Because it came up on us so slowly no one noticed we was living in Hell and had been for some five or six years at least. I realized it myself the winter when I was working up at a lumber camp up on Lake Deception, which is terrible name for a body of water because it makes a fellow feel all manner of skin-crawling premonitions whenever anyone mentions it, but it did just about set the mood. A two headed goat would have been a dead giveaway that something was wrong in the world, but there were no two headed goats about in those desolate woods, just a strange spidery lichen hanging from the trees, and a rattling in the stove, and your soul feeling like it was frozen solid between your ribs, and a queer feeling in your belly when you looked at young Joe McDougall and saw how clear his white skin was, and how rosy his cheeks when he tried to blow the cold out of his hands, and how a strange light shone in his icy blue eyes when he looked at you by accident on purpose across the long tables in the grub hall and the time slid slowly to a stop. It was the strange spidery lichen though, more than anything else, that got me thinking about it, about Hell. Those other things were, after all, not dissimilar to previous experiences I had had, experiences and feelings which weren’t that rare or odd if you considered the matter carefully. But that lichen made the woods seem like some sort of an eerie undead forest on the surface of the moon or some such place. So it was the lichen that got me thinking about it being Hell. That got me thinking we were already there and probably had been for quite some time.
I brought it up with the fellows, this idea that we was living in Hell, and the first time I mentioned it most of them told me right away I was nuts but a couple nodded, and a couple of others squinted awkwardly and looked the other way or at their feet, and by the second and the third and the fourth time I mentioned this idea I was having, by then things had changed and the soil of their minds was more receptive to such notions, and by February almost everyone at Lake Deception was in agreement that we was damned and in Hell. Everyone that is, except the foremen and the manager and that old Methodist Indian and his boy who the owner had said could come and try and save us from ourselves if they felt like they had the energy for such a major undertaking. So everyone agreed who mattered, and we didn’t keep it secret, oh no, we kept threatening those condescending motherfuckers who lorded it over us all, who talked down to us, who stole our labor and our time. We warned them neither God nor man could touch us anymore, and if the food didn’t get better and the liquor cheaper we was going to string them all up by the balls from the big naked oak tree on the frozen landing. They laughed at us. They thought it was all bluster and gas and we just needed to blow off a little anger as steam and they kept acting like pricks. They learned otherwise soon enough.
When the whiskey finally ran out we had them on their asses in the snow with their pants around their ankles and Fat Bill tying that rope around their nuts. Christ, they started to sing a godawful chorus then. The Methodist Indian and his boy took off across the frozen lake right quick when the trouble started and a few of the fellows took off after them because we didn’t want a visit anytime soon from the RCMP. Even in Hell, after all, a Winchester could put a hole in you from pretty far off. It was a brief chase because the boy had a gimpy leg, and according to Valentino Kravchuk, who wasn’t much inclined to bullshit, they caught them about halfway to the far shore on a patch of black ice the snow had blown clear. The Indian preacher turned to face them, pushing the boy behind him, and he pulled out a Bible and waved it at them. They stopped short, the fellows, pretty impressed, but then the man began to sing some old time hymn about Jesus groaning on the tree and everyone started to laugh like he had made an excellent joke. It would have been short work but right in that moment when they was loosening their shoulders and shifting their axes and smiling pretty broadly at what was about to happen that black ice exploded like someone was dynamiting the fish.
Kravchuk claimed it was a giant horned panther that leapt out of the icy water and took the preacher and the boy both back down under with it, which I wouldn’t have believed a few months earlier, and even then seemed a little odd, but which in retrospect doesn’t even cause me a hiccup of doubt because that was nothing compared to the kind of shit that started happening later. A couple of guys fell into the water with the old man and the kid and the panther and there was a screaming and a boiling and a bubbling of blood and hair and limbs and everyone still standing turned tail and ran back to camp to join the celebrations that had already begun.
We stayed at Deception for a few days but we were pretty sick of bacon and hard biscuits and split pea soup by then and there was no liquor and we was running short of sugar and some other things were happening that were making us feel like we weren’t much welcome in that waste region regardless of our dwindling supplies. It was the flying skeletons that was the worst. They appeared that first night circling the oak tree on the landing from which we had hung those bastard foremen, and sucking the fat out from under their skin as they died. They would follow us about whenever we left the camp, these flying corpses like starved men, floating through the trees and grinning at us horribly. It was a terrible thing to have to shit in the snow under all those lichen-dripping trees, an arctic wind gnawing on your ass, and a skeleton or two hovering above your head, grinning and staring, grinning and staring. So we decided to leave and I killed young Joe before we did, an act which I didn’t feel real good about, but which had to be done because he was such a horrible distraction for me in the course of my days.
It took us a week or so to hike south across the border and find a town, and when we did find one, we found that Hell had got there first. Half eaten bodies frozen in the ditches, arms and legs twisted up like the branches of rotting trees in a bog; fat, greedy dogs roaming the streets in packs looking for fresh meat; all the children long consumed by the pigs – such strange pigs, weeping pigs which could talk in high pitched human voices, which sang together like a schoolboy choir, which when they were boiled in their own blood was as delicious and tender as milk fed veal. Aside from such weird and feral beasts there was just a half dozen sonsofbitches left in that town who could handle a gun and a knife. They had murdered their competition and taken the women they didn’t slaughter as wives, but they wasn’t too stubborn about letting us settle in for a spell. It only took a disemboweling or two to rearrange the hierarchies. We kept their leader as a sort of a king because he made us laugh, some asshole soldier who had deserted the year before and called himself the Captain but had never until then been anything other than a cook’s assistant or a latrine digging navvy. Every night we would stand him up drunk on a table in the tavern and he would make long rambling speeches about how the blood of the gods rained down on us from heaven like freedom, and then we would howl and drink and fight and fuck, and it was glorious until the spring and we ran out of food and the ice was so slow to break up and we began to go mad from the singing of the pigs and the boredom and our teeth falling out from the scurvy.
We left as soon as we could, marching through the muck of the road that ran down the west shore of Superior. Camp followers trailed after us like a ragged tail – the women and the weeping pigs singing sad tremulous church songs and the packs of hungry dead eye dogs and the scuttling river of six-legged rats in the underbrush and the clouds of crows with their long tongues and human hands for feet. The wild life cleared out when it heard us coming, let me tell you, not a squirrel left in the trees to be shot, not a rabbit on the ground, but we kept marching marching marching south until we got to Duluth and in Duluth there was a whole army of the damned waiting for us, waiting for someone to make a suggestion, waiting for something to do, and in Duluth too, the Captain found his queen.
Her name was Clarissa and she was the daughter of some godawful provincial bourgeois, some banker or merchant, some lord of timber and iron, a master of the saltless seas who, on the morning Clarissa reached the same inevitable conclusion we all had, shat his sheets while she stabbed him to death.
The Captain loved her, he sure did, he kissed her feet, he let her walk on his back and grind his fingers under her boots, and the two together led us even further south and then east and we set fire to everything we passed through, the towns and the farms and the trees, and the army grew bigger and bigger as we marched, and hungrier and hungrier, and our songs were about the murder and the mayhem and the love feasts we would have in Chicago and Detroit and New York City, and every man of our party had a couple of guns and a huge knife or an ax and an angry dick he was planning on sticking into every living thing he could find and bend to his will. It was all battering babies against the wall and dancing in the guts of the dead and burning the Christians in their churches until we got to Black River Falls and the Indians living there shot us up pretty good. We went to ground in a burned down college town to lick our wounds and it was then the Captain and his Queen had a falling out.
He had begun to go soft, begun to have doubts, the Captain, and to dabble in sentimentality. He had begun to make grander claims on Clarissa than she cared to have made on her, he’d begun to wonder if maybe she could be saved from the fires that burned for eternity, even if he couldn’t save himself he had begun to speculate that maybe something could be done to save her, begun to remember the old formulae, the old calculations of tent revivals and wandering evangelicals. He became delusional and daffodils began to appear in his nightly speeches and springtime and hope and although I must admit sometimes when I was retching hungover and ill with despair I too thought about Jesus’ hot blood and cool baptismal rivers and the preacher’s strong arm around my shoulder and his deep voice filling the clean air with cries of rumbling joy I was not such a fool as to mistake nostalgia for possibility so I was more than happy to throw in with that mad bloodthirsty bitch once she’d had enough of his whinging and his whining about her soul in eternity and his I love you I love you I love you. I cheered when she cut off his head and painted herself with his blood, I cheered when she strapped on the conjugal dildo, huge and curved it was, like an arm reaching through the bars of a county jail, I cheered when she climbed the mound of pig shit and garbage and wasted human life that was the center of our camp and screamed to us about how we were gonna fuck those motherfuckers out east all raw and bloody, I cheered when she threw the Captain’s head to the hymn singing pigs with their angel eyes, I cheered when she screamed “this world is hell, boys, and we’re here to stay!,” I cheered because to me her screaming was the sound of trumpets blowing and saintly congregations singing, her screaming maw was the world opening up like an oyster, the world that was all sweet briny meat, all slippery and slick, oysters on a plate and sawdust drunk, I cheered when she screamed because it was joy to be alive, it was joy to be free, it was joy to be slaughtering all the slaves of heaven. It was joy.
William Squirrell’s work has appeared in Interzone, Monkeybicycle, Sundog Lit, decomP, Blue Monday Review and other venues. He is a Canadian who lives and works in western Pennsylvania. More information can be found at www.blindsquirrell.com and on twitter @billsquirrell.