Now, the Devil had said not to make this a game; but no sooner said than it slipped away. And Vincent’s sipping at his drink, and thinking, I do not want to go to Hell.
And maybe there’s a lesson there, but the lesson’s hard to find.
“You’re meaning things you’re not doing,” Vincent just said. He’s just called out the Devil on how he’s different from most gods.
“Ha!” says the Devil. “That’s a point for you, then, Vincent. And three points will be the game.”
The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
Vincent squints at him.
“Is this a game I can choose not to play?” he says.
“When you’re winning?” the Devil asks.
“I’m not a child,” Vincent says, inaccurately. By this he means that he can see through the Devil’s words to a grim world where there is only losing and continuance—a world of which he would rather have no part.
“Well,” the Devil says, “you can choose not to play, but you’ll probably end up with suffering intrinsic to the condition of your life, followed, after some years, by death.”
Vincent squints again.
“Fine, fine,” the Devil laughs. “Listen, Vincent, I’m here for one reason only, and you’re here for one reason only, and that’s for me to buy your soul; to make you an offer for it, anyway. So tell me. What’s it gonna take? What do you need from me if you’re going to give up Central and its ways and come and work for me instead, in this life and the after?”
“That’s stupid,” Vincent says. “I mean, you’re the Devil, right?”
“Reassurance that it’s the moral path, then?” the Devil says. “Reassurance that it’s doing the world a kindness to side with me instead of the other?”
Vincent hesitates. It’s a lot to ask of a kid.
“Tell you what,” Vincent says. “You gotta make me smart enough to bargain this out with you, free of charge. Smart enough to see through your tricks, smart enough to figure out what you’re really saying, and if it’s just a trick anything I give up to you is out.”
“Oh,” says the Devil. “That’s another point for you, but I can’t do it.”
“There’s no way I can make you that smart,” the Devil says. “Look at it the other way around: if I’m not tricking you, then I’m practically breaking the rules right there; and if you want me to trick you, but make you so smart that you’re not fooled, and get what you want from it anyway— well. So let me tell you what I can do. I can give you three questions, free, Vincent. Three things you can ask me, to decide what you’d like to do. And I’ll tell you right now that I’ve got a trick worthy of the Enemy himself, which is to say, I can’t promise you that walking away and turning me down is the right and moral thing to do, much less the way to save your soul.”
“Oh dear,” says the Devil. “That’s point three. I’m afraid, Vincent, that there ain’t no way to save your soul; and as for walking away and turning me down, well, that’ll make you a slimy worm in the end, worth less than a gobbet of my spit.”
Vincent stands up.
“Oh?” the Devil asks.
“Tell me,” Vincent says, “what’d my Dad say for me to do, if he could tell me?”
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die
The Devil shifts from his seat and rises. It’s smooth and natural and Vincent doesn’t even think that it might be a danger until the Devil’s already gone away to tend the fire.
“I figure he’d tell you to ask me a question I can’t answer,” the Devil says. “Don’t know if he’d have a guess what that could be.”
“Seriously?” Vincent asks. The Devil raises an eyebrow at him. “That’s not a question,” Vincent says. “That’s a . . . an interjection.”
“Seriously,” the Devil says. “It’s because—he’d probably say—in all the stories of the Devil, people don’t win by walking away. They win by beating me. Of course, that’s mostly seeing as the stories where I win are the stories they don’t tell— but still. He’d want you to win, and put me in some sort of chains, because that’s what the stories suggest to him and because that’s basically what Central’s fundamental philosophy and methodology is, in re: fiends. Do you want me to suggest a question, Vincent?”
“I should just leave,” Vincent says.
“Really,” the Devil says. “Just throw out all those centuries of tradition, all those stories, Central’s own bleeding methodology, just because I hinted at it in answer to a question that you asked me your own self? You’re a wicked child, Vincent, a wicked child and an unruly one.”
“It’s just,” Vincent says, “that I don’t want to go to Hell. You see. Sir.”
“Ah,” the Devil says.
“It’s all the endless suffering,” Vincent says.
“Yes,” the Devil says. “It would be.”
“I’m glad that you understand.”
“Do you want me to tell you what you’ve won, Vincent?”
Vincent looks down.
“Hey,” he says. “Hey, if I leave now— if I leave, will I grow up to be . . . like my Dad, you know, with magic and gods like Iphigenia and maybe even one day a dharma of my own?”
There’s a girl in the sun
And there’s girls in the sea
And in Elm Hill’s cages
There’s a girl like me.
“Yeah,” says the Devil. “You leave now, and you get everything you’ve ever wanted. Though not, I should say, very much of it; just, you know, some. A little here, a little there, a bit of every dream of brightness, and then you’ll die, if you’re lucky, or you’ll drown forever, if you’re not.”
“Thanks,” Vincent says.
“I’ve got great things to offer you,” the Devil says. “Seriously. Magic carpets. Fire in a bottle. Wealth and treasure. I could probably even swing a bit of dharma, though, to be honest, it’s not like you don’t have one so much as that it isn’t what you’d like.”
“I’m happy,” says Vincent.
The Devil looks away.
“Isn’t that OK?” Vincent says. “To just go back to the simple life, and have a family, and games, and books, and fun, and a purpose, and one day do some good in the world with what I know?”
“I can’t answer that,” the Devil says. “I’ve given you four answers, ‘interjection’ or no, and a prize. You can’t expect me to be your friend.”
Vincent nods. He walks to the door. He turns around. He’s thinking hard.
“Hey,” he says. “Hey.”
“Why do we have to suffer?” Vincent asks. “Why do people have to suffer, and hurt, and die?”
The Devil looks at him blankly. For a moment Vincent thinks he’s got him; that at only 13 years old, Vincent’s stumped the Devil, conquered him, beaten him, bound him over to Ii Ma to be immured forever, and that everybody’s going to cheer him on when he gets back.
It’s a passing fantasy.
“Why?” the Devil asks. “You ask me why, Vincent?”
And with great calm but fury underneath it, the Devil answers, “Because, Vincent, this is Hell.”
[The Frog and the Thorn — CHAPTER TWO]
September 18, 1987
Vincent wakes up. He clutches at his chest. He’s screaming.
Then he calms.
It’s OK. The sun is bright. His world is good. He is safe at home in Central.