Ishtar in Hell | The New Engagement

Ishtar in Hell

By Eric Dean Wilson

¶At the first door, the immigration agent asked for my crown. Forbidden in hell, she said. I asked her why. No power (she said) symbolic or otherwise. Before I could answer, she took it from my head, now bare. As she did, the first door rolled open. I walked through it. ¶At the second door, the agent asked for the silver hoops in my ears. Forbidden in hell, she said. Touching my ears, I asked her why. The happiness of being envied is glamour (she said, quoting someone), which is itself a kind of power, you’ve no happiness here, any happiness you carry through these doors is reassigned, and you’ve no power. I handed them over. The second door rolled open. I walked through it. ¶At the third door, the agent asked for my necklace: a cameo pendant strung on a chain. Forbidden in hell, she said, and no graven images. I asked her why. I clutched the chain. Carved into the stone was the profile of the man I’d come to collect. You will have chains enough (she said), and memory is a kind of power, in its arrangement of the past, no design here, only chaos. I unclasped the chain and tossed it to her. The third door rolled open. I walked through it. ¶At the fourth door, the agent asked for the brooch pinned to my dress, which announced my affiliation with a certain political ideology. Forbidden in hell, she said. I laughed and asked her why. They’ve no currency here, you’ve no preference for the state of things. Reluctantly, I handed it over. The fourth door rolled open. I walked through it. ¶At the fifth door, I hesitated. Each room was increasingly drier than the previous. By now, my skin had begun to crack and bleed. Little rivulets ran red through the fabric of my dress. Should I continue? But I’d come to find Dimuzi, and I would not leave without him. ¶At the fifth door, the agent asked for my leather belt, into which the tanner had embossed my name. Forbidden in hell, she said. I asked her why. Your name is nothing now (she said), it will not hold you together, nothing will, not even the narrative of your suffering. I loosened it and slipped it off and coiled it into her hand. The fifth door rolled open. I walked through it.  ¶At the sixth door, the agent took my watch. Forbidden in hell, she said. I asked her why. Ordinances in the realm of Hell (she began, already boring me) forbid both sequences of events and the possibility of unpassed events occurring, in other words, you’re on our clock. I rolled my eyes but understood. I undid the clasp, slipped the watch from my wrist, and handed it to the agent. The sixth door rolled open. I walked through it. ¶At the seventh door, the agent asked for my dress. Forbidden in hell, she said, you may immigrate only in total vulnerability, you must leave the world as you arrived. This I did willingly. I stripped the garment from my skin and dropped it to the floor, not even bothering to hand it to the agent. The seventh door opened, and I walked proudly through it, at last, toward the city of eternal suffering. ¶The door shut behind me. The bolt: a metal sliding, then another. No light. The sounds of the city were flapping and feathers. Decades passed. My hair thinned, then vanished completely. Things (birds? angels?) flew around me, but I saw nothing. Their wings made little eddies in the desiccated air. When I gasped, my mouth filled with sand. I tried to spit it out, but more sand entered as I did. I swallowed it and walked forward on what I could now only dimly guess were my hands and knees, toward the sound of the rooms. ¶I groped my way to the House of Dust. I would find it eventually. Hell is large but not infinite. Though I couldn’t see, I knew, from my studies, that the House contained all the men who’d emigrated from the world above. There were billions of them, standing still in the dark like terra cotta soldiers. Dimuzi, I knew, would be among them. ¶I arrived at the House of Dust and, still on my hands and knees, knocked my head into the metal door for entry. It opened. ¶Inside, I began to hold each man’s hand. I would know (I supposed) whether the hand belonged to Dimuzi or not. I held many, millions. It took years, though I didn’t know it. Some hands I liked more than his. These hands were strong and firm, warm and wet, and when I held one of these hands it scarped something in me. At first, I was ashamed at the way it kicked at my organs, the way the machinery of my chest would speed and splutter on hand-to-hand contact. When I felt this, I would let go quickly and crawl to the next man standing. But after a while, I learned to linger over these hands, these men. I was doing no harm. And though I didn’t mature much, I did come to re-think the metaphor of my own chest—I was not machinery, not full of cogs and wires and greased valves, but full of ancient winds. These winds had specific names that were unknown to me, and, each time I fell in love, they collided and pulsed through the corridors of my body. I was a complex system of independent tornadic activities, and picturing myself as such propelled me from man to man.  ¶But most of the hands? I didn’t like them. These were easy to let go of.  ¶I never gave up. And then, one day, after I had made the complete transformation from machinery to winds, the warm, hairy answer: Dimuzi. ¶Hand-in-hand, we ran. We ran out of the metal door of the House of Dust, we ran up the hill, we ran through thick clouds of dark sand to the seventh door. My fingers found the bolt and undid it. I opened the door, and the light blinded me. I stood for a moment in the center of the room, dazed but determined to see again, waiting impatiently for my eyes to adjust. ¶After a while, I could see the agent standing at attention, just in front of me, my dress—still stained—draped over her outstretched arms. Back so soon? she said, smiling slightly. She offered the dress, and I tucked it under my left arm and, still dragging Dimuzi, ran. ¶We reached the sixth door. I undid the bolt. It opened. The agent stood in the room, holding my watch. Back so soon? I took it, tucked it under my arm, and ran. ¶We reached the fifth door. I undid the bolt. It opened. The agent stood in the room, holding my belt. Back so soon? I took it, tucked it, and ran. ¶We reached the fourth door. I undid the bolt. It opened. The agent stood in the room, holding my brooch. Back so soon? I took it, tucked it, and ran. ¶We reached the third door. I undid the bolt. It opened. The agent stood in the room, holding my pendant. Back so soon? I took it, tucked it, and ran. ¶We reached the second door. I undid the bolt. It opened. The agent stood in the room, holding my earrings. Back so soon? I took them, tucked them, and ran. ¶We reached the first door. I undid the bolt. It opened. The agent stood in the room, holding my crown. I took the crown, tucked it, and walked out of hell, my arms full of things. ¶I was still naked, but I’d learned, in my time in the lightlessness, what it meant, how it was, how to remain without shame. I didn’t need the dress: it would fail to protect me from my suffering. I would take the minutes as they were offered. I would need to come apart. I voiced my thoughts loudly. The body would remember. Gesture would count for more. ¶I rolled each of the items back toward the mouth of hell—all but the crown, which I kept. I hadn’t needed it, and it would not give me any more power than I already had. Still. ¶The sunlight hit me. My skin warmed. My pores—each a tunnel leading from the world into me, into an unlit part of me I would never see, where rogue winds joined streams of winds and then, broke off again in order to rush from my skull bones to my metatarsals—opened, even as the door to hell shut. ¶Dimuzi, at once both the cause of my troubles and their alleviation, stood before me. He was opening and closing his mouth at regular intervals like a garbage chute. Men can do nothing for themselves. They pass me diseases they themselves are immune to, their only good work. I regretted my rescuing him, though I did not regret the change the descent forced on me. ¶Never, I said to him, aiming a finger at the center of his right cheek, die again. I will not come for you next time. He guffawed but lowered his eyes from mine, which, in their stillness, worked to order the world into a vision of my own making. (Eyes are best at this: not seeing the world as it is but as we will it to be.) ¶Nevertheless, I placed the crown on my head.

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