When the car emerged into Hell, the first thing Giuseppe Banca did was squint. Sunshine, strong and warm, shone from a pale yellow sky. Hell’s landscape was a rolling sea of grass and purple-tinged trees, stretching over slight rises and falls for what looked like forever. There was no curve to the world Giuseppe could see.
“Not what you expected,” the driver said. A handsome face glanced at Giuseppe from the rearview, gold-and-grey eyes twinkling.
“No,” Giuseppe said. He wiped a strong, calloused hand across his forehead. Frigid air roared from the vents, smelling of machines. It gave Giuseppe a headache. “Could you turn down the air a little?”
“Sorry,” the driver said, twisting a dial. “Most visitors think it’s hotter than it is.”
They drove down a two-lane road, a waist-high spiky basalt wall the only other sign of habitation. No telephone poles, litter or road signs. Giuseppe needed the job, but the unexpected sense of peace he felt looking out over Hell was the first emotion he’d felt this trip other than worry or fear.
At the top of a rise little more than a swelling, a tall figure stood next to a broad tree, covered in shade. The driver drove into a dirt turnaround, parking within feet of the figure, and got out. Giuseppe climbed out of the back seat, straightening his only suit as the two spoke.
“Mr. Banca,” the driver called. Giuseppe walked into the shade, forcing himself to relax. As his eyes adjusted, he saw the men were nearly twins; only the eyes were different, the gold-and-grey of the driver in sharp contrast to the green-and-black of the person he was meeting.
“Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies,” the second man said. He bowed his head but did not offer his hand. “You’ve met Uriel.” The driver nodded, and in the dappled sunlight, Giuseppe could see the tattoo running up the angel’s forearm: a broadsword, lined in flames and blood.
“Your resume is impressive, Mr. Banca,” Beelzebub said. “I assume you see the problem.”
Giuseppe looked up at the branches. Many of the leaves were discolored, some completely dead, others spotted with brittle patches. He followed mottled rot down twigs, across branches into the trunk, and into the roots. He walked around the tree, and on the other side at about shoulder-height, found a large milky purple oval growth, like a crystal in the wood.
“I’m not familiar with this type of tree,” Giuseppe said.
“It’s a soul,” Uriel said, amused.
“Souls are a little outside my experience,” Giuseppe said slowly.
“Some time ago, all the condemned of Hell began to grow roots,” Beelzebub said, his voice taut. “We could not dislodge them once planted, or prevent them from transforming. Within a decade, all the damned were like this.”
“Why not let them die?” Giuseppe asked.
“You misunderstand Hell,” Uriel said gently.
“It is not willed where what is willed must be,” Beelzebub said. “Our duty is to maintain these… ephemera in damnation, on pain of intervention,” Beelzebub sharply gestured at Uriel, “but growing things is not among our skills.”
Giuseppe walked around the tree again, re-examining everything. He took a piece of paper from his pocket, brushed his hand against the trunk and leaves onto the paper, and smeared his hand across the sheet. He carefully questioned Beelzebub on water and nutrients. He looked closely at the shape and direction of the dead spots, mottling of the bark and direction of the leaves’ curling.
Finally, Giuseppe reached out and gently touched the crystalline growth. Floods of images and sensations roared through him, leaving the taste of oil and smoke. He saw an entire life in seconds, years of despair and the eventual spiral downward. A name floated up in the whirlwind of his brain – the soul trapped inside whose damnation hardened into bark and leaf, growing into a sickness that failed to belong, even here – and sank away as Giuseppe pulled back.
He looked at the demon and the angel, his gaze falling to the tattoo on Uriel’s arm. An idea struck him; its audacity, in this place of torment that seemed anything but, emboldened him.
“May I?” Giuseppe asked.
Uriel followed Giuseppe’s gaze. A broad grin escaped him. “No human has; you might as well be the first.” The guardian of Eden put his hand over the tattoo and drew a weapon of fire from his arm, flame and steel bright in the sun. Carefully, he handed the sword to Giuseppe, hilt first.
Giuseppe took the sword, chill to the touch and nearly weightless. He turned to the tree whose name he now knew, gripped the hilt with both hands, and swung at a point just above the ensouled knot, knowledge of the sword’s effect somehow forming before he swung. At the sword’s touch, the upper trunk and branches dissipated into dust, swirling in the sword’s wake before fading to nothing. The trunk stood bare, the cut exposing dark inner wood that glistened in the sun.
He swung vertically twice more, then downward at an angle below the knot. As the dust scattered, only the growth was left, lying next to a mulchy hole in the ground. Handing the sword back to Uriel, Giuseppe got down on his knees and dug out handfuls of mud and loam. Carefully, he buried the crystalline knot, loosely packing in the dirt. Stillness settled over the rough mound, and Giuseppe was struck by how right the rich dirt felt beneath his hands. He sat back and looked at the mound, understanding in some part of his heart beyond the reach of reason or faith that it would in time grow again into a tree, but healthy and right.
A shadow passed over him, and the low buzzing of insects.
“Huh,” Beelzebub said. Behind him, Uriel smiled, and touched his eyebrow in salute.
Surrounded by the sunlit work of lifetimes, Giuseppe Banca looked at those who brought him here, and laughed joyously.
Brandon Nolta lives in north Idaho with his wife and two children. He works as a freelance writer and editor from home, when his kids let him. His poetry and fiction have appeared in Strong Verse, Digital Science Fiction, Every Day Fiction and a handful of other publications.