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After the Inferno

Translated by Helen Wang and first published in English on Words Without Borders, 2017

Read in Chinese

It wasn’t the first time that Steve and I had talked about the next life. But this time I actually bared my soul. The red and blue lights of the police car were flashing. The ambulance siren wailed. I was strapped to the stretcher, my body all mashed up. But my mind was intact, and I was fully conscious—to the extent that I was talking to Steve about the most inappropriate thing. About to face death, I could have asked my lawyer-husband to make sure the insurance company paid up, or about life insurance, or about changing my will, but there we were, talking about the next life. He’s Catholic, and Catholics don’t have a next life.

When I heard him say he hoped his soul could go to Purgatory, I found myself floating about in my Eastern myths, where the soul leaves the body, and is reincarnated as another human or animal. But before reincarnation, you must pay for your sins in this life. Naked and barefoot, you must climb mountains like blades, cross seas of burning fire, descend into pans of hot oil, and be cut in half by the mighty saw. The raging fire, the hissing oil, the knives, the saw, the torn flesh, the fresh blood! The proper name for my purgatory was “Hell.”

The curious thing was that when Steve talked about his Purgatory, his face softened and his anxiety became anticipation, as though he could hear the shepherd playing his flute in the green meadows far away. He said his Purgatory was a resting place for the soul on its way up to Heaven. Not that he’d get there, he added, he’d be going straight down to Hell.

Oh, hell . . . the juddering ambulance had snatched one of earth’s monsters—me—and was hurtling across lanes of traffic, screaming emergency. I was being shaken about like a batch of goods on a delivery truck. I couldn’t see anything of the human world outside the window, but I could feel Steve’s grip on my hand, so soft, so tender, and I could feel him fighting off grief, determined to hold on to my life.

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