This is the first installment of Captain John Smith’s story in Dante’s Hell.
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Over time, the screams had become white noise. Nothing but a blur of rising and falling harmony notes floated through John’s head. He remembered that it took him a good while to finally tune out the demonic and desperate cries, but he figured out a trick. As long as he stared at a single fixture before him and never broke his concentration, he could make himself go numb. Even the feeling of his skin melting off the bottoms of his feet could not register. He was a man focused on not feeling pain, and this was his biggest accomplishment.
Today’s point of interest was John’s left big toe. Seated on the banks of the boiling pitch, his feet submerged in thick, red blood boiling and popping droplets on the sand beside him like small gunpowder bursts, he honed in on his left big toe. The flesh from the tip had just started to blister again. With every new day, his skin would reform and heal making the morning all the harder to get re-burned, but that’s how he learned to focus and not let his concentration break until it was time to sleep.
The first bubble formed on his toe quickly and after just another moment, it popped, oozing clear liquid into the bubbling lake, but soon, the clear liquid would turn to a thick pus mixing with the red syrup making John sick to his stomach.
He averted his eyes to the pink swirls forming around the balls of his feet, and for just that split second of broken concentration, the full feeling of every raw nerve-ending in both of his feet came screaming at him. He looked down at the skin sloughing off into the lake and the open sores oozing mucus.
John slammed his fists into the coarse sand by his sides and screamed as loud as he could, blending his rough voice with the millions of other souls also crying out in extreme pain. “Mother of God, please, make it stop! Make the pain stop!”
Tears formed in his eyes and his hands became dotted with red from the grains of sand burying themselves in his flesh. Hardening his body, he clenched his teeth so hard he thought he may break them and focused his gaze on his left big toe. By this point, he could see the very tip of the bone protruding from the muscle. He remembered the first time that had happened and how much it terrified him to see his own inner anatomy. That was centuries ago now, but over time, the pain never lessened.
A single tear fell down his face as he stared at his toe. The flesh continued to melt in the lava-like lake, but he did everything he could to not look at the rest of his foot. If he averted his gaze, the awakening of pain would open again, and his voice could not handle another inhuman scream before he severed his vocal cords.
Shaking now with determination, he stared at his toe. By the time the flesh had melted to the first knuckle, he had finally quieted his mind and managed to focus solely on the image before him. He had, once again, quieted his mind and the surrounding world turned into white noise.
Moments later, the flesh fell completely from his big toe and all that remained was the skeletal bone underneath, smoldering under the intense heat.
* * * * *
John woke the next morning to the first scream. It was the same pitch and voice he had heard for years, but he had yet to identify the soul. Some mornings, he imagined who it could be in so much pain to wake the underworld with his cries. John knew there were others who suffered more than he, but he had never seen them. John was alone on his patch of sand and boiling blood. Unable to stand, unable to move, he never saw another soul in the damned universe, but he could certainly hear them.
The screams tormented him until he could hone in on a new inch of his own blistering skin. This morning, as the tide brought in the blood to lap at his newly healed feet, he felt his skin singe and fuse with the sand below them making him all the more aware of his inability to move.
He inhaled sharply as each wave brought the lava again over his heels and then finally submerging his feet completely. He saw the steam rise from his smoldering flesh as he had every morning, and once again, he ground his teeth to the point of pain and felt the vein in his temple pulse with his increasing heart rate. Today’s point of focus was the right side of his right foot. That point of his foot that graced many a foreign land from Turkey to Russia to the Americas.
He focused on that flesh and tried to remember to time he traveled along the Silk Road with these feet. His boots were dust by the time he made it to Poland from the Ottoman Empire, so the flesh of his feet burned on the hot roads, but the pain of twigs and stones was nothing in comparison to this hell. He would gladly change his fate to an endless walk through the desert to this demeaning punishment of boiling flesh.
But as John reflected on that long trek from Turkey, he remembered why he was here. He had killed many men. With his own hand, he had murdered his captors and then captured many a savage in the Americas. What kind of gentleman is he to avenge his own capture to just capture other men? His slave masters had no need to die at his hand much like the savage Indians did when he invaded their land, so why did he do it? Why could he not have maimed or escaped peacefully? Damn it to hell.
His concentration began to fade as the flesh gave way to exposed muscle. The pain throbbed as tears, once again, filled his eyes. He could not escape without killing, and he could not defend his land without killing. Without murder, there was no accomplishment. Damn it! The muscle in his foot, raw and exposed, snapped under the heated pressure, and John let out his familiar scream of torture. This time, his voice did not carry. His throat let out empty screams that merely exhausted him, but it persisted because all he could think of were the men he murdered while chained under the eastern sun.
* * * * *
The next morning, John was the first to scream, waking the souls of the underworld. The familiar waves of thick blood did not begin as they had always done in a slow and menacing manner. Without warning, a splash coated John’s feet, making him sit up in sheer agony. Never had his hell begun with a sudden jolt like this.
Hardening his body as he looked before him, using every nerve in his jaw to keep it clenched tight, he saw what monster had splashed his feet so carelessly. It was a man. An unremarkable man, but one that stood before him in the lake of boiling blood to his waist. His clothes were stripped clean off and his fists were buried under the surface.
The man’s breathing was labored and intense. “Holy God!” the man shouted from the top of his lungs. The muscles in his chest and abdomen were pulled taut against his skin, and the veins in his neck protruded so starkly that John was convinced his throat would split. “What is happening?” His head faced the heavens, and it seemed to John that this mysterious man had not seen him.
But John could not ignore his own pain as the droplets of blood cascaded down from the tops of his feet leaving behind a thin layer of searing pain.
The man’s screams slowly turned into strained grunts as the man finally focused in on John, and in a flash, the man’s eyes turned to daggers. “Why am I here? Who are you? What is this hell?”
John’s voice was strained from his own cries, so when he tried to open his mouth in response, nothing but a whisper came out. He grasped his throat letting sand cut his tender skin. “This is hell, man. Who are you and what of your sins?”
“My sins are none of your concern.”
John smirked. “A fellow Englishman. Be not a fool. You have nowhere to go now, and it seems you have committed murder to wind up here, much like myself. But until now, I have not seen another damned soul, so pardon me by saying, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“The pleasure is all yours, you bastard.”
The tide rolled in lapping at John’s heels. And once again, his tender, blistered flesh gave way to the boiling blood of the men who haunted his past. But instead on focusing on his own melting flesh, John fixed his gaze on the man before him. In the mere moments before John met his pain, the mysterious man’s wrists had started to disintegrate, and the pink pus swirled around his body. Suddenly John was grateful to only have his feet affected, and the droplets of blood rolled off his hands with no effect.
“My name is Samuel,” the man said under his breath in a strained whisper.
John never broke his gaze from the exposed wrist bones now gleaming white against the blood red lake. “I am Captain John Smith, Samuel.”
“Captain, huh? I’ve been running from people like you my whole life. But if you’re Captain John Smith, then Jack the Ripper means little to you.”
“You are correct. Why do you say?”
“Because that is what other captains have called me.”
To be continued…
Captain Smith and Jack the Ripper’s story is not nearly begun. Stay tuned with what happens to them next in the coming weeks.
To read more or start from the beginning of Dreadful Dantes, click here.
(c) Copyright 2016, Alison C. Wroblewski. All rights reserved.