic ivory gates were three guards: aborted fetuses with their milky eyes, bearing long sharp pikes and perpetual looks of amazement.

As payment for entrance to the city, he used his knife to cut (by this time, he was used to it) his finger and squeezed a drop of blood on the wrinkled hand of one of the fetuses, its umbilical cord still wrapped around its neck. With a wave of the pike and a nod, the fetus let him pass as it sucked on the proffered blood. The other corpse-babies looked at the chosen guard indifferently and turned their dead eyes back on the road.

As Tommy strode forward, he saw a large brown dog the size of a small horse rooting through a garbage heap beside the gate. Scabs and suppurating bloody patches covered half of its body as dark-pink mottled skin showed through scattered tufts of brown fur. Likewise, its tail seemed to have seen better days, with its chewed tip and ragged length. Strangely enough, it smelled like all wet dogs did and made Tommy sentimental about the small farm where he had once lived.

As if pricked by the gaze, the dog looked up and Tommy flinched at seeing the dog’s three heads. But Tommy was even more surprised when the central head of the dog (one head was still rooting in the garbage heap while the third gazed at him placidly) spoke to him with a cultured accent:

“Hello. I don’t suppose you have anything to eat on you?’

(First published Tuesday, January 25, 2005 at 1:25 P.M.)


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