In his mouth was the scent of lilies, lilies like in Gethsemane.
(and the redbud tree, the redbud tree where you... )
Sulfur overcame his senses, his eyes and throat burning.
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I love you, I love you, I betrayed you.
All for thirty silver.
I didn’t know they’d kill you.
(all for a damned kiss)
When Judas first came to Hell and King Minos prepared the whip, Satan had stepped in with a violet tunic and gold sandals. Judas had been shivering despite the heat, neck still aching, everything aching.
He wanted to beg the Devil to let him be hurt in the hope that in the pain he’d forget, and somehow he’d absolve himself.
Instead, Satan had made him ride a gargoyle. Judas, despite his beliefs, was never sure what to think of the afterlife. As a Jewish man oppressed by the Romans, he’d known many different beliefs. No one had mentioned a gargoyle, or sharing a saddle with Satan.
“You might want to hold on,” Satan had said.
No one had mentioned holding on to the Devil.
To explain Hell in full, with its crags and shadowed valleys, would be impossible. There was Limbo, Satan had explained during his tour, with the Styx. With the unbaptized children and Charon, who knitted socks for them.
Satan explained the circles and corresponding sins, but it was all a bit much for someone who had just passed and realized there was a Hell. Judas never would have guessed Hell looked like this. Indeed there were screams and fire and brimstone, but there were also quiet, dark stretches. He imagined wandering alone in the darkness with only his thoughts, and there were ashes in his mouth.
When he looked down from the sunless, yellow mist, he saw a plane of thorned plants and naked, black trees that looked like they were bleeding. Creatures with the faces of humans and the bodies of birds tore at the gnarled limbs.
(gnarled like the tree where you, you, you)
“What circle is this?” Judas whispered.
“This is for the suicides.” The suicides. Judas had always thought of suicide as an action, not a kind of person. “The souls are twisted into trees, which the harpies attack.” A shrug. “I didn’t come up with it. That was all Lilith.” It didn’t seem fair to think those who suffered in life should suffer in death. No reprieve.
But I do deserve this. Though his death had been the least of his sins.
Judas’ heart ached, but there was relief too. “This is where I’ll be.”
Satan shifted. “No, you’ll be in the ninth circle.” A pause. “With me.”
“Traitors. At least, that’s the lowest circle.”
The taste on Judas’ tongue became sour. “And what will happen there?”
Satan tilted his head, and Judas wondered what his expression looked like. “Nothing, really. Kinda boring, honestly, unless you like hearing two Roman senators argue. There’s a palace, an ice one. It’s cold. You should’ve brought a coat. Maybe Lilith will let you borrow one of—actually, probably not. But there are plenty of rooms.”
And any hope of a fitting punishment died.
As time passed, Judas tried to lessen his guilt, tried to make himself worth his soul lingering on. Tried not to think of the time Jesus broke the gates of Dis and freed so many damned souls. (but not me) He preferred being away from the palace with its oddly pulsing architecture and many shifting mirrors that bulged like mercury eyes. The only palace denizens were Satan and his advisors/spouses, Lilith and Naamah.
Oh, and the two Romans who just played dice and bickered:
It was your idea to stab him.
Well, it wasn’t as if you had to go along with it! And the whole death thing? Really dramatic.
You did it too! And first! And with the same dagger? Please.
It’s better than running yourself on a sword someone else is holding! At least I could make a choice by myself, unlike some people.
Judas didn’t particularly like them.
Meanwhile, Lilith and Naamah spent most of their time together—besides Satan, they were married to each other. They were hemlock and roses, nightshade and lilies. They were queens, demons, succubuses, witch-goddesses in violet who left dark lipstick on each other’s cheeks. Naamah liked chatting and twining a crown of asphodels around Judas’ head; Lilith didn’t like much of anything and spent most of her time doing her administrative duties on the Stygian Council.
Naamah had warm brown eyes and a soft voice. “You remind me of my old husband,” she would say, rubbing his back during his worst times. Then she would sigh. “Poor, poor, old Solomon.” For such a sweet person, she was here, and Judas wondered what atrocities she had committed to end up married to the Devil. He quite liked her, however, maybe even loved her, but his thoughts were often occupied with Satan. Satan, who tried almost desperately to exhibit compassion and empathy with... mixed results.
“At least a crucifixion isn’t that bad,” Satan had said once. Judas had kept crying, and Satan awkwardly patted the space between his shoulders.
Most days—if they could be called days—Judas went to the garden of suicides. He’d take a porcelain bowl—as watering cans hadn’t had the consideration of being invented yet—and water the trees, putting his hand on the bleeding bark and saying coaxing words. Trying to let his I understands and I’m sorrys become sap for the tortured souls. He swore there was some sort of peace in the air as his teeth and bones vibrated. As if he absorbed their pain as his own.
Still, they writhed, and he’d come back to Satan’s palace with claw marks, earning odd looks. He liked to think, inch by inch, he was making Hell less, well, hellish. That he was making up for his old life.
Yet nothing stopped the emptiness.
One time Judas had knelt by the lake of fire for hours, listening to the howling of the damned. The flames conjured images from when he was alive: smiles, eyes, tears. After he had died. His swaying body. Mary Magdalene, blank-eyed. Thomas weeping.
A voice from behind asked, “Why do you do this to yourself?” It wasn’t disgusted or disturbed, but Judas couldn’t quite place the tone, so he turned to see Satan standing there with his hands in his pockets.
“Suffer. Blame yourself.” Those gold eyes flashed bright, or maybe it was just the fire.
Judas had no answer. But he did.
“Someone has to feel regret for the pain they’ve caused.” His voice came out as dust, soon scattered.
Satan’s voice went cold, his shoulders stiffening. “What does that mean?”
Throat constricting, Judas looked back at the flames. Spears, ruined hands, the crucifix.
“If you want to make yourself miserable, fine. I don’t need to take your insults after all we’ve... ” Footsteps. Silence. Judas had thought he left. “We’re all damned in the end, no matter if we feel regret or not. Feeling sorry doesn’t make you better than any of us.”
Satan left, and as he stared into the molten water, Judas was more confused than ever. He had thought Satan would say, I don’t need to take your insults after all I’ve done for you. But he had said we’ve. We. What had we done?
He resented Satan for trying to understand, almost understanding, but not calming the gnashing agony in Judas’ ribs, as if teeth and a jaw had formed there. For not—did he want to be calmed, though?
He wanted to forget and sink into his trauma. He wanted to drown, to die and be reborn in flesh that wasn’t his. He wanted to bite and be bitten.
He wanted to be forgiven.
Judas stayed by the fire until Naamah found him curled in a ball and touched his shoulder.
Going back to the chill of his home, which rose up and down like a sleeping beast, he knew there’d be no apologies. Satan never said sorry for anything, and Judas would say nothing, only keep scraping along.
Time continued to pass. Judas finally got a watering can Satan brought back from the upside. The trees seemed to bleed less. Satan (smelling of darkly sweet pomegranates and summer and ashes in the circle of eternal winter) traded his robes and tunics for a white suit and violet shirt. They were almost always close—or at least, Judas was always aware of his presence. They kept their distance from each other, sometimes. At times, they would talk. Another time, Satan had tucked a loose, curly hair behind Judas’ ear. Judas would retire to his bed with at least ten multi-colored blankets Charon had knitted after one Limbo orphanage visit. Looking at the frozen ceiling that sometimes had faces, he’d hold the sheets close, thinking about a new, persistent need in him. Obsidian bed posters snaked both sides the frame, caging him. Breathing was hard, even when he was dead.
Judas had loved before, and that had hurt hundreds. His people. His fellow disciples. Thomas. Mary Magdalene. Jesus’ mother, the other Mary.
The man he had cherished. All it took was a kiss.
(I deserve deserve deserve pain)
He liked to think he had changed and had caused change. He liked to think, should he ever meet Jesus again, placed his soft brown hand in Jesus’ own callused one, they’d be at peace. He could weep, make amends, and be forgiven. His melancholy didn’t abate, but soon there was hope, which was both good and terrible. Good in that he wasn’t in a hopeless mire, wandering, following his own shadow. Terrible in that hope was the only thing in Hell that could die.
But Hell did not change in heavy strides, though there was a strange comfort in that. There was no ominous organ music; after he became more numb, the only pain, besides the cold, came when Naamah had a sudden bluegrass phase. There was talk of creating a band called Cradle of Sylph, but it thankfully passed, since Judas had no musical skills. Satan would let him attend Council meetings if he wanted, and he’d have Judas sit down with him alongside Lilith and Naamah.
Judas always longed for moments of closeness, but how could he say he loved the Devil when, after the Garden, he had to reinvent his language for love?
Perhaps this wasn’t love at all, but a shadow of what he had lost. That was all Hell was, chasing shadows.
Out of everyone, who hasn’t left you? You, always an orphan?
He couldn’t say when he made his way to Satan’s chambers. The walls were ice, but they pulsed and moved in ways that ice didn’t. The colors became purple, red, black. These walls were still cold to the touch, enough to burn, but they had a strange softness to them. The paintings of debauchery—wine, grapes, blood, sex, animals and creatures he never knew existed—never stayed in one spot, and in the halls, the ceiling was an open mouth leading to the black cavern ceiling—if there was a ceiling at all. Everything was in flux—chaos, and yet it always felt the same.
Except, after a time, Judas swore he became less cold.
When he found Satan, he was in his room, which changed a good deal depending on whatever was preferred at the time. Now the room was a bit mismatched with its silver and gold walls with black and scarlet décor. Satan had his feet kicked up on a cushy footrest, and he was reading a book with a black background and crimson fleurs-de-lys, essentially Gothic wallpaper. Something like affection crept into Judas’ heart for the first time in an eternity. Of course Satan would like something that wouldn’t be unusual in a dubious Byronic aristocrat’s library; Judas had always been more austere in his tastes, especially while living a life oppressed by Roman decadence. Also, Satan was wearing his black cat pajamas, notably not made from black cats, since he had little patience for animal cruelty.
Satan looked up and closed his book.
“How are you?” Judas asked.
Standing, Satan gave a small, surprised laugh. “It’s been at least five-hundred years since someone’s asked that.” He sobered, knuckle to his mouth. “Okay. Had to deal with my stupid council again.” Judas had stayed home for that one. Migraines were especially bad in Hell.
“Didn’t you form the Stygian Council?” An illusion of order.
“Yeah, yeah, I work with what I’ve got. The ones that aren’t idiots, like Mephistopheles, just egg the idiots on.” Mephistopheles had been especially troublesome after he lost Faust to Heaven; it was almost as if he were mourning. Satan smoothed a hand over his silver-gold hair. “Then there’s Belial, stupid Belial. So predictable. Not everything can be solved with hot babes! Ugh. All the devils are here, and all the devils are assholes.” Judas had never been a fan of the Stygian Council, especially when they spent a quarter of the Renaissance arguing whether the capital should be called Dis or Pandæmonium.
Satan’s brow furrowed, and he continued, “By the way, I’m sorry for that time I yelled at you by the lake of fire. I just—don’t like that place. The Revelation, my ultimate fate, blah blah, you know.”
Judas blinked. “Are you being serious?”
Satan snorted. “I’m always the utmost, most serious—”
What happened next was how all things happened in Hell: slow but all at once. Judas kissed Satan, but it had none of the hesitance or the salt of tears in Gethsemane. Satan felt like silk.
(smelled and tasted of calla lilies and ash)
Judas’ touches were imploring and desperate, as if they didn’t have forever.
(and we won’t)
Once Satan started to reciprocate the kiss, Judas pulled away and asked, “Will you marry me?”
Satan blinked, and his smile was odd and uncertain. “I’m really a chocolate and flowers kind of person, and then maybe some blow.”
Judas made himself pitiful, both fearful and mad with desire. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry I killed you.”
Satan replied the only rational thing one could say to that: “What?”
“Please hurt me. Please forgive me.”
There was a pause, and Judas had thought he had asked too much, revealed too much of the wild fantasy curling like briars in his head. He wanted to run, run from this place without end. It wasn’t the possibility of rejection that made his heart twist. He had felt alone all his life and most of his death, and to think he would no longer be alone made him freeze when he should’ve been deliriously happy he had done something after an eternity of waiting.
Satan swallowed him in a kiss, and the kiss had teeth. Soon Judas found himself being consumed with ice, fire, and a thorned, musky sweetness. His wrists were pinned to the velvet bed till he was caged in delightful wickedness, burning in a tangled mess of discarded clothes and flowers and embers.
Judas did not know if this was peace, but for now, for this moment, it was enough.
A native of North Georgia, Emily Deibler is a published writer and poet. Her short story “Deer in December” was published in TL;DR Press’ Halloween 2018 Horror collection, NOPE. Her poetry has been published by Honey & Lime and Z Publishing House. Her debut novel, Dove Keeper, came out in October 2018. She currently works as a co-editor for Exhume, a literary magazine for queer trauma survivors, and as a social media intern for Sundress Publications. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or at: emilydeibler.com