Once Upon a Time in Hell – Emily Foster-Tomkinson

Once upon a time there was a woman who died. After she had died, she woke up in a small cell with walls of stone. There was a single window with thick, iron bars. Through the window the woman could see a far expanse of red ground and red sky. The only door was locked. Within the room was a wooden bed.
The woman tugged at the bars on the window and rattled the doorhandle but it was no good. She was trapped. Suddenly, the door opened and a man walked in carrying a tray of delicious food. He was a young, handsome man with bright red hair and a bright red suit. He set the tray of food on the bed beside the woman.

“Where am I?” asked the woman. “Who are you?”

The man stood in front of her.

“I am the devil.” he said. “And you are in Hell.”

“But why? I did nothing wrong when I was alive.”

“I do not know why you are here.” he replied. “But I cannot just let you go without asking for something in return.”

The woman, despairing, began to weep.

“You were a writer in life, were you not?” said the Devil. The woman nodded, tears still spilling down her cheeks.

“Then I offer you a chance at your freedom. I ask for one simple thing and then I will let you go.”

The woman leapt to her feet, elated at the chance to escape, for it is one thing to be trapped in Hell, and another thing entirely to be trapped in Hell knowing you do not deserve it.

“Anything,” said the woman. “What do you want?”

From behind his back, though he clearly had not had it before, the Devil produced a stack of clean paper and a pen.

“You must write a description of me.” he said. The woman took the paper and clutched it tightly.

“But that is easy, I can write a description right now.”

“Before you start,” he said, raising a hand. “I have a condition. You must describe me in my entirety, leaving nothing out, you must point out the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. Your description must be utterly complete, and you must do this all in one word.”

The woman’s hands began to shake.

“I cannot possibly describe you in one word, not in the way you ask.”

“But that is what you must do for me to release you. You have in your hands a stack of three hundred and sixty-five pages. You may write one word per page. If you have not described me by the time the pages have run out you must stay here forever.”

After the Devil had gone, locking the door behind him, the woman fell onto the bed and wept. No writer, no matter how great their skill or talent could perform such a task she thought. She would be trapped in Hell forever.

The next day the Devil returned.

“Have you written a word?” he asked.

“I have,” replied the woman. She handed him the paper which she had neatly written the word ‘Devil’ onto. The Devil shook his head and threw the paper on the ground.

“This does not describe me. Try again tomorrow.”

That night the woman didn’t sleep. She tossed and turned, desperately trying to think of how to describe the man. In the middle of the night she arose and, by what little light came through the window, wrote another word on the paper. The Devil came again the next day and asked to see what she had written. This time the word said ‘Angel’.

“Maybe once,” said the Devil, dropping the paper. “But not anymore.”

The woman paced the room. Perhaps that had been a clue, she thought, and swiftly wrote down her next word.

Again, he came. The woman passed him the page. In bigger, messier letters she had written ‘Fallen’. Upon seeing it, the Devil’s face folded into a frown. He screwed up the paper and threw it at the wall before leaving without a word spoken.

That night the woman sat huddled in the corner, terrified that she had upset the Devil. Desperately she rattled her brain to try and think of a way to describe him.

‘Lord’ said the next paper. The Devil smiled when he saw it but still shook his head. For many weeks this went on, every day the Devil would come to her door with food. Sometimes he would put the food down, read the word, dismiss it and leave all in the space of a few minutes. Other times he would stay and the two of them would spend many hours talking together. To her surprise, the woman found the Devil was not as she had expected. He spoke softly about a great range of topics. Sometimes their conversations would devolve into arguments which ended in the Devil storming out of the room, slamming the door behind him. After these days the woman would write words such as Evil, Cruel, Unkind, Harsh, all of which the Devil would dismiss as incorrect. Eventually the two would forgive each other and would laugh until they could not breath. After these days the woman would write Kind, Merciful, Handsome, Funny. But these too were wrong.

As the stack of paper grew smaller, while the paper which had been discarded grew bigger, the woman began to despair. She had tried three hundred and sixty-three words and the Devil had accepted none of them. It was as she had originally feared – that he had set her an impossible task. The next day, when the Devil arrived, he was shocked to find her crying.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Why do you cry?”

“I only have two more attempts at describing you and if I do not, I am stuck here forever. If today’s word is wrong then I am doomed for I have no more ideas.”

The Devil looked over and saw that the woman had already written her word on the paper for that day. He leant over and picked it up. When he saw what the woman had written he was both delighted and heartbroken.

“I am sorry,” he said, his voice full of sorrow. “I cannot accept this.”

“But why?” she cried. “It is true, isn’t it?”

“It is true.”

“Then you must accept it.”

“I cannot.”

“Then leave!” she shouted. “Leave me alone.”

The Devil was not angry with the way she shouted. He understood how she was feeling. Instead of throwing the paper on the ground as he usually did, he folded it carefully in half before leaving the room, taking the word with him. The woman lay on the bed, her face pressed into the pillow made wet with tears. She didn’t know why she had written that word to describe him, it clearly wasn’t true. Not if he meant to keep her there forever, for on the paper the woman had written ‘Friend’.

The next day the Devil arrived again. The woman was sitting on the bed, her back to the wall and a vacant expression in her eyes. The final page lay beside her, still blank.

“It is impossible,” she said. “I have run out of words. I could write another but it would be a useless guess.”

“You are not going to use your final page?”

“There is no point. I am stuck here forever whether I write a word or not. I cannot describe you in a single word. I cannot describe anyone in a single word. At first, I thought you the devil, evil and inhumane, cruel and pitiless. Then we began to talk and I saw you were more than that. You have been kind to me. We have laughed together and cried together. You have made me angry enough to punch the wall and I have enraged you to the point where you stormed out of the room without looking back. Yet, you would always come back and we would forgive and move on. I have sat and listened to you talk about things which hold no interest to me until I have wanted to cry, and other days I could have sat and listened to your stories for more hours than we have in a day. I see now that my initial reaction to you was correct, you can be cruel and unkind and petty but you can also be soft and caring and sweet. I cannot sum you up in one word, it would be a dis-service to the complex and ever-changing person that you are.”

“That is very kind of you,” said the Devil, for the first time in his life feeling modest and humbled. “But if you do not write a word, I have no choice but to keep you here forever. But before you cry, I suggest you think about everything you just said. Because you are right, I am capable of great evil and great good. I am the Devil but as you yourself said, I was once an angel. Please, think.”

So the woman thought. She closed her eyes and tried to remember everything that she had said. Tried to pluck a single word which might show it all. For hours they sat in silence. Occasionally the woman would pick up the pencil as if she meant to write something, only to change her mind.

Suddenly, as night was falling and the darkness was creeping in through the window, the woman opened her eyes with a flash of inspiration. What was capable of great good and great evil? With must haste, she grabbed the pencil and scribbled furiously on the last piece of paper. She stood up and looked the Devil in the eye. With steady hands, she held it out to him. He took the paper and looked down at it. He smiled and nodded.

“This is correct, you are free to go.”

Suddenly the woman found herself as light as air as she turned to dust and floated up to join the stars. She had reached her life beyond the veil. Back in Hell, the Devil smiled, happy that she had found her final peace. In his hand he clutched a piece of paper with a single word written on it. Human.

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