HEAVEN'S HELL
by
G. Wilford Hathorn
(Copyright1999)

NOTE: This story is fiction. Complete Biblical correctness is not intended. It was written when death row inmates were still housed at the Ellis Unit and allowed to hold prison jobs. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

God stood quietly, watching the formation of a galaxy in a far corner of the universe. His eyes, sharp with the wisdom of age, were depthless, contemplative yet focused, and radiated the joy of a new father. He had witnessed so much birth, but corresponding to each was an eventual death. Indeed, the galaxy being born before him would in several millennia fold upon itself and cease to exist. Just as he had spoken creation into being he would one day absorb it again.

The angel Gabriel entered the room, stood for a moment with hands behind his back, then, unacknowledged, softly cleared his throat.
“Yes? What is it Gabriel?” God said, favoring the angel with a smile. “Have you news of my son?”
“I do, Father,” Gabriel responded. He walked closer and as a sign of respect bowed his head. Raising it again, he continued. “Jesus returned a little while ago and is anxious to see you. You know how badly his trips to Earth make him miss you.”
“And I him!” God said, placing a hand over his heart. “I will of course see him, but first tell him to stop in and see his mother. She's missed him, too, plus there's that matter with the little girl in Mexico with which she needs his help.”
“Already done, Father. I gave Jesus the message upon his arrival. He immediately went to Mary and the matter has been taken care of. The little girl will survive her illness and grow up to bring many sheep to your son's flock.”
“Excellent, Gabriel, excellent! Please show him in!”

Gabriel went to the door, opened it, and when Jesus entered, left to attend other tasks. This son of God, brown hair falling in silken waves to his shoulders, strode regally, though unassumingly, through the room en route to hug his father. His eyes were copies of those which moments before had watched the infant galaxy, but sharper, more direct, and glowed with quiet light. His bearing bespoke the things that have for centuries been attributed to him:
love, compassion, honesty, faith, and an invincibility tempered by a strain of warriorhood beyond the comprehension of man. Every virtue that had beneath the dome of history been attained by great seekers dwelled in Jesus, hence the readiness of demons to flee before him and hide in forests or animals. He was peace, joy, and bliss rolled into an entity pulsing with the power of a thousand explosions, but benign and encompassing. In this presence no cold could frost the heart nor heat stir any negative sentiment.

“Son!” God said. “Thankfully you've returned safely! No ghastly punctures in your body, I see.” This was said with the memory of erstwhile tragic times.
“No Father,” Jesus said as they hugged. “I wasn't mistreated this time. But I saw many people who were.”

God had been troubled by the vibrations he felt from Earth and had asked Jesus to go down and mingle for a while. He was to observe and, to see if there had been a significant change in attitudes over the past two-thousand years, take account of the actions of the people. God had hoped there would be an evolution of the desire for spiritual advancement, but the sensations he had felt of late, coupled with humanity's innate lust for war and its apathy toward those less fortunate, had indicated otherwise. His heart was bound to his children and it depressed him to feel their despair as it grated hour after hour, its dark beauty holding them captive with promises that would never be fulfilled. They remained obstinate to his urging and deprived themselves of a dimension of completeness that was theirs for the asking.

“Let us sit,” God suggested, and gestured toward two overstuffed chairs whose arms and legs were embossed with symbols the meaning of which only God knew. When they were seated, he said, “Please tell me what you saw, and be thorough.”
Jesus had learned that when it came to updates on the well-being of the people of Earth God did not beat about the bush.
“I am afraid the news isn't good,” Jesus began. “I went to a place of great heartache, where for a variety of reasons at different levels of society the unfortunate are treated atrociously. This occurred in the strongest nation on Earth, the United States.”
Sadness fell over God's face and with a nod he bade Jesus to continue.
“A great writer said that if one wishes to learn something of a nation he should go inside its prisons and see how the prisoners are treated. This made sense so I determined to enter such an institution and observe what went on. The problem was that I couldn't decide which prison to infiltrate, for the U.S., because of the revenue they provide, has many.”
“Are you saying,” God interjected, “that the U.S. builds prisons for financial gain rather than to rehabilitate those who have erred and return them to society as productive citizens?”
“This seems to be true. There has been such a boom in prison construction in recent decades that most laws allowing prisoners to be returned to society once they have proven themselves ready have been overturned. This is done under the guise of getting tough on lawbreakers, but those who profit from the prison industry surreptitiously encourage the populace to brand prisoners as beyond redemption, for this lends force to the argument that people should be locked up for most, if not all, of their lives. The prison industry brings in billions of dollars a year, so you can imagine why the profiteers would wish to protect their cash cow. Not much money would be made if everyone was rehabilitated and the prisons were emptied.”

“The thirst for money is always the root of some evil, is it not?” God asked rhetorically.
“Yes,” Jesus answered. “But it gets worse. In some instances peoples' lives are in the name of justice taken and the reasons for it are more odious than financial gain. It fascinated me that some states in America, a majority in fact, still put people to death for the commission of certain crimes, so I thought it logical that how the death-sentenced prisoners, or the 'least of these brothers of mine', are treated would provide some insight into the hearts of the u.s. public as a whole.

“I researched the issue and discovered that one u.s. death row, with regard to notoriety, stands head and shoulders above the rest. Its record of killing is so great that the state in which it resides receives worldwide condemnation. This is Texas Death Row, where the number of people who have been killed tallies more than twice that of its nearest competitor.”

Jesus paused to let God digest what he had said. The Creator looked over Jesus' shoulder at the new galaxy and wondered if one day the life it produced would fall victim to the traps which had caught Earth's people, or would those beings heed the advice of the prophets and saints he would send into their midst? Free will. He often wondered if giving this to man had been a blunder, for man rarely used it for the common good, but had he not given it he would be no different from the overseers of the prisons about which Jesus had spoken, imposing on his charges his own will. And his will, though the superior plan, would acquire for man a life of its own, irritating man, provoking man, tempting man to rebel against it, reshape it, thereby becoming ersatz master of his own future. Industrious is the heart of man as he perseveres toward illusory marvel, and like an explorer he embarks on treks the fruits of which are inevitably bad. His natural capacity to find succor in joy is displaced by briny canals in which the boat of discontent cannot be sunk. Ageless manifestations of ego have made man careless and ignorant, a child loosed in the sleaze of adulthood, skewing his conduct in matters of seeking and subtracting from the virtues which otherwise would be his to command.

“Go on,” God said. “You were speaking of this Texas Death Row, which receives condemnation for killing its citizens.”
“I posed as a prison guard,” Jesus continued. “I was welcomed to the ranks graciously enough, but noticed from the start an 'us versus them' mentality. I was told that the inmates are all scum and that I should assert my authority over them whenever possible, for they are no better than dogs. I thought it ironic that in Texas dogs and condemned people are put to sleep in the same manner. When I asked about the inmates who cause no trouble, mind their own business, and treat the guards respectfully I was told that these are scam artists who act correctly only because they desire a favor.”

“Seems like they are damned if they do and damned if they don't,” God observed. “What was your experience?”
“I found that what I'd been told was not always the case. Most of the inmates are from the most tragic backgrounds of abuse, neglect, and poverty, and as a result are emotionally sterile, explaining why some are firmly in Satan's grasp and cause disruption whenever they can, whether in prison or free society. But in prison these are dealt with harshly.”
“When this harshness is meted out, is it always the inmate's fault?”
“No, because there are just as many guards in Satan's grasp as there are inmates. Here's an example: When the guards respond to an inmate's provocation, often more force than necessary is used. It's like the guards, once they've been pushed to the point of disciplining an inmate, wish to make an example of him. I witnessed an inmate having his feet and hands shackled behind him and be dog-piled by the guards, who then sprayed his face with pepper spray and shouted, 'Stop fighting! Stop fighting! ' when in reality the inmate wasn't fighting. They used a variety of wrenching moves on the inmate's limbs to increase pain, and the melee continued until the guards became winded. Then they loaded him on a stretcher, wheeled him to the infirmary --hands and feet still shackled together—and pulled a nurse away from her tabloid magazine to take his vital signs. While this happened they further criticized the inmate, challenged him, and told him what a worthless piece of dung he is. Then later, at social gatherings with their girlfriends or acquaintances, they recounted the incident, with each rendition expanding the facts in their favor, as if there is honor in beating a person who is retarded or insane, let alone shackled and terribly outnumbered.”

“Inmates who are retarded or insane are hog-tied, beaten, and hosed in the face with pepper spray?” God asked, raising his eyebrows. He was incredulous.
“Yes. And worse. There are some guards who, to have an opportunity to use the force I mentioned earlier, taunt the mentally ill into a psychotic episode. Sometimes out of boredom, but mostly for the sport of it.”

Concern rippled God's forehead. Jesus knew that anger, like a coal from the Devil's furnace, smoldered in his father's heart, an ill omen for those against whom it may be directed. Jesus remembered the cries of people who, because they had offended the Father, had been swallowed into the bowels of the Earth. He smelled the sulfuric smoke billowing as their fingers grasped at crumbling walls of ground, razor-sharp flames cutting them. He closed his eyes. Then Earth was a world of polarities wherein most people subscribed to fatalism and accrued to themselves every pleasure, usually at another's expense. But the hedonists were offset by a small number of seekers who ignored the emptiness, the desire to descend, and in solidarity of spirit embraced life with a loving voice. Naysayers, from the practitioners of rites dark and foreboding to intellectuals who due to misplaced logic succumbed to blindness, discounted the possibility of God's existence, heaping ridicule upon those who chose to believe, but inside the true seeker is a compass which guides him along the path. Such ones conquered the tempest of their feelings, transcended the slavery to passion, and were rewarded with the umbrella of peace. But still they were rebuked, for in the presence of goodness the Naysayers rebelled and by exerting tyranny sought to acquit themselves of the burdens of the road less traveled. God's words, the choicest scripture from the stone of Truth, have in eloquence been passed down and cultivated via the wisdom of the sages, but the nonseekers, as prevalent today as thousands of years ago, remain drunk on the wine of separation, creating for themselves a twofold existence. As disappointments overwhelm them they suffer anguish, yet if they retreated to the cave of introspection and faced the dross of countless pasts they would emerge as creatures upon whose neck the boot of folly could never rest. Under the aegis of free will they demur from proper action and focus on transforming the lives of those from the fringes of society into a wailing wall, a pit in which there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“I stopped caring for the death penalty a long time ago,” God said. “I allowed it for a while but it became clear that man cannot be just in judging other men, that his decisions are eventually clouded by politics and vengeance, two of the most distasteful vices under my sun. The imposition of death is reserved for the poor or disenfranchised, plus those who support it isolate certain verses from the scriptures to justify themselves, ignoring those which say I prefer that people repent and live. And though many of these death supporters call themselves Christians, which means they have vowed to follow you, my son, your pronouncement that the old scriptures relating to retributive justice are obsolete go unheeded. Tell me, among the inmates did you find any who are righteous?”

“I found a handful who sincerely seek our grace and wisdom, and also a few guards, but one man in particular stood out for me. He was an orderly named Onge whom they work to the bone, but he never complains. To view him from the outside he looks like any other inmate, but inside he has an attitude we seldom see anymore. Every bit of work he does, no matter how tedious or filthy, he dedicates to you.”
At this God perked up, his powers of discernment reflecting like pools of black water.
“Hmm,” he said. “Did he say why?”
“He said that as a young man he was ruthless and had done things to hurt a lot of people. He feels he has much for which to atone and believes that every drop of blood or vomit he mops up, or dried phlegm he scrubs from the urinals, when done as an offering to you, is another blemish removed from his soul.”
“Interesting,” God said with a smile. “It isn't enough that you forgave this man when he asked you to, he feels a certain penance is due for the mistakes he's made, which, if it brings him peace, is okay.”
“And another thing,” Jesus continued. “When Onge isn't working they require him to sit by himself in a small room --he isn't good enough to stand in their presence unless he's being useful, you see—but rather than brood in anger or resentment he uses the time to pray, pouring his heart out in thanks for all you've given him. His clothes drip with sweat and he reeks from long hours of work, but because he is lost in love for you he doesn't notice, or if he does he doesn't care. Strangely, when one of the guards walks up and sees Onge in prayer he orders him to leave the room and find some work to do.”
“Tell me about the other inmates.”

“Well,” Jesus continued. “Most have made gambling, sex, and power their gods, but as I said, there are a few who wish to help others avoid making mistakes, but can't because their overseers and the public do not rest in demonizing them.”
“Like they did you two-thousand years ago?”
“Precisely, Father.”

When a ray of light penetrates the abyss the purveyors of darkness join forces under a variety of auspices to deflect the intention of morality. Man's beginnings are humble but shortly, due to the influence of conditioned ignorance, he metamorphoses into a selfish, ugly thing who uses as stepping stones to prosperity the backs of those ill-schooled in the wiles of materialism. He becomes a predator whose pleasure in trampling his fellow humans is equaled only by salacious pursuits; indeed, the two for such a person often become a single road. From this sickness comes the obliteration of the meaning of life, therefore his actions, while apparently acceptable, even applauded, value no more on the register of being than chaff, or the caustic powder which consumes from within his mind and heart. Lost on this person is the reality that for all its allure and promise, all its trappings obtained at the expense of others, the world is for but a moment a fruit whose juice beatifies the tongue, but once he is laid in the moldy hollows of the cemetery ceases to satisfy. Gone is the clearcut sense of what is good and evil; his ability to tell the difference has been displaced by a screen of superiority that ignores the fear, despair, and hopelessness of the pitiful people of the planet. Babies worldwide die from lack of proper nutrition and medical care. People are due to different ethnic backgrounds forced from their homelands, many slaughtered before they can escape, others crippled or destined to starve or freeze in the grip of wintry claws. Young women in the name of religion or marital fidelity have their genitals butchered with unclean instruments, some dying from the ensuing infection, most growing into sexual eunuchs whose only pleasure from the human coupling is the travail of giving birth. And the privileged few feign ignorance of these situations, surfeiting themselves on the spawn of their labors while the air reverberates with the cries of those trampled underfoot. It is no wonder that before our eyes Nature's reproductive ability weakens, for the myriad tableaux of suffering and greed drive her further and further toward barrenness.

“Tell me, son,” God said. “Is there no one of virtue to step in and stop these killings in Texas?”
“There are judges who take oaths to uphold the laws and apply them fairly, but these are politicians who unfortunately would rather pander to hate and death mongers than exercise reason and mercy in matters of justice, even when one with a valid claim of innocence comes before them.
“Understand, Father, that the politicians and prison managers—two branches of the same vine—are like the Pharisees of old (Here God sighed and shook his head), proclaiming a love for you and justice, but in their heart dwells the demon of self-aggrandizement, achieved at the expense of the less ambitious. Seldom have we witnessed such wanton disregard for the suffering of a society's least wanted and their families.

God rested his chin on steepled fingers and became reflective, thinking of his age-old nemesis, Lucifer, and the hold that snake, who once had such potential, had on the people of the world.

“These self-aggrandizers, the politicians and prison overseers, these are the same ones who killed Karla Faye Tucker, are they not?”
“Yes, Father. “
“Is there no ruler in Texas who has the power to spare a condemned person's life?”
“Yes, but recall what happened to me. Pilate wanted to send me home with a flogging and spare me, but the people demanded my life and he acquiesced. It's the same with the governor of Texas. Even if he wanted to suggest that someone's life be spared he would not for fear that the people would rise up and replace him with someone more murderous.”
“I see,” God said. “But let's not confuse what Pilate did with what the governor of Texas does. You were sinless, but those on death row are not.”
“Neither is anyone else, Father, not the politicians, not the prison overseers, not those who support the death of their fellow human beings. You yourself have said that one sin isn't greater than another, so should one who has taken life be killed while those who use their station to cloak all manner of closet sin are spared? Those who kill unborn babies are pillars of the community while those who slay these killers in your name—an equally abhorrent act— are called murderers. Pastors who purport to have your ear drive Cadillacs and wear thousand-dollar suits while a few blocks away families scrounge in trash receptacles for food or clothing. Wealth titans are revered while people living in their tenements have no heat and have to watch their children sleep to keep them from being eaten by rats. And all this in a country that calls itself civilized!”

“I see your point,” God conceded. “Can you say more about death row? I've found your observations thus far disturbing.”
“There's not much else to tell, Father, except one thing I found particularly unsettling. Whenever there is an execution many of the guards and wardens celebrate by making merry, drinking, and fornicating. They hold parties that are very much like some of the sacrificial celebrations we've seen in the past.”
“They always seem to come back to that,” God said wearily. “No matter what we do.”
God wept.

EPILOGUE

Jessi Gunn, a guard who worked on Texas Death Row, could not believe her good fortune. She was at the execution party one of the wardens was throwing. Earlier that day, just after 6 p.m., lethal drugs were pumped into the veins of inmate Onge and, after offering his soul to God, he gasped, tremored, and croaked. They always did that, she had noticed, prayed to Jesus or offered themselves to God, as if all that religious poppycock meant anything. It certainly meant nothing to the victim's survivors; talk to them about forgiveness, mercy, or God and they would bite your head off. And rightly so. Society had reached a point where people didn't need a God to justify their existence, in fact believing in one denoted weakness, so given that one only goes around once and then feels oblivion, it's best to get as much fun out of life as one can. Her co-workers didn't know about a particular brand of fun Jessi liked. Strip-searching the inmates, males of every size and color, made her flush with the fire of desire, though at keeping her face passive she was adept. Another area of fun was teasing the inmates, especially the holy rollers like Onge, though he had never responded to her flirtations with so much as a quickened breath. Most of his fellow Bible-thumpers had fallen into her web and paid the price, but not him. She recalled supervising him while he worked, moving in close so he could smell her, especially in the summer when her perfume mixed with sweat to form an exotic musk, or sitting on a rail and spreading her legs so wide that her tight pants outlined every intimate curve. Or bending over in front of him, ostensibly to look for something under a table, hoping that his having been caged so long would make his lust surge like a hurricane. And if he made any off-color remark, no matter how slight, or let his eyes linger too long she would have him. A sexual advance—whether one actually occurred or not it would be easy to convince the Sergeant, another of her conquests, that it had and make him come down on Onge. Six months in the hole at least, maybe a year, and a smear on his record that no inmate wants. But Onge had never obliged her, which was another good reason they killed his ass. Now she was loaded, as someone had produced a joint which took the edge off her drunk and lent clarity to the world. She was lying naked on some blankets in the bed of a pickup parked in the warden's driveway and next to her, half-asleep and also naked, was Captain Townsend, whom she had for months been chasing. It was worth the effort and her ascension up the prison ladder was now assured. First Sergeant, then Lieutenant. Lieutenant Gunn. It had a nice ring. Maybe one day Captain Gunn. Inmate Blow cussed out the nurse, did he? Suit up, people! Go in there and gas his butt! She purred at the thought and nuzzled the Captain, running her fingers through the mat of red hair on his chest and kissing his ear. He stirred appreciatively but did not wake, for he was dreaming of his wife and two children.

A sound like the rolling of heavy machinery reached them and Jessi cocked an ear, for she feared it was thunder preceding a storm. If so she and the Captain would have to dress and rejoin the party—faces aglow and everyone favoring them with knowing, envious looks—but she didn't wish to leave the pickup just yet. The night was still young. Perhaps the storm would hold off for another hour, or bypass them altogether. One could always hope.

What brought her from her reverie was the brightness, a red radiance accompanied by otherworldly heat perceived through her eyelids. She thought it the light of a car or truck but realized she had heard no vehicle pass, only the sound, getting louder, of the heavy machinery. First like tanks amassing for battle, now like the patient footsteps of thousands of horses. Puzzled, she opened her eyes, and had her throat not felt like a stricture had been tightened around it, would have screamed in the Captain's ear. Perhaps two-hundred yards off there were indeed horses, tethered to chariots, and they were arranged in a semi-circular formation, grayish smoke issuing. from noble nostrils and blue-orange sparks flowering from hooves. The horses and chariots, and those standing in them, were not on the Earth but in the sky. Rolling banks of dense clouds, interspersed with strobes of white and blue lightning bouncing with wonderful savagery off the charcoal bellies, formed the ground on which they trod. Jessi Gunn, not a Lieutenant, not a Captain, just a peon who had visions of upward mobility, thought the booze and weed were making her hallucinate, but after closing and opening her eyes several times realized that what she saw was real. The beings in the chariots mesmerized her, made her afraid, nauseous, and awestruck. Each had flowing hair the color of magnolia blooms and were attired in clothing so white it brought water to the eyes. Above them the firmament was lit by turquoise rays and shooting stars. Each being's orbs glowed with slate hardness and spoke resolutely of a purpose as yet unknown to Jessi, though the weapons they held aloft, swords with blades of fire, did not bode well.

Then she saw the leader of this army and comprehension weighted her like granite. She whimpered. Her spirit, turbid with fear, revolted, shouting at the top of its lungs the name she wished she didn't have to hear until she'd had time to change her ways: Jesus. Standing next to the Prince on one side was inmate Onge and on the other Karla Faye Tucker, both looking at her with compassion and love, but also sadness. They looked like two people helpless to do anything as someone falls from a cliff. Now Jessi did scream, the muscles in her throat shredding, and the Captain bolted upright, looking wildly about, trying through the haze of sleep to determine why Jessi's fingers were buried to the first knuckle in his chest.

Before he had a chance to say anything—he had a question or two about those horses and chariots – the hoof beats overtook them.

THE END