Marie looked out into the vast space of the underworld. It didn’t matter where she turned, all she could feel was radiant pain. “Non, I know I’m not dreaming.”
Coronado stood by her side and looked out with her. “Trust me. Where you stand now is less painful than what those poor souls are suffering through.”
“How do you know?”
Coronado turned back to his post. He looked at it and sighed, resigning to his fate. “I tried to leave once.”
Marie could see each step he took back to his indented station was like reliving the memory of every time he took the same short journey. “You can leave from here?” As the large boulder crested the hill, Marie braced herself again for impact.
“If there was a way, do you think I would be standing here?”
As if to answer his question, the boulder smashed into their skin. Marie pushed hard with every breath. While she felt her arms getting stronger, she was still much too weak to push this rock on her own. Coronado grunted and grimaced against the hard stone. They made their way up the tiny hill and hurled the boulder back down.
“What is it like out there?”
“If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it. Every horrible thing you can think of is happening right now to another soul. Boiling rivers, bleeding limbs, diseased bodies are just the beginning. I didn’t get farther than the seventh ring before…”
“How many rings are there?”
“I honestly don’t know. I have heard there are nine before you meet the Devil himself.”
Marie stared out in astonishment. Le diable. There mere thought of the Devil in the same land as she sent shivers down her spine.
* * * * *
Marie remembered when she was five years old walking into the Church of the Augustine Friars near her childhood home in Vienna. Standing barely off the ground, the expansive space swallowed her up. She thought at any moment, one of the large pillars would come crashing down, so when she was led to the front for communion, she would clasp her hands together and keep her eyes tightly shut as she recited the holy prayer.
Je vous salue, Marie, pleine de grâces, le Seigneur est avec vous; vous ętes bénie entre toutes les femmes, et Jésus le fruit de vos entrailles, est béni. Sainte Marie, Mčre de Dieu, priez pour nous pécheurs, maintenant, et ŕ l’heure de notre mort. Amen.
When she said the last word of her prayer, she would open one eye at a time to see if the over-powering pillars still stood overhead, and when she knew she was safe, she would smile politely up at the priest before her governess took her to her home.
But at home, her governess, powered by her mother’s tyrannical taste for terror and decorum, would scare any smiles from the child with tales of le diable and the terrible things found in the underworld. Marie would keep her eyes tight, just like she had in her prayer until the shouting was done and she could play.
From then on, Marie knew le diable was not to be toyed with. She had to take her faith in the Lord above very seriously.
But now, standing in the midst of the fiery underworld, Marie, murdered by her own countrymen, wondered who was the Devil and who should she have been afraid of.
* * * * *
The boulders that came repeatedly were testing her reserve mentally and physically, but with each pass, the chore became a part of her life–or afterlife. It was no longer a shock that a giant boulder was rolling relentlessly toward her; it was routine. And her complacency caused her to lose track of the days or months that passed.
“Coronado, what was that creature that brought me down here?”
He struggled to catch his breath after hurling the boulder over the hill again. It was no secret he bore the majority of the weight for the both of them. “Who do you mean?”
“There was a creature that told me to pick a side. He had no face to speak of and was terrifying to look at.”
“He is the judge of the underworld. Do not speak of him for he comes when summoned.”
Marie looked quickly over her shoulder into the darkness. She did not want to see that demon’s face again. She leaned closer to Coronado and whispered, “So, he was not the Devil?”
“The Devil is a creature much more fearsome than that, I can assure you.”
The voices from the other side of the hill grew louder. “Why do you squander!?” The shrillness of their voices was painful in Marie’s ears and was a constant reminder of why she was down here.
Before she could give it another thought, the rock barreled into her. It took her aback momentarily as the full weight of the rock landed on her skin. Her eyes were usually shut to summon her strength, but the sheer force in which the rock fell gave her cause to open her eyes. Coronado stood off to the side still taking in sharp breaths.
“Coronado, I need your help. I cannot do this alone.”
“I need just a moment.”
Marie struggled with the rock. She felt herself moving backward under the pressure.
“Coronado! Please!” Her cries fell on deaf ears as she watched him fall to his knees. Blood dripped from his hands and his body went limp.
She took another step back. Please, someone help.
Another step backward had her edging the cliffside. A quick look over her shoulder showed the muck that swam below her. Arms were outstretched and reaching for her. Even in the great distance, she knew they wanted her to fall. The weight of the rock had her considering letting go.
It would be so easy to just ease the pressure off her swollen legs and fall to the ground. She could see it in her mind’s eye how the rock would slide, pushing her body down, possibly rolling over her fragile skin, taking her and the edge of the cliff with it to the lake below.
Just as Marie let the slightest muscle go in her calf, the slightest bit of pressure eased. It woke her up and forced her to concentrate on pushing rather than letting go.
“Come on. Don’t let go. Push!”
She must have been imagining the kindly voice to her side. No one was kind down here. But it was just what she needed to hear to motivate the motion forward. Each step was a trial, but she made it back to her initial station and then up the hill. She let go of the rock with a triumphant sigh of relief.
Marie nearly fell to the ground, but strong arms behind her caught her fall. The touch startled her as she abruptly turned to face whoever helped her. Much to her surprise, it was not Coronado. She looked back to where he was, and he laid on the ground with his eyes closed. Without saying a word to this savior, she ran to Coronado’s side.
“Can you hear me? Are you all right?” She cradled his head in her lap as he slowly opened his eyes.
“Marie, I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right, just quickly, stand up. The boulder is coming back.”
“I can’t. Let me rest.”
“It’s all right,” the stranger said as he placed his hand on her arm. “I can help until he’s able to stand.”
Marie looked down at Coronado’s exhausted body. “Okay. But we must hurry.”
She led the stranger back to their spot and waited for the boulder to crest over the hill. It gave them no rest as it came into full view. “Who are you? Is this where you belong?”
“No, I am a visitor.”
The rumbling of the boulder almost washed out his words, but what she heard caught her by surprise. “A visitor? That is impossible unless you are dead.”
“No, madam, that is not true. I have come with a guide. My name is Dante. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Marie Antoinette.”
Marie looked straight at Dante. “How do you know my name?”
To be continued…
To read earlier installments of Marie, click here.
Copyright (c) Alison C. Wroblewski, 2015. All rights reserved.