Chapter 50 from the Ama audiobook
The snake looked at Jason as it clung to the stone while the long-legged bird above looked down at the snake. When were these colossal slabs carved and set in place? he wondered. Then his scattered mind jumped to thoughts of his companions on the desert path and their ruminations: where are all the animals, and how does a penguin commit a sin? Yes, Derwood, they’re like chickens that live in the sea—slippery little suckers.
“None of God’s innocent creatures come here, Jason. The only animals in hell are the ones my flowers carved into these stones, to show their appreciation for the wonder they could see all around them.”
He tried to focus as he looked up at the old woman. “How can so many result from one death? Even if Zoe would have had more children, it wouldn’t—”
“Your friend, Xavier, tried to explain it to you. Although he did sprinkle some of his colourful madness on the explanation.”
“My friend,” he scoffed.
“There are far worse souls than he in this desert. Evil has no bounds when the walls crumble.”
“Xavier talked about life Zoe would have caused.”
“Yes. Every time you use the gift to make a choice, you become two people, or more, depending on the amount of choices you’re confronted with. The number grows quicker than you could possibly imagine.”
“Hang on… So, you’re saying if Zoe chose to have beef instead of chicken for Sunday dinner, that would have some significant bearing on life, the universe and everything?”
“It’s interesting that you should use that as your example, Jason.”
“Yes. The weave of life creates an intricate pattern where every stitch is significant. Your example happens to be one of the threads. You see, Zoe stood in a queue, but she had salmon in her basket, not beef or chicken. It was a long queue, but soon enough, she returned home and cooked your favourite meal. She was trying to make up for a terrible argument you both had the previous day.”
“We had plenty of those… Arguments is an understatement, though. I think the bitch had lessons from your twin. But I still don’t—”
“Zoe was oblivious to the life she had brought about by the decision she made to go out and buy salmon for her husband.”
“Standing behind her in that queue was another woman called Susan.”
“I don’t know any Susans.”
“No, nor did your wife. But Susan was waiting for her turn to be served, and once she had been, Susan left and walked to a bus stop. She arrived in time to watch her bus drive off down the road. While waiting for the next one to come, a man joined her and they started talking. Two years later, Susan had her first child with that man. In fact, over the following years they had three children together. Their children had children of their own, and so on and so forth. All because Susan stood behind your wife in that queue and missed her bus.”
“That’s good, though, isn’t it? All those lives…”
“Your wife wanted to buy you salmon the day after you murdered her.”
“She… The day after I—?”
“Both events happened, Jason. The one where you killed your wife is the one in which Susan didn’t have your wife before her in the queue, so didn’t miss her bus. As a consequence, Susan never met that man, and they never had children together, and so on and so forth. This is one of an infinite number of such events that happen with every choice you make—every choice anyone makes. By ending Zoe’s life you also stopped all that other life from having a place in time to go to, so now they all stand among the dunes. I am to watch my flowers stand as statues while their souls remain within the void. This is my penance for a promise broken.”
“But she had killed our daughter… How could she be in a shop buying salmon the next day? She would have been in prison or something.”
“Zoe didn’t kill Emily because you stayed with her.”
A fuzzy head, Jason thought. Yes, Derwood, me too. “I’ve met people here who seem to be from another time: a woman called Lucia said she was from the future, and then there was Derwood. He didn’t recognise me the second time we met.”
“Hell is outside of any perception of time you had. The tick-tock of existence you accepted no longer applies—not that it ever did. That moments flow forward in a consistent way is a false human belief. I could explain why Derwood didn’t recognise you on the second meeting, or just say that I’ve had this conversation with you more times than the earth has circled the sun.”
Jason struggled to think while he rubbed sand from his eyes. “You mean… I’m not the only me in hell? There are more?”
“Yes, many, and for various reasons. None of you realise the evil you’re capable of. You’ve killed Zoe on several occasions, and murdered a neighbour too. You’ve also deviated to the rape and murder of two women. The twists and turns can and do lead in all manner of directions. You even killed your daughter—”
“Stop! Please stop. I understand.”
“No, you don’t understand and you never will, which is why you must be removed from the universe. Lilith has decided what you’ve seen in hell thus far. Among other dubious pleasures, she likes to choose who you meet and then play you off against one another. I reap no such joy from what needs to be done. When you return, it will be to a hell measured by my sorrow. You’ll take your place among the layers of other souls, squirming together like worms, and when one of my flowers takes to the sky, one worm will burn. This will be your world until the light from the caretakers is extinguished.”
“You’re not happy to do it, yet you refer to us as worms?”
“Sorry, but that’s what you all look like to me as you plead your regret. I should have chosen my words better, I suppose, but as I’ve already said, lies don’t help things move along. Hell is a crowded place, Jason. When you return, you’ll see things as I do and know that there are more souls here than there are grains of sand. Many faces… Many languages… And so many regrets…”
Jason’s arm began to sting and itch. He scratched and watched as his skin became dry crusty flakes that fell from his body. The fierce tingling spread to his neck and back. “Oh, Christ. What’s happening now?”
“It won’t last long.”
Blood started to seep from his skin as he continued to scratch at himself. “Blood! My blood?”
“Oh, yes. That’s another one of Lilith’s little quirks. She also likes to use confusion as a means of torment.”
“Quirks? Why am I bleeding?”
“Because your body is disintegrating. Soon your body will be no more and you’ll go on to live again. I believe you’re being given one that lives to ninety-one. That’s a good age for a human. Do you remember when your wife threw that bracelet Emily made at you?” She held out her arm and a flower bracelet materialised on her wrist. “Here it is. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Your daughter was such a creative girl.”
Jason ignored her as he tried to rub away the burning sensation from his skin. His blood-soaked hands felt more dripping from his nose and ears. He tasted iron as blood oozed from his gums.
“When you dragged Zoe from the front room,” she continued, “and once you had calmed her, you stood and looked at her. Do you remember what you thought?”
“What, dammit?” he yelled as he scratched through his skin. “What are you talking about now, you mad fucking demon bitch?” He screamed out in pain as his fingers touched moist muscle fibres.
“She thinks if you see blood it gives you hope.”
“Hope! Sweet Jesus,” he yelled, recoiling in agony. “What fucking hope?”
“If you see enough of your own blood you’ll think death will be sure to follow. And, with death, escape from the torment. She really is an awful horror, isn’t she?”
“Why… am… I… bleeding… now?” he asked with slow, feeble words. Weakness took hold of him and his hands fell limply to the ground next to his slumping body.
“Because you’re with me and outside of her influence. Blood or no blood, Jason, there’s no hope. Anyway, do you remember?”
Jason’s head dropped forward until his chin rested on his chest. He struggled to respond in anything more than a grunt.
“Oh dear,” she said, as she tilted her head and watched him for a moment. “I know you can still hear me, so I’ll continue to explain. When you looked at your wife, you feared for your future together. If you had stayed with her and continued to talk, instead of leaving to get garlic and a bottle of wine, she would never have murdered your daughter.”
Jason gurgled as blood filled his throat and lungs.
“You would have both continued to have problems for a while, but she would have learned to deal with her mental peculiarities. And in time, you would have become happy again. That’s the body you’re going back to. That’s the man who stayed behind and had salmon the next day. His choice led to many lives that were lived. Yours, on the other hand, led to many that exist but won’t ever be lived. He’s also the one who lives to be ninety-one. A grand old age for an ape.”
Jason no longer had the strength to hold himself upright and rolled over onto his side. He watched as the woman walked over to one of the pedestal stones.
“They brought their dead ancestors here,” she said, lifting up the skull. “Just the skulls of their most recent dead. They would put them on these,” she placed the skull back on the pedestal stone and then continued, “so they could watch the children, see the new flowers play among the stones.” She walked back to where Jason lay and knelt down beside him. Then, with a gentle hand, she smoothed his hair away from his bloodied eyes. “They lived in peace like this for thousands of years, coming to this temple to celebrate their lives. One day, however, a few of them decided to leave. Over the following millennia, that few became many and they forgot where they had come from.”
Jason convulsed and closed his eyes.
The old woman sighed as she drew a circle in the sand with a twig-like finger. “For no particular reason, their descendants returned and slaughtered everyone they found here. I listened and wept as these stones echoed with the screams of their children. After that terrible day, I watched as a thousand empty years passed by and buried this temple, and their bones, beneath the sand, knowing that I would never again hear my flowers call to their Ama.”