From the author: Bethnael, an Angel, brings God the latest issue of The Heavenly Messenger; God particularly enjoys reading the letters to the editor.
Beth had been sitting on the marble bench for ages, her eyes fixed on Michael as he worked silently at his desk. When he finally looked up and spoke, his voice as deep and resonant as she knew it would be, she was startled.
"Bethnael, of the Twenty-first House?"
Beth sprang to her feet and came before Michael's desk, keeping her wings properly folded behind her.
Michael leaned back in his chair and chuckled. "Oh, just Michael will do," he said. "You're the new girl. The new amanuensis."
"Yes, Sera-, Michael." Beth kept her eyes lowered, clasping her hands nervously.
"Well, don't worry," Michael said, standing up. "This job is bound to be a lot less complicated than the one you had in Twenty-one. No entwined destinies here! Your job, basically, is just to be on hand to jot down any of His sudden thoughts or commands. If you're not sure how important something is, just write it down anyway. Better safe than sorry, right?" Michael smiled encouragingly.
"Oh -- this has just been flown in." He picked up a thin magazine that had been laid on his desk. "Why don't you bring it in with you? He loves it." She accepted it with a little bow, worried that her palms would stain it with pearlets of angel sweat. "Any questions?" Michael asked her.
Beth could hardly think. "No, Michael."
"Well, like I said, the work's not too tough. And this is quite a promotion for you, isn't it? You should be proud."
"Yes, Michael. Thank you."
“Not too proud, of course.”
"Well, go ahead, go on in." Michael gestured to the double arched doors behind him. "Mustn't keep Him waiting."
"Yes. Thank you." Beth forced her trembling feet towards the huge doors. They swung silently open as she approached, and before she knew it, she was in His presence.
The room was huge. One wall held a gigantic fireplace; the fire blazing within was frightening in spite of the heavy grate that screened it. The fire would have made the room intolerably hot, if it had not been one of the heatless kind that He seemed to favor in the deathless realm. Large arching windows lined another wall, letting bright sunlight into the room. There were lines of glass-fronted bookcases against a third wall, and several clerks sat at desks near them, hunched reverently over the naughty and nice lists on their computers, small porcelain and stained glass lamps lighting their work.
He Himself was sitting in a large, comfortably upholstered chair, white of course, facing the windows, sipping a cup of tea. At the sight Beth found herself rooted to the spot. He looked just as she had heard -- He wore a silver-sparked glittering gown, and His long beard flowed nearly down to the foot of his chair. He looked up and saw her.
"You the new amanuensis? Bethnael, right?"
She bowed, saying nothing, her gaze dropping to the floor.
He chuckled, a rumbling deep in His chest. "No need to be afraid, girl! Speak right up." He placed the cup on the china saucer on a delicate tray table next to the chair. "I understand you were getting bored with your old job. My son suggested you come here?"
Beth could only nod.
He chuckled again. "That boy. Always picking up strays! But come closer, come closer. Is that the new issue of Heavenly Messenger?"
Beth approached the awesome figure, and proffered the paper with trembling hands.
"Ah, thanks, thanks. I do relish this little rag." He began flipping through the pages. "Look at all these asinine articles. 'Keeping Warm in Circle Nine.' Good luck! 'Circle One Flyaway Fashions -- You'll be Blown Away!' Sure I will. 'St. George: a New Appreciation.' Boooring! Ah, here it is. The letters to the editor column." He folded the paper down and looked up, a glint in his eye. "Fun stuff in here, usually. Are you still standing? Have a seat, have a seat."
Beth started to say that there was no other chair nearby, but there was a soft tinkling noise behind her, and looking she saw a chair there; hardly more than a stool, but with a tiny writing table next to it. A quill pen, a bottle of black ink, and a sheaf of parchment lay on the table, ready for her hand. She quickly sat and took up the quill. It felt strange in her hand. She dipped it into the ink, to see how it absorbed the black liquid.
“Ha, hah! Yes, no computer here! I finally allowed themto have the damn things -" He gestured over to the angels working at their desks -- "but here is where I draw the line. Think me old-fashioned if you want, but there's something about the dancing of the feather as the quill scritch-scritches along the parchment that just seems so -- I don't know -- elegant, you know?"
Beth nodded uncertainly.
"Ah, you'll get used to it in no time. Take a few notes, you'll see how right it feels in your hand." He turned back to the paper.
What should she take note of? Her instructions had been vague. She decided it would be prudent to write down everything He said.
He grunted with satisfaction. "Yes, the letters column. You'll enjoy these. Here's the first.
I have been subscribing to "The Heavenly Messenger" for nearly three hundred years now. I am not one to be hasty, and certainly I would not presume to judge He who decides such things, but I feel that there may have been some sort of oversight, and I hope your worthy magazine can be of help. Perhaps you could assign one of your intrepid investigative reporters to my case.
You see, I have been in Purgatory Circle Seven (Pride) for the entire three centuries since my death, and there can be no doubt that I am ready to move on now. It cannot be said that I lack any knowledge of spiritual matters; even your monthly crossword puzzles, which I used to find nearly impossible to complete, I now finish easily, and I can modestly assert that not a soul has passed through this Circle without learning something from my example.
It may be that He keeps me here in order that I may provide this instruction to those souls in need -- but come now, enough is enough. It is time to move on. Do you suppose that your magazine could do a report on my grievance, and perhaps obtain for me the justice that is due?
Unfairly Treated but Ever Hopeful, J.S. Chuckwood
Purgatory Circle Seven (Pride).
"And here's what the editor says: 'Mr. Chuckwood, if I were you, I'd settle in for a long stay. God can be sopicky sometimes, you know!' Hah, hah! Hit the nail on the head there.
"What's next? Ah, one from Inferno Circle Five (Wrathful and Sullen). Those are always good. Listen."
All right, that's it. I mean, that is just it. You promise your readers Part II of the Buddy Holly excerpt from his "Songs I Would've Written" book, but I pick up the new issue and guess what, it's not there.
I thought you people up there were supposed to be above this kind of thing. I guess we all know different now. God knows it's hard enough to keep my magazines readable here with all the jerks throwing mud and slime at me, and now you don't even put in the articles that you promise. If your rag wasn't the only magazine delivered to Hell I'd cancel my subscription right now. Thanks for nothing.'
Fred Blastikoff, Inferno Circle Five (Wrathful and Sullen).
"Hmpf! And there were those who thought I'd misplaced Fred -- though they never said so to my face! Spineless pissants. Oh, here's one from Circle Nine that's bound to be a hoot." He looked up. "Beth, are you writing allof this down?"
Beth paused in her furious scribbling. "Oh, yes, my lord! As fast as I can!"
"Well, why are you bothering? It's all printed in the magazine -- if you want a copy of these letters, just clip them later! I got some scissors around here someplace."
Beth's face was red as hellfire, and she could hardly breathe.
"And relax, for My sake! Listen to this, this will give you a chuckle.
You don't understand. I was loyal.
Besides, I'm not even dead yet.
Oliver North, Inferno Circle Nine (Antenora: Treacherous to Country or Cause).
"And the editor says -- listen to this -- this is why I like that guy so much:
Oh, my God! Has there been some ghastly error? Well, if you were loyal, we'd better get you out of Nine immediately! So sorry, our mistake!
Just kidding. Alas, sometimes loyalty to King and loyalty to Country conflict! As to your second point, the souls of the treacherous go straight to Hell right after the treachery has been committed; your body on Earth is presently inhabited by a devil. (No need to worry -- no one's noticed a change yet!) Think of all those boobs paying to schmooze with people like you and Henry Kissinger, without a clue! But you really should have been informed about this aspect of divine justice, though, and we doapologize that thatmix-up.
"Damn straight!" He said. "Suck on thategg, Ollie!" Without a pause, He read the next letter.
I've been a loyal subscriber to your magazine for simply the longest time. I just never miss an issue, and I'm hardly ever disappointed. I'm glad to see you're getting more full color pics, too! Let me just say that your magazine really passes the time. And I should know, I've been in Purgatory for twelve hundred years -- nine hundred in this Circle alone! But I don't mind, as long as you keep up the good work.
Just one thing, though. Could you print another big, full-color picture of the Virgin Mary? With those beautiful soft, white wings folded protectively around her ivory shoulders, and with just a hint of a demure, alluring smile, and maybe leaning sleepily against the Tree of Life? I'd appreciate it. Or get Joan of Arc, if Mary's busy. Thanks.
Harry Langid, Purgatory Circle One (Lust).
He laughed, the paper falling into his lap as He leaned back. Then He regained control of Himself, and wiped at His eyes. "Oh, ho! You know, I know I should be offended at such talk, but actually it just tickles me. Make a note of this, though, Beth -- have the editor send Harry a personal reply, promising such a photo, and then let there be a subscription department mix-up so he misses that issue. Got that?"
"Yes, my Lord."
"Good. A chance for him to move on past his obsession, hey?"
"I would suppose so, my Lord."
"You sound a little down. You can't take this stuff so seriously, you know; you'll go eccentric. Here, you read the next one." He thrust the paper at her.
Beth took the paper from His hand, and scanned down to the next letter. Her eyes widened.
"But, my Lord, the next letter -- it's from --"
"Yeah, I know. He's a perennial letter-writer, that guy. Thinks he's with Amnesty International or something. Just read it. You'll find it amusing."
Yes, my Lord."
Beth read it, in a voice that quavered at embarrassing times.
As the recognized leader of the Opposition Party, I feel that it is once again time to call for a free and open election to determine just who is to be the head of state. For too long the present Incumbent has been governing unopposed, and we feel that this inevitably leads to a degeneration of the affairs of state. An open election, in which the citizens of Inferno, Purgatory, and Heaven can vote for whomsoever they wish to administer justice in the universe, would give the present administration an impetus to respond more directly to the urgent needs and desires of those governed.
If there is divine justice, the administration will declare such an election before this, the present fiscal year, has run its ordained course. A denial of a free election could only serve to inform those governed that the present administration does not truly have their interests at heart. We await a response.
Satan, Inferno Center.
"Ah, true to form! And what does the editor say in response?"
Beth gently cleared her throat.
"'Oh, really, Lucifer, must we go through this every year? You know what the answer will be.'"
"And so he should, so he should!"
"But--" Beth spoke before she thought.
"Yes, dear? Something? Go on, spit it out. I don't bite!"
"Well, it just seems to me -- and I know that I am no authority in these matters... it just seems that it might be best to address these concerns. To demonstrate to the readers of the magazine that--"
"They need no proof -- and if they do, it just shows that they're in the right place, eh?"
Beth dropped her gaze. "Yes, Lord."
He leaned back in his chair. "Ah, you know, sometimes I'm just tempted to chuck the whole thing -- do any job for a few thousand years, and see if every little thing doesn't start to annoy the hell out of you! Chuck it, let him take on the job for a while -- he'd soon see that it's not as much fun as it looks. I could take it easy. Clear the people out of Hawaii and just relax in the sun.
"But, no. Not in the job description." He perked Himself up and looked at Beth with a twinkle. "Tempting, though, huh? Even if I can't quit this damn job, maybe just the two of us could take a vacation, a break, hmmm?"
Bethnael couldn't speak for a moment. "I think the Universe requires our constant care," she finally said. She tried to sound reasonable but it came out as rather priggish.
"A fiesty young thing, huh?" He chuckled. "I appreciate that -- I have so many damn toadies!" He leered at Beth good-naturedly for a long moment. "Just as well, anyway. That son of mine isn't nearly ready to take over things." He directed His attention back to the paper, and read aloud without preamble.
Minos, the Judge of the Dead here in Inferno, has asked me to consult your readership concerning modifications to be made down here in Inferno Circle Three (Violent Against Nature). In particular, it seems that we are expecting the arrival of certain individuals currently active in government, and who have been busily attempting to scrap pollution laws and to convert pristine areas into oilfields. We wish to welcome these people in a fitting manner. However, we have had some trouble devising suitable accommodations. Your readers were a great help when we had to deal with James Watt, so we would appreciate any ideas they might want to send us. Thank you.
Assistant to Minos
Inferno Administration Center.
"Hah! I'll be looking for the responses -- I get some of my best ideas that way.
"But see here, a letter from Heaven. They're usually pretty quiet, if not downright boring. But the editor's a friend of mine, and he cuts out the really insipid ones.
I know to Whom I should direct my inquiry, but in fact I am a bit embarrassed. My question: I am a blessed soul presently located in the highest of the Heavenly Spheres, and I just want to know -- is this really all there is? Is this what I've been working for, abstaining for, praying for all this time? Is this all there is -- these clouds and wings? A few hosannas?
The Blessed Saint Bill
Heaven, Empyrean Sphere.
"Here's your quick answer, Saint Bill: Yep. Uh huh."
Beth wrote His brief comment, her brow furrowed.
She looked up at Him guiltily. "Oh, no, my Lord!"
"There are worse ways to spend eternity, you know!" His brow furrowed, and He leaned forward in His chair, the magazine on His lap.
"Yes, my Lord. Of course, my Lord." Did He not even care? Beth must be misunderstanding His banter.
He sat up again, and again took up the magazine. He glanced at it, then gave Beth a piercing look over the top of the page. "Maybe you enjoy this next one; another complaint, but at least these guys have a point to make. I think you'll appreciate it, if I'm any judge. Here it is.
Too long have we endured the unfair judgments of the so-called deity. Too long have others stood by, apathetically ignoring those crying out for justice from this Supreme Being. We now take a stand, and we ask our soul brothers and sisters to stand with us in our call for justice.
We are the Unbaptized Children and Virtuous Pagans Coalition. We demand recognition and restitution. We have been barred from the delights of Heaven through no fault of our own. To group the members of the UCVPC with the rest of those in Inferno is unthinkable, yet this is what is being done under the guise of divine justice.
On behalf of any person denied justice, on behalf of all people tyrannized and abused for no sane reason, we demand recognition of the exclusion being perpetrated by the ruling class.
All we ask for is fairness. All we wish is for justice to prevail. Hear us!
The Unbaptized Children and Virtuous Pagans Coalition
Inferno, Circle One (Limbo).
"Whine, whine!" He chuckled. "Little pissers!"
Beth clutched the quill so tightly her hand shook. She bit her lip and looked down, though she couldn't see the parchment in front of her.
"Lord?" The word emerged from her tightened throat.
"You are upset about... something?" Beth could hear Him put the paper down, apparently giving her His full attention, which couldn't be a good thing right now. She forced herself to look up.
Blinking away the tears, she saw that He was looking at her with a vast kindness in His gray eyes, a small understanding smile on His lips. "Tell me, Beth," he said softly.
"It's just that -- well, many of us have long felt…"
"Well, Lord, that there is some justice that may be due... I mean, that the VP's have a point. It's not their fault --" Beth suddenly caught herself. "But of course we would not dream of questioning Your judgment. You see things we cannot..." Beth trailed off, trying to guess what lay behind His eyes.
"Oh, Beth," He said, "Do you think me a monster? I have reasons you have no inkling of, and plans beyond your vision, and love immeasurable."
Beth released her pent-up breath.
"Still, I cannot sanction subversive thoughts."
He looked towards the door. Gabriel was just entering.
"Gabe, I have a reassignment in mind. Traitor to King or Country -- Level Nine, I believe." He gave Beth one last smile, with a twinkle in His eye. "And I do hope you write some interesting letters while down there."
And she did.
This story originally appeared in Plasma Frequencies.