Torino, Italy has its own entrance to hell in the middle of a broad square in Piazza Statuto.
There are other passages to the underworld. There’s a triangle formed by Turin, San Francisco and London, and each is purported to be an access point to the underworld.
As a child, I too found the entrance to hell to be a real place, under some bushes across the street from my house. It wasn’t hidden. It wasn’t a place we feared. It wasn’t guarded by evil fallen angels or scary gargoyles.
It was where we went to meet with Gerrymønd, a toad-like being who smoked a hookah and hoarded crystal decanters of milky liquor. We’d visit after school, and the dimly-lit, smoky antechamber was always hot from a crackling fire. Kids told us we’d be sorry if we spent too much time with Gerrymønd, as he would steal our souls slowly away from us. The priest in our neighborhood told his congregation that depraved beings like Gerrymønd could never be trusted, that he’d burn in hell and take unsuspecting souls with him. We didn’t listen.
The antechamber was small—we could only get in by crouching—so there were no more than two or three of us in there with him at a time. He never came out; no one brought him anything. It seemed everything he needed was there in the bushes or deep underground.
The sound of his voice reminded me of rasping wood, gravelly and hoarse from tea and the hookah. It was hot all the time, so the place smelled like burnt wood and overripe flesh. Shimmers of heat rose from the secret chamber beyond. We never went back there.
His eyes were pale gray with small pupils. I read somewhere a fly has between three and six thousand eyes. Though Gerrymønd had but two human-like eyes, he could look at us as if a big fly were sizing us up for a place to lay eggs; if we weren’t paying attention, he’d slip maggots into our wounds. I dreamt Gerrymønd had a long, curled tongue like that of a fruit fly, a tongue he’d uncurl and slip into my ear, licking brains from my skull if I fell asleep.
Gerrymønd’s favorite of the elixirs he imbibed was a smoky tea. He sipped it for hours while drawing on the hookah. One day, he offered us a cup of tea. No one accepted but me. I took one sip and immediately saw mild hallucinations. The dark antechamber became a large mouth with pursed lips and teeth. Though it held me in, the vision didn’t frighten me. A few days later, I awoke with a sore ear and had trouble remembering things, but otherwise everything was fine.
I was in my own bed. The blinds were drawn. The lava lamp on my desk fluctuated with shadows. I remember thinking I might have been sick. I lay there for a long time. My bedside alarm clock had vanished. My Legos, Pinocchio movie poster and baseball glove were all present, but not the clock. I couldn’t know what time it was. I don’t remember being hungry, though I should’ve been. The notion of eating seemed foreign. My room was warm and safe. I didn’t want to leave.
I may never have left my bed if not for the faint buzz deep within my ear. I thought I might stop it with a Q-tip. The package says never to insert a Q-tip into the ear, but how else to get at a bug or whatever might be in there? The bathroom was down the hall past my sister’s room.
I rose from bed fully dressed and went to the door. I heard singing from outside. My mom sang when she cleaned the house, but this didn’t sound like her. It sounded deeper.
I opened my door and was stricken with dread. I was in the antechamber, alone with Gerrymønd. He scuttled around, mixing a batch of tea. I craved the tea like nothing before. Every bone in my body, every blood vessel and strand of muscle stretched for it. I sat on the mound of red clay that served as Gerrymønd’s table.
“What were you singing?” I asked. “A lullaby?”
He wouldn’t meet my eyes but poured boiling tea in the cup I held out to him. It splashed onto my hands. I watched weltering blisters erupt, but strangely, I craved more of the sensation.
“The culling song,” he croaked finally and settled into a chair. “The song of the dead.”
He pointed toward the wall. An ornately carved bookshelf appeared, overflowing with aged scrolls and thick, leather-bound tomes. Some names I’d heard before: Dante, Milton, Swift. “Care to read a book?” Gerrymønd asked. “You’ll find them instructive.”
“I’m okay. Maybe later.” My voice felt wrong in my mouth, as if my tongue were too big.
I drank the tea.
For months my life was a constant cycle of sleeping in my childhood bedroom, then tea, blistered skin and silence. I think it lasted months. It’s hard to tell when living in the belly of the earth. I may have been there seconds or centuries. It didn’t matter. I had no urge to leave.
Aside from sleeping and scratching my festering sores, I read some of Gerrymønd’s books. When Dante didn’t come across as laughably naïve, his notions of Limbo held hints of truth.
Gerrymønd came and went. I never saw him leave, nor how he managed to do so. I should’ve been more concerned with finding out.
By that time, my childhood bedroom lost a great many things. All that remained was the bed. The buzzing increased. At first it had only been in my ear, but now my whole body sizzled. I could see better, too. Perhaps “better” wasn’t the right word. I saw more.
The last time I saw Gerrymønd, I entered his antechamber and drank the tea he prepared for me. Before I retired, he waddled closer than ever before and wrapped thick arms around me. It was a hug, not of warmth and love but transference and sorrow. If I knew that was the last time I’d see him, perhaps I would’ve asked questions. I might’ve hugged him in return. Perhaps it’s better I did not.
The next morning the door to my room melted into the antechamber’s red clay. I was alone. The buzzing was now a part of who I was. It sent whispers along my spine, straight to my brain. It taught me things, dangerous things, but there was also a thirst that shriveled my skin from the inside.
I felt an overwhelming urge to make the barky, sedimentary tea. Gerrymønd hadn’t shown me how, but I knew all the same. As the dark liquid steeped I heard voices. A trio of children entered my antechamber and sat with me.
They come often now, regarding me as an amusing object. I know because I did the same when first I visited old Gerrymønd. One day I told them, “Your priest’s notions of hell are somewhat true, when they’re not too…simple.” They laughed. I offered them a cup of tea, but they wouldn’t take it. I knew they wouldn’t—not yet. The buzzing tells me to be patient.
It is said there are three portals to the underworld but children, listen to me—there are so many they cannot be counted. There is one in the state capital, in that park where you walk your dog, in your father’s heart, under your bed, and there is one with us now. We stand at the entrance and though I won’t push you forward, I won’t tell you to stay away. As I wait for you to decide…
Would you care for a cup of tea?