They have let me come and speak to you in your sleep. They said it would help us heal but that I should not go alone because seeing my son again in the flesh could pull me back down—my love could lapse into need or self-pity. So my friend, my Guardian, has escorted me here and is watching me, taking care, ready to fill me with light if necessary. He is wise; even now, seeing you here, I long to be part of your life and wonder what might have been if I could have seen into your heart. But regret is heavy and can quickly drop into self-indulgent despair. I have come too far to risk that.
I want to tell you how I came to this point and where I have been since my death. I want to tell you about the hard path of repentance for someone with my stubborn heart and the difficulty of fixing things from where I am, close enough to touch you but separated by a universe. You carry so much of me within you—some good, some bad. I bear some of the burden you inherited from me, and I would labor for eternity if necessary to lift it from you. My greatest pain is knowing the problems I passed on to you like a virus, and knowing that you will in some degree pass them to your children. I have learned how deeply our paths and eternal destinies are intertwined.
I used to believe that we were all individuals dealing with our own problems, making our own way, succeeding or failing based on our own merits. But I was wrong. I have come to know we are not separate. We are parts of the same whole, a living organism. One of us is not saved without the other, and so on through the generations. When one is lifted, the entire organism is lifted; when one falls, the entire human family feels it.
We can make things right. That is the great truth, the beautiful mystery. You are still in the game, and I am one of legions cheering for you, encouraging you, and praying for you. You carry within you the hopes and burdens of your ancestors. Growth and repentance are so much easier where you are, in the flesh, but even here we are all involved in the work of salvation.
If you retain any of this, it will seem like a strange and disjointed dream. But I hope something I say will ring true to you. That one day while reading something, or in conversation, when you hear something true, you will feel a resonance, like you have heard it before, that somehow it makes sense. I did nothing to teach you faith while on Earth, but now I can at least whisper this story into your soul and hope that it somehow finds a place there. More than anything, I hope that, even if only in your dreams, your heart can begin to turn toward me, your father.
The first thing I remember after the accident is the powerful urge to flee the scene. There, in the darkness of a remote mountain highway, lay a steaming mess of two mangled vehicles. I told myself I was going for help, but there was no question that I was running from the mess I had just caused, running from the consequences of my choices. I knew I had been driving drunk and that I would be arrested when the police arrived. I could hear moans of agony coming from the other car but did not go to help. I felt both relief and a small pang of guilt upon finding I had survived the wreck without even a scratch.
In the distance I thought I saw a house and told myself I would go there and get help, spinning my motives to look more innocent than they were. I would run and get help, I told myself. But there was no question why I was really running. I would run for the same reasons I had always run away, to escape, to hide from responsibility. I wanted the forest to bury me so its blanket of darkness would cover my sins. In the pale moonlight, I could see bodies in the twisted wreck, even, improbably, a motionless body in my own car—one I assumed had been thrown into my vehicle on impact. I could not face what I had done.
I heard a distinct voice say, “Don’t run.” I looked around to see who said it, but I was the only one standing in the cool night air. The voice came a second time, more like a warning, and seemed to come from within my chest.
Above the highway there appeared a piercing light that illuminated the entire scene. Not only were the mangled cars on display, but the truth of what had happened hung in the air, an undeniable reality. The true cause of the crash, my intentions in running, the injured people in the other car—they were all laid open before me with perfect clarity.
I told myself the light was from another car, or perhaps a result of hitting my head. But every time I lied to myself in the presence of this light, the absurdity of my thoughts were naked and obvious. If only in this moment I had yielded, submitted to the wisdom of this light, allowed it to lay me open and work its truth upon me, I could have been spared a lot of pain. The light invited me into it, but I resisted.
Now more than ever, I wanted to run. I could not bear the presence of the light and wanted to be as far from its influence as possible. The voice from within again begged me not to go into the forest, but I pushed it away and plunged off the embankment into the thick, dark trees below.
My descent was fast and steep. What I thought was a small drop leading to the flat bottom of the canyon now plunged deep into the darkness. I was not dropping into a canyon, but an abyss, a dark pit that would hide me from the all-knowing light at my back. As I pushed downward through the darkness, the voice of warning grew fainter with each step, and then finally, to my relief, fell silent.
I finally reached the bottom of the canyon as the ground gave way to a gentler but still downward slope. The steep wall I had stumbled down for so long was no longer visible. Nothing about the landscape looked familiar. I was now impossibly far away from the wreck; it seemed to be worlds away.
The moonlight was gone, replaced by a soft gray mist. The landscape was cold. A kind of bone-chilling emptiness pervaded the atmosphere. I kept walking, not knowing what else to do, still lying to myself by saying I was looking for help. In the dim light I saw a grove of trees ahead, a tangled mass of branches and undergrowth. I hesitated.
A voice, somehow familiar, came from deep within the forest. “Look! It can still see you. The grove will protect you. Hide!”
I looked up in the direction of the wreck and could still see a pinpoint of light like a single star in a black sky. The voice was right. The light was still watching me. Though distant, my movements and thoughts were as obvious to it as when I was directly under its gaze. Seized with the fear of being captured (by what or whom I could not tell) I ran into the grove, pushing deep within until the spark of light above was no longer visible.
I could hear beyond the trees—or was it deeper in the forest?—the muffled sound of human voices.
“Hey!” I shouted into the darkness. The sound of my own voice almost startled me. It was loud and forceful. Anger and frustration welled up and my voice felt powerful, even violent. The buzz of alcohol was completely gone, and I was more alert and more alive than ever.
I pushed on toward the direction of the voices, but the forest grew thicker and darker. I no longer felt I was among living trees but only thick, finger-like shadows, sometimes snagging me and holding me back, not like branches so much as hands. This sense of being held down made me even angrier, and I threw off the branches, or shadows, in frustration. Whenever I expressed my anger vocally or even mentally, I heard the sound of mocking laughter.
The laughter grew loud and someone said, “Not yet; let him keep going.” Was it a real voice or just inside my head? I couldn’t tell.
“Who is that?” I yelled.
The aggressiveness of my own voice frightened me. The air was thick with rage, and I breathed it in. Fear had given way to anger. An animal was growing inside me, nourished by the waves of violence and hate that filled the grove. As my anger grew, so did my physical strength. I walked with my fists and teeth clenched. I could fight, or kill, anything. I dared something to challenge me. I forgot the lie of looking for help. Walking through the trees had become its own purpose, something to push against, something to fight against.
Every thought, every memory, was an irritation. The accident, now like a distant memory, was an annoyance. If it weren’t for the stupidity of the other driver, I wouldn’t be wandering through this forest looking for…whatever I was looking for. I didn’t care if those in the other car had survived. Their death would be their just consequence. Something softer inside me listened in horror as I said aloud, “I hope they’re all dead.”
The few voices in the forest—or in my mind—were now the indistinct murmur of a crowd. Sometimes laughter would ring out, sometimes a cry of pain, sometimes frustration, and sometimes all of these at once. I was going mad with confusion. No way could so many people be here, in the middle of nowhere, at the bottom of a canyon. But I was watched. My every step was counted, calculated. The trees watched me, the shadows watched me. They followed me, all of them. The shadows closed in and collapsed the path behind me, and ahead of me they grew thicker with each step.
The black branches seemed to intentionally grab at my face or trip my feet. Fueled by an inexhaustible hatred, I pushed down the shadowy branches and snapped their limbs with strength I had never before experienced. I was a beast wrecking my way through the undergrowth. Sometimes a tree would wrap a limb around my neck or my waist, but I would rip it away with ease.
A joyless laughter came from deep in the shadows, a mocking, triumphant laughter. I stopped and listened in the darkness. Aggression swelled within me.
“Who is that?” I yelled.
Nothing. Only a faint, suppressed laughter.
I was hopelessly lost; the scene of the wreck felt like a thousand miles away. Should I turn and fight my way back up the hill? I turned around, and not a trace of my path could be detected. A grayish light illuminated an ocean of tangled shadows that had closed the path behind me. No mountain, no light in the distance.
Both rage and fear swept over me, one moment coaxing me to turn back, the next moment prodding me deeper into the forest. My mind was now a crowd of voices, mostly in the form of my own voice complaining and raging about the wreck, my job that made me take that trip, and this pointless trek.
I pushed on through the tangled mess of trees, but they no longer felt like trees. Rough bark was now smooth and cold, like—I didn’t want to admit it—the skin of something dead. The shadowy branches now bent and coiled like snakes. One reached down and caressed my cheek and neck, pulling away when I reached for it. Another jabbed me hard in the ribs, and I grabbed it and pulled it apart, its flesh tearing in my hands. It shrieked in pain, but the cry was only a mocking one followed by laughter, like when a child proves it isn’t really hurt.
In a normal state, I would have been terrified at what was happening. But the hateful and oppressive atmosphere overshadowed any sense of good judgement or even self-preservation. It was like being in a dream; you do not stop to wonder at the strangeness of events, but simply take the world as it is, not questioning its reality.
In this world the overwhelming desire, the most obvious thing to do, was to fight someone or something. My rage transformed me. Nothing was stronger than me. I now dared them to come for me, these voices, whatever they were.
“He’s almost ripe,” said one of them. Their shadowy figures began to take form. They were like hungry wolves waiting to be let off a chain. They howled and laughed in anticipation.
“When?” they cried. “When?”
There were now hundreds of them, perhaps thousands. I turned to run, but my legs and arms were bound. Fingerlike branches, black against the gray atmosphere, wrapped around my body, forcing me to the ground. Like a fly caught in a web, the more I struggled, the more I sent waves of excitement through the legion of beings gathered around me. They had waited a long time for this, and they were ready to reap the harvest.
An authoritative voice from the darkness finally let them have their reward.
Chapter 2 (Click here for the printed book.)
My son, I will not disturb your dreams with the horrors I endured that night. I do not want to burden you with my nightmare, but you should know something about what I suffered there.
I would later learn I was what they call a fresh kill. I was new enough from the other side that I still carried the pain of mortality within me. My fresh fear and anger were like a delicacy to them; they fed upon those energies. I fought like a lion, but in fact they were the lion and I was a mouse, mauled and abused for their entertainment.
Every time I cried out or fought back in the struggle, they screeched with ecstasy. The attack did not relent until I was drained of every shred of will to fight back. They abused and tortured me in every way imaginable. Their cruelty, their appetite for violence, knew no limits. It was a feeding frenzy, and I was their prey.
Whenever I was about to give up, they would back off until I regained strength and rekindled my anger, and then they would maul me once again, provoking me to fight back, which caused them to howl with delight.
I fought for what seemed like an eternity as they swarmed me, taking turns inflicting and enjoying pain. When I finally gave up, they become bored and, at the order of someone with authority, left me to wallow alone in the total emptiness of that realm.
For that was how I now perceived it, a realm, a dimension. I knew I was not in any forest and was no longer part of life on Earth. Was I having a nightmare? No. I had never felt more alive. Never more alive, but never wishing so much for death, for the total extinction of my soul.
When my attackers left, I was relieved to be released from their grip. But in their absence, something worse settled in: the total absence of life, an awareness of being lost in an abyss of nothingness. It was an unquestionable fact that this would be my whole eternity. I would exist as almost nothing in a bottomless pit of nothing.
In life, no matter how bad things got, there was something to hold on to, some bit of hope to get me through another day. But here I was surrounded by a vast and infinite Nothing. No kindness, no help, no beauty or mercy, just emptiness layered upon emptiness. I could not stand. I could not move or speak. I was not asleep. I was not awake. I had no sense of being in a particular place in relation to another place. I had no sense of now or later or forever.
That is why, when I heard his voice, it felt like a kind of rescue. Though his voice was cruel and sneering, it was at least something in a universe of nothing.
“You are pathetic,” he said. “You didn’t give us the fight we deserved.” I could make out the rough outline of a hulking man against the gray. It was as if the demon who haunts childhood dreams now stood over me.
“This isn’t real,” I said. “This is only a nightmare.”
“Yes,” he said. “You are in a nightmare within a nightmare.”
His voice was death itself.
“But you cannot wake up. You cannot return to reality, for there is no reality.”
He went on, speaking in short aphorisms.
“You are not alive and you are not dead. Life and death are one. All is death without dying. All is life without living.”
Though he was the architect of the attack against me, contact with another being, however hideous that being might be, was relief. It was better to be bound to someone in hatred than spend eternity alone in the darkness.
When he perceived a subtle shift in loyalty toward him, when he sensed my craving for contact, he began to teach me.
“You will call me Master,” he said, not as a command, but as a factual statement.
In life I was a willful, stubborn soul, and I resisted the thought of cowing to anyone.
Sensing this resistance, he abandoned me in the darkness, and the horror of complete isolation set in again.
When he came again—whether a hundred years or a few moments had passed, it felt the same—and said again, “You will call me Master,” I easily complied. Anything to keep him near.
And so his teaching continued. When I accepted him without question, when I submitted myself to his authority, he rewarded me with more contact, more conversation.
It became clear that I was not to analyze his teachings. If I asked questions, he would isolate me until I begged for more of his knowledge. My place was to obey, not to ask, and not even to comprehend. Whenever I felt like I grasped some idea, he would contradict it with something exactly opposite. The slightest questioning, the slightest hesitation in accepting the inconsistency, would result in new punishment.
“There is no God,” he would say. And I would fully accept this as a fact. He would then say, “There is a God, and he wants to destroy our freedom.” And then when I had fully accepted that, he would say “God and freedom are all lies.” I would repeat it until I believed it. “There is one great truth, which is that everything is a lie,” and once I fully accepted this, he would say, “What I just taught you is a lie.”
His teachings came like riddles, nonsensical riddles I was forbidden to unravel or contemplate.
“Gratification of pleasure leads to fulfillment.” Then later, “There is no fulfillment to be had, for all eternity. The foundation has no foundation. Nothing can be known, for there is nothing to know.”
Then, at the end of every lesson, he would say, “All I have taught you is a lie. Repeat it until you believe it.” And when I had fully accepted that, he would say, “All I have taught you is the only truth you need.” Nothing in the teaching resembled coherence, reason, or sanity. There was nothing to grasp onto, no concept, no idea that didn’t fall apart the very moment I tried to hold it in my mind.
My thoughts were a mess of confusion and contradiction. If there was a theme to his teachings, it was that absolutely nothing was real, nothing was true. Even the idea that nothing was true was not true. He destroyed all hope of building upon a foundation, of somehow pulling myself back into sanity. His jumbled teachings occupied my whole mind so that even memories of my life on Earth were drowned in the mental noise of grappling with problems that had no solutions. My thoughts became a hopelessly tangled string that had no beginning and no end.
One thing that brought instant retribution was pondering the nature of my own existence. The one question I was never to contemplate was, Who am I? The answer was absolute and unquestionable. I was nothing. I did not exist. I had no separate reality. I was a dream within a dream, a vapor in the darkness. There was no me to contemplate. I was a noise that would soon fall silent. Even the slightest self-reflection was met with a barrage of confusing and paradoxical claims so that my mind grew incapable of reflection. I became a bundle of confusion, anxiety, and resentment.
When my education was complete, he introduced me to his followers, who also called him Master. I learned that he also had a master, and so did his master, a hierarchy that extended down into even darker realms.
He was Master of the Hunt, the tenuous leader of one of the countless gangs in this region that stalked and captured fresh human souls. His dominance in the gang depended on his ability to deliver on the hunts. He had their loyalty as long as he was master of the kill. But loyalty is not the right word. We hated him and he hated us. We all hated one another. There was not a shred of trust or affection between us. We only begrudgingly accepted his leadership for his experience and skill in hunting wandering souls.
If we wandered or disobeyed him, he threatened to strike us down with lightning. This threat would have been absurd except that occasionally powerful flashes of light could be seen in the distance, making shadowy spirits scatter like mice. The rumor was that when a soul was struck, it just disappeared. For all we knew, it had been annihilated, never to hunt again.
The Master told me that if I would submit to him completely, he would teach me to hunt.
“Hunting will feed you the life you crave and liberate the souls enslaved by the Tyrant,” he said. Earth was a prison, a world of slaves. When we hunted a soul we were liberating it into the freedom of our world, where, outside the surveillance of the God, it could pursue any pleasure it wished.
As soon as I accepted that story, he furiously denied the existence of the Tyrant, the Earth, the universe, and life itself.
But I didn’t care about the reasons for hunting. I now longed to hunt, to make another soul suffer as I had suffered and bask in the waves of pain. My body, or the dense field of energy that was now my body, became ravenous with desire. I longed to feel, and in this place, the only thing to feel was pain. But my own pain was not enough. It needed to be fed. It needed to grow, and now there was nothing to stop it.
During my life on Earth, I had nurtured my anger, this animal within, believing that it was my greatest asset for getting ahead in the world. I was demanding, uncompromising, seizing the weaknesses of others, always advancing myself and tearing down everyone who got in my path. I measured people by their ability to advance my own agenda. This was not visible to the average person. I was even praised as a hardworking, ambitious man. But no one knew what was growing within.
In mortal life there were a variety of other influences that kept the beast from completely taking over. I never realized how much I benefitted from the residual light of others or how little I contributed to that light myself. I was like a parasite, not realizing that my own acts of decency were, in fact, only responses to the decency of others. A kind act from a stranger, a smile from the lady at the checkout stand, a good laugh with a friend—these things infused me with enough light to keep the beast at bay. It could not completely take over as long as I was exposed to the goodness of others.
But now, in the absence of light from others, there were no more brakes, no more limits. I could no longer benefit from the second-hand light. The darkness I had played with during mortality was now given free rein.
My condition was not unfair or unjust. A loving God did not create this Hell as a punishment for bad souls. I was not sent there by anyone. This was simply a place where like-minded individuals gravitated to their own kind. Among us were souls from every century and every class and every culture. There were warriors, merchants, prostitutes, priests, and politicians. We came from the ranks of respectable citizens as well as the lowly dregs of society. We were all alike, sinking to the same level. We were allowed to become exactly what we desired, and what we desired was manifest in every choice we made during mortality. Now we were given freedom to eat the fruit we had cultivated so diligently during life. This was the reward we had created for ourselves.
Just as great as the mystery of God’s love is the mystery of God’s commitment to freedom. Like His love, His freedom is absolute. It is God’s nature to love and allow; it is our immature human love that wants to grasp and control and coerce. For many spirits, freedom is the only thing more terrifying than Hell, and so they choose Hell instead of the awful responsibility of choice.
So it was never God’s authority I resented, but God’s freedom. I wanted God to just tell me what to do. But the question always came back to me: what do you want? What do you desire? Unable or unwilling to answer that terrible question, I let the world tell me what to want, which was wealth, power, and the gratification of every appetite. If God would not just tell me what to do in order to earn his approval, I would get the approval of the world. At least I could tell what it wanted from me.
So, in a strange way, I was conditioned to accept the absolute authority of the Master Hunter. It was an authority I bitterly hated, but also one I desperately craved. The more he hated me, the more I wanted his approval. And the more I wanted his approval, the more I hated him for it.
This seemed to be the pattern throughout Hell—a deep mutual hatred, a need to control and blame and abuse one another, coupled with an abiding need for each other. Although we insisted on our own independence and freedom, nowhere in the universe can you find such needy and dependent creatures as the souls in Hell. It would have been impossible for us to simply walk away and leave one another alone. We needed one another to play the roles of victim, abuser, manipulator, liar, in a never-ending drama. There were never any new arguments, never any new conversations, only the same arguments and conversations playing out again and again.
Hunting new arrivals was the only thing that offered a small amount of variety to our existence. A fresh kill from the mortal world fed us new pain and provided a new recruit who could eventually be initiated into our group, once his or her will was crushed entirely.
But hunting required a level of skill and concentration uncommon in Hell, and therefore required special training. At the end of my initial teaching, the Master told me that if I wished to hunt with him, I must obey him without question, and that it was his right to abuse and discipline me as he saw fit. I would be an underling in the background and could only get the leftovers. Someday, if I passed “the test,” I would move up in rank.
When I asked about the test, the Master said, with a sense of sick pleasure, “It’s time you met someone, the one who led us to you. Your rescue from the Tyrant was his test, and he passed it easily.”
A man, a demon, was brought forward from the masses of dark forms.
“We do not choose souls randomly,” said the Master. “We just finish the jobs started in life.”
The man’s face and form took shape before me. I recognized him immediately, feeling his presence more than seeing his face. It was the man I had grown to hate in life, and now, in death, my contempt had reached full fruition. I had become one of his kind. It was my father.
There was no surprise or delight in seeing one another, no embracing, no desire to remember past times. That we were both there together made perfect sense. There was little chance of anything resembling affection forming between us. We were estranged at the time of his death, and I never attended his funeral, feeling partly responsible for his choice to leave the world. It was obvious that revealing us to one another was, for the Master, a delicious sort of victory, and he took obvious pleasure in the complete absence of joy in our reunion.
I thought I detected in my father a hint of remorse, a desire to talk to me alone. But rather than softening me, the idea only enraged me. As he was led away from me, I lashed out at him. He wanted this, wanted me to hurt him in order to have at least some contact between us. The Master smiled at my vengeful rage but didn’t allow me to touch him. My father’s apparent sadness and desire for reconciliation made the Master nervous, so he immediately sent him away to hunt in another pack. I took my place at the Master’s side.
In my life I had blamed my father for everything that was wrong with me, and now that blame magnified in my mind. For a while, nurturing my own sense of victimhood, I harbored fantasies of hunting him down and making him pay for his crimes against me, offenses which, in this environment of exaggerated victimhood, took on grotesque proportions. But once we were separated, the memory of my mortal life faded into a fragmented dream.
I felt no desire to talk with him or explore what had become of us. Such reflection was hardly possible now; my mind was not capable of sustaining one line of thought for very long, let alone exploring mutual understanding. Our brief meeting was the last I saw of him. I heard later that he was unable to join another gang and wandered alone. I even heard a rumor that he was blasted by lightning for crossing a master hunter. This news did not surprise me, as it was consistent with my broken memories of who he was, a man who made his own needs and problems the center of everything. I didn’t much care and never gave him another thought.
Why didn’t I stop to consider what was happening to me? Why didn’t I reflect on how one moment I was fleeing a car accident and the next I was roaming with demons? I can’t say for certain. These horrors had become my normal life and I could not imagine or remember any other possibility. Perhaps the only thing worse than living in Hell is growing accustomed to it, believing it to be the only reality. Once drawn into an insane world, one also becomes insane.
The most frightening thing was that I couldn’t tell if the mayhem of Hell was inside or outside my own mind. I couldn’t distinguish between my thoughts and the thoughts of others. Though we insisted on our own dignity, our own intelligence, our importance, our power—above all, our individualism—we were dreadfully the same. Our confusion flowed from one mind to another. Our existence was a monotony of self-importance and self-indulgence.
To live inside my mind with my own compulsive negative thinking was hard enough in life, but to share in the collective mind of other sick souls was to be lost in a sea of fear, confusion, anger, regret, and despair, with nothing to grasp on to. I had no ability to sustain a rational thought for more than a few seconds.
The noise coming from the demons was relentless, from howls of laughter to groans of agony. We fought, we gossiped, and we perpetrated upon one another every abuse and perversion imaginable. But none of it was ever accompanied by any sense of fulfillment. Hell was an unrelenting cry of desire that never found satisfaction.
But the hunt held promise for something genuinely new and exciting. I absorbed the Master’s lessons.
“How far are we from your old life, your so-called friends and family?” asked the Master. I was confused at the question. Distance meant nothing here. We were in a different universe for all I knew.
He answered his own question with an air of indifference, like he was bored at having to teach me. “There is no far or near, only up and down,” he said. “We cannot go up, so we must grasp and pull down.”
This did little to clear things up, and he grew impatient. “They are right here,” he said. “Look closely. Feel them.” This was the first time I had ever been encouraged to feel or concentrate here, and I hardly knew how. I quieted my mind, and vapors of dim light appeared and disappeared before me. The light was only a wisp at times, but sometimes took the form of a human body.
“The soul is made of many layers. We can work with the layers that drop into our realm.”
He explained that negative thoughts, self-indulgence, and over-indulgence of bodily appetites dropped the frequency of spirits into a spectrum that became discernible to us. In this state, we could not only share in their pain, but feed it as well.
At first I was allowed only to observe this work. It was a delicate and intricate process that required great patience and flawless timing. We could not actually see the physical layer of the beings we hunted; our dimension was far lower than Earth’s. But when the aspects of a living human’s soul that flirted with darkness began to vibrate at our level, it became visible to us. It moved about like a ghostly light. The majority of living people never came within our reach, at least not for very long. But when they did, we could add fuel to whatever darkness they were courting.
“This one is angry,” said the Master, pointing to a dark red, ghostly image that appeared to be walking. “Feed it so that you can feed upon it.”
I focused on the being, directing hatred toward it.
“Your hate does nothing. Who cares if you hate it? Taunt it. Provoke it. Fight with it.”
With his guidance I harassed the poor soul until gradually it took shape. Anger filled its body until I saw a full human outline. The angrier it grew, the more sick pleasure I took in the work. It was responding to me, ever so subtly, and I felt powerful. We were bullies enjoying our game.
Then the soul vanished, and the game was over.
“You moved too fast,” he said. “Too much scares away those who haven’t surrendered to darkness.”
“What happened to it?”
“It doesn’t matter. It’ll come back. We’ve been watching it most of its life.”
My training continued in this way until my skills were honed. We roved the land looking for new prey, new forms dipping into our dimension. We told the spirits of the futility of their lives and whispered stories of their victimhood. We exaggerated any hint of self-defeating, self-destructive thoughts they entertained.
On the earthly plane their bodies went about the regular business of mortal life, but we were like sharks, circling beneath, nipping and grasping the aspects of their soul that dangled before us. The smallest thing could lift a soul beyond our reach—laughter, joy, or unexpected kindness from a stranger. But the more we coaxed them downward, the more they took form in our dimension and became riper for harvest, the true harvest of a soul leaving its physical body.
My first harvest was a great disappointment. A soul we had cultivated for some time neared its physical death, and we waited in great anticipation. Its body had been shot in a fight—one we did not create, but we took great pleasure in encouraging it. The body took its last breaths, and once it released its soul, it became a visible and distinct form before us. We could see it, and it could see us. An overzealous demon flung itself upon the soul in a hideous rage, which obviously frightened it, causing it to call upon the Tyrant in desperation. In an instant it was consumed in burning light that sent us running in every direction.
I only felt the disappointment of losing the prey. If I had been capable of thinking about this event a little more, I might have wondered where the soul had gone and why.
Most physical deaths ended in similar ways. But occasionally we had some success. If a tormented soul ignored the beckoning light, we could carefully reel him in. If we could keep a new arrival in a state of fear, or anger, or frustration, if we could set the hook before he realized he was dead, then our chances of success improved. If we could trap him in self-importance, self-loathing, or self-anything, then we could draw him in slowly, with promises and provocations. When whatever residual light in his spirit had dimmed enough to allow us in, we attacked.
I can’t say how much time I spent on these hunts. It felt like ages, but there was no correlation to Earth time. Now, remembering that period, I can hardly use the word “I” to describe the creature that had overtaken my true self. Deep within me was still a spark of divine light, but it was so buried beneath my appetites, my self-importance, and my deranged psyche that it no longer guided me. I had become a hardened shell, a grotesque body constructed from the dark energy of that realm.
Hunting was the only time for stillness because we had to quiet our minds as much as possible so as to not scare away the prey. It was a dangerous time because it made us vulnerable to reflection. Our Master warned us that thoughts concerning anything aside from the prey would be punished with lightning.
I had once seen a strike from a distance. A demon in another gang had become still and reflective and unresponsive to his master’s commands. In an instant he was struck with a bolt of energy that consumed him. “Destroyed for stupidity,” said the Master. The flash was terrible, blinding, even from a distance, and sent demons fleeing in every direction. The flash of light exposed us to one another, and for even that fraction of a second, the sight was hideous. It was not uncommon to see distant flashes throughout the vast plains of Hell. Only rarely did they come close enough to cause harm. But the mere thought of being destroyed sent fear throughout the demons and kept them in submission.
One of the few true things that my Master warned about was the power of the lightning. He was right to warn us. But he only pretended it was he who wielded this awesome power.
He had good reason to fear it. I thought I was a hunter, but in fact I was the one being hunted. I didn’t know then, but my every thought, my every movement was watched. A Hunter far more skilled than my Master stalked me with great patience. And he was preparing to make his move.
The Master called me to his side, where he sat elevated from the group like some self-styled king. I hesitated. Was I being punished? Would I be banished from the group?
“You will lead the next hunt,” he said. “You are the best one to capture this soul. You’ll just be finishing what you started in mortal life, dragging him down, showing him his place. You know this soul’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities. You know its capacity for self-hatred because you fanned those flames throughout your life. You laid the groundwork. This prize belongs to you. It is your harvest.”
I knew this was my test, my full initiation. If I faltered, if I hesitated, I would be struck down. The Master warned that any second thoughts would be met with the ultimate punishment. I only had to think about how much this soul had embarrassed and disappointed me. It was time for it to receive justice, to get the punishment its mother never allowed me to inflict. I sacrificed everything for this soul, but it appreciated nothing and gave me nothing back. Now it was my turn. Now it would learn the consequences of rejecting me and pushing me away. It would learn to give me the respect I deserved. Justice would finally be done. This was the story the Master repeated and that I had to repeat until I no longer questioned it. This was the story that would give me the strength for the hunt.
I was to lead the hunt against you, my son, because I knew your weakness better than they. I knew your insecurities. I knew your memories. I did not think of these memories as shared moments. By this time I was so far detached from my life in mortality that I only thought of them as tools to work with.
The Master emphasized again and again how privileged I was to have this opportunity and that his own masters were watching our progress closely. And for the first time I sensed in him something like fear. He had been charged with this task by someone higher—or lower—in Hell than he. I wasn’t only proving myself. His status depended on the success of my hunt.
It is, in my present state, incomprehensible that my reality had become so twisted, so distorted, that I was more concerned about pleasing this demon than protecting you, my own son. Though we had been estranged for many years, I would not have considered inflicting pain on you like this. And yet, in a sense, I had. As the Master reminded me many times, I had inflicted pain on you, knowingly and intentionally. This was a continuation of that work.
When the time came, you were not difficult to find. Because of my connection to you, I led the way each hunt. Travel was never a matter of covering distance. It was a matter of resonating thoughts. And because my thoughts, for good or ill, had been so connected to you in mortality, I was the compass, the guide for the group.
Most of our successes were small. You were barely discernable, and many times you could not be found at all. I did not know what happiness you were experiencing or what was giving you hope at this time in your life, but you were distant and inaccessible to us. Now I know that you were in love, that you had been dating a beautiful woman with whom you had much in common. During this time of joy you were entirely invisible to us. Only small, shadowy fragments of your soul could be seen, but nothing to work with.
But our patience paid off. On one occasion, we found you in complete despair, and your form began resonating visibly in our realm. We only had to fan the flames of whatever darkness had overcome you.
Your thoughts grew dark enough to take the shape of language.
“I can hear him,” I said. No one else could hear the words.
“Listen carefully,” said the Master. “If you can hear words, it will make our work easier.”
The Master was so encouraged by the darkness into which you had plunged that he openly spoke of the hope that you could take your own life early. He was working up to a frenzy and losing his patience.
“Focus,” he commanded. “Don’t let him go.”
I had not had a moment of peace or clear thinking since I entered Hell, and now he was asking me to still my mind and focus specifically on something outside myself. In his enthusiasm for your destruction, he made this fatal mistake. He didn’t realize that someone more skilled than any of us was also listening carefully, waiting for the right moment to strike.
My mind calmed and I heard your thoughts, your inner voice. But it was not your voice that stopped me. In your voice I heard a thought that had once been my own. It was a thought that, during my mortal life, filled me with both hope and terror. Your thoughts repeated themselves again and again, full of fear and self-defeat. But also, beneath the thoughts, something like hope, though faint and distant.
I am not ready to be a father, you said. I can’t do it, you said. Again and again. Then you said you could not do to a child what was done to you. It was not the child itself that made you afraid, or the responsibility. You knew the source of your own self-hatred and did not want to pass it along to this unborn soul.
But it was too late. In your girlfriend’s womb grew your first child, and you wanted to run in fear. My job was to encourage this fear, to tease it into all sorts of complications. I was to tell you of the hopelessness of your situation and the absolute truthfulness of your dark conclusion.
But in the stillness of mind, in my focused and single-minded state, something else, something other than the thought of your destruction, slipped quietly and secretly into my broken soul.
I no longer thought of you as my prey but remembered you as my son. I knew you, and I knew your thoughts. I had already known we were hunting you, and that we had somehow been connected, but I had been incapable of fully pondering or understanding what I was doing. But now, in the quiet, a faint and distant memory of myself as a human being came into my awareness.
A tiny ember of light within my chest began to glow, and, for the first time in what seemed like an eternity, I felt hope for you, that somehow things could be different for you and that my hell did not have to become your hell. My Master looked at me in horror and tried to distract me, but it was too late. The other demons could see what was happening and ran away in terror. They knew my punishment was coming, and so did I. Yet I did not care; I wanted to stay in this tiny shred of hope and was willing to endure annihilation to linger in it a little longer.
I had, in my quiet and weakened state, let go of the resistance, the protective shield I had carefully built in Hell. I was now naked, vulnerable.
My Master hissed and snarled and screamed the worst abuses imaginable. I braced myself for his attack. Energy began to gather and swirl high above me. But instead of commanding it, he backed away in fear. The lightning was not his. He knew it. And he knew other more skilled hunters were about to make their move. They had been waiting for the right time, patiently watching me, looking for an opening.
When I looked up to see the source, it struck with devastating power.
A shaft of pure white light shot down into the top of my head and surged through my body. The light came like an arrow from some distant region. To an onlooker it might have appeared as lightning, a bolt of electricity. I heard an explosion as the energy surged through my spine and limbs, back up my spine, into my brain to tear open my eyes. I felt the dense shell that had become my demonic body break apart and burn in the glowing energy.
This was no crude weapon, but an arrow of light fashioned with a care and intelligence incomprehensible in our region. The hunters who shot it knew their prey, and they were used to success. The lightening was not just energy—it was alive and poison-tipped, embedded with a memory that exploded into my being upon impact.
I call it a memory, but it was more. It was the reality of a moment from my life. But the place I found myself in was not a mere projection of the past. I was there, even more there, even more present, than when I first experienced it.
I stood in a delivery room in the maternity ward of a hospital. I knew every detail. It was fall, and the leaves outside had turned. Some had already fallen and scattered throughout the parking lot.
Your mother lay in the delivery room, young and sweaty and tired and beautiful. She had labored for hours, and now the doctor consulted with us. The baby’s heartbeat, your heartbeat, was dropping, indicating stress. I could feel the tension, the sense of urgency in the doctor’s words, though he maintained a professional demeanor.
He recommended a C-section immediately. I could feel how hard your mother took that news, as she had so badly wanted to have our first child naturally. I felt her emotions as if they were my own. I felt the doctor’s emotions, and I felt my own, the growing fear, the frustration. I sensed you, your life, how your spirit stood at the doorway between worlds, how it desperately wanted to be born. You knew it was time to leave the comfort of your mother’s womb, and you wanted life.
I could hardly bear to watch them prepare her for surgery. The room was so cold and bright and sterile. Her body shivered as they poked and prodded and cleaned. They strapped her onto the surgical bed, arms stretched out and pinned down like a crucifix. One of them poked her belly with an instrument.
“Can you feel that?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. She shouldn’t have felt it. The men talked. Maybe it had been too long since the last epidural, they said.
“She’s already had quite a bit; it’s already been a long night,” said one.
“But we can’t proceed like this, not if she can feel it.”
A man with glasses thought for a moment and made a decision.
“Spinal block,” he said.
They unstrapped her arms and helped her sit up. Her whole body trembled from the cold and the medicines that coursed through her veins. She couldn’t support herself, so the men held her. I wanted to hold her but could not, for I was not clean, not sterile. I had to be separate, behind the curtain that separated us like a veil.
The man with the glasses drove the needle into her back and probed with it. He was looking for something; the right place, it had to be the right place, but he couldn’t find it. He pulled it out, found a different sized needle, and pushed it through the flesh of her back in a different spot. His eyes were sweating, and I could tell he couldn’t find it. He pulled it out, and a mixture of clear fluid and blood streamed down her back. Red-faced with embarrassment and anger, he made another decision.
“Let’s try another epidural,” he said.
Her body still shook from the effects of the last. The machines were making the sounds of two lives. The heartbeat of one of the lives, the smallest one, your life, had been dropping steadily. The doctor knew it. The man with glasses knew it, and I knew it.
My fear turned to anger and I yelled, “Do something!”
Now, as I watched the scene from a spiritual point of view, I could see a wave of anger expand through the room and mix with the others’ fear and frustration. I could feel their bodies become tense and the clarity of their thoughts become muddled. I had made the moment about me. Now they had to think of me instead of only your mother and your unborn self.
The second epidural worked, and they lay her back down. She shook violently.
“I can’t control my head,” she said with blue lips. “Hold my head down against the bed.”
Unknown amounts of drugs were flowing through her body. Her head was trembling and her arms involuntarily tugged at the straps.
The procedure began. New machines started up. A vacuum sucked blood through a tube and deposited it in a jar. I held her head down. It was the only thing I could do, so I tried to do it well. I made it firm but comfortable. I caressed her pale, swollen face, which, in spite of everything, still had a small smile on it.
I watched your heartbeat on the monitors, and with each passing minute it slowed to what they were calling critical levels. I watched your mother’s oxygen levels drop as well. I sat by her head, touching her, stroking her hair, telling her that I was there, that everything would be all right. Such empty phrases. The epidural was moving too far into her upper body, numbing her chest and lungs. She began to panic, thrashing and gasping for breath.
“You can breathe,” they said. “You just can’t feel yourself breathe with the numbness.” But she continued to gasp, “I can’t breathe.” Her oxygen still dropped.
“She can’t breathe,” I screamed. “You’re going to kill her.”
“Get him out of here,” said the doctor, and I was escorted from the room, sobbing and cursing. In the hallway I did something I had never done before, not since I was a child. I prayed. I pled that, if there were a God, that He would save my wife and child. I swore an oath—an oath that would soon be forgotten and broken—that I would change my life, that if they were spared, I would seek out this God. I repeated the prayer again and again, like a mantra, and felt an undeniable comfort descend on me. Watching the scene now, as an observer, I could see a glowing field of light cover me like a blanket.
In time, a gurgling baby’s cry came from the room. A nurse emerged and said that both the mother and child were doing fine. It started a little rough, but everything was just fine now.
The scene shifted, and I saw and felt myself holding you in a state of wonder. Labels like “baby” or “son” meant nothing. What I held in my arms was mystery and beauty. I could feel again the softness of your skin, your smell, the hospital blankets. I was beside your mother, who smiled weakly at our creation. When I looked into your tiny, squinting eyes, still adjusting to the harsh light of this new world, I knew that I would never be the same, that our destinies were forever connected.
The whole experience was packed within that lightening. The scene, the moment, was pure reality, one of the few things in my life that was purely real. This was the moment I loved you without complication, without expectation, without need. I loved you for no reason. You hadn’t done anything; you hadn’t earned anything.
As the hospital scene closed, I found myself again in darkness, except for a small thread of light extending upward into the infinite black from the top of my head. When I looked up, the thread of light brightened and began to swirl. It was now not just white light but ribbons of color penetrating the thick atmosphere. The thread turned into a rope, and the rope opened into a tube. I heard a great rushing sound, like a tornado. The tunnel was making a harmonious vibration, but it clashed with the dull, disordered vibration of Hell. The passage cut through the darkness, pushing it back, but looked as if it could collapse at any moment.
The hollow shaft of light extended not only upward but down into regions below, places even darker than the one I was in. Beneath me I saw hands reach into the tunnel only to recoil in pain. Above me the tunnel contracted into a fine point of light. The light beckoned me, inviting me in.
But the light also laid me open. The truth of who I was and where I was now could not be denied or explained away.
Reliving the hospital scene was the first time that I had been human in Hell. It was the first time I had a complete recollection of who I was. It was also the first time I made a connection between the being in my arms in the hospital and the being whose fears we had encouraged and fed upon. The pain of this exposure was excruciating. I had baited and taunted my own son from the depths of Hell. My failure as a father and my lifelong journey into this dreary world was before me in perfect clarity.
Was this my punishment? Had this light been sent to mock and expose me? Were my failures being rubbed in my face?
“Go away!” I screamed into the light. I longed for darkness again. I longed for the thick clouds of Hell to swallow me up into the oblivion of its nightmare. I would have rather suffered in a nightmare than expose myself to that awful, waking reality that now stripped away every lie I had lived by.
At these thoughts, as if the entire universe were a genie granting me my heart’s wish, the tunnel began to weaken and fade. I realized this tunnel was my creation and that I could strengthen or weaken it with my thoughts.
Below me, the tunnel began to collapse, and I could see the darkness closing in. Then a voice from above, a calm and familiar and penetrating voice, said firmly, “Look up and ask.”
There was no question what I was to ask for. I was to ask for help. Part of me, the part that was still in Hell, was repulsed at the thought of asking this mocking and exposing light for help. I wanted it gone, and I didn’t want help from anyone. I was doing just fine. A thousand voices in my broken mind began to protest the light. Who did this voice think it was, offering to help me, as if I were some weakling, a nobody? I was free. No one told me what to do, and no one helped me.
But part of my soul still basked in the beauty of my one-time family, the softness and vulnerability of your body, and the purity of your tiny spirit. My soul yearned for that reality, longed to live for eternity in that moment in the hospital. It was only when I remembered my unworthiness and failures that my consciousness was thrust back into Hell, longing for this all-seeing light to leave me alone forever.
The tunnel below me continued to collapse and had now reached my legs. I felt the gravity of the darkness enfolding me, pulling me downward. The Master Hunter returned to my view and I met his eyes, which now held a look of satisfaction because I was returning. I would be his once again.
The voice from the light above called out again, but more distant.
“The time is now,” it said. But the noise that reentered my mind washed it away. The darkness, like quicksand, was now up to my chest, and the tunnel above me could no longer hold it back. Demonic hands reached into the tunnel, clawing, grasping.
A thread of light was still working its way into my chest, but I had been resisting it. Then, for a brief moment, I let in the light once again. I let down all my defenses. For one last time, I wanted to be at the hospital before slipping back into the place I belonged.
The light came in and this time taught me. It told me that the moment at the hospital was not in the past. It existed as it happened forever and ever. It was a separate reality that could never be destroyed by what came before and what came after. In that moment, I was a good father. I was a loving father. The moment was pure, undefiled. It existed for eternity in that perfect state, untouchable and unchangeable.
If there was something in this moment that was indestructibly pure, then there was something within me that was indestructibly pure. A spark of love that could never be extinguished—a part of me that God would never allow to be destroyed.
When I caught hold of this thought, everything that was left of me wanted to believe it. But already the voices of Hell returned, shouting lies and insults into my mind that were so seductive, so easy to believe. My mind was too weak to hold on to the thought, and I felt it slipping away. I could not sustain it alone; it was tenuous and delicate. It slipped from my grasp as the tunnel faded into wisps of light.
Before the voices of Hell completely repossessed my mind, I looked up and reached into the fading light and I cried out into the darkness the only words I had left, perhaps the last words anyone can cry before again slipping into insanity.
No sooner had the words left my body than another bolt of lightning came from above. But this time the light was in the form of a hand reaching down to grasp me.
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