All Hope Abandon




Falling from the sheer palace wall into the hungry waves, a man who desired the command of Rome. To be king in Palestine was too small for this man. As he falls, the night air peals with the name of his grief:

“Mariamne.” Her name scatters in the wind, a broken hieroglyph over the waters that roil below.

Don’t blink now. There’s a message in this fatal moment. Hear the cries and ringing armor above, taste the unusual salt on the breeze, note the swaying ships at port, trace the geometry of power in the cyclopean walls, but do not move your gaze from the figure that dives. His once-fine robe is torn and rumpled. Blood mars the cloth: not his blood. He is sweating, dirty, and bruised. Nails filed, some of his fingers marked by the absence of rings. Thick beard, ungroomed for some time. Face and flesh full of royal pleasures until recent hardship.

Those who know the history by Josephus will be surprised to find no worms on his flesh, no pustules, no foul breath or living putrefaction. Further, he has thrown himself to the sea’s mercy only moments after the queen shouted her last breath. None of these people are originals. They don’t speak Aramaic or Greek but post-Reconquista Spanish.

See his soft hand, a dagger there, dark with shining stains? The dagger mattered before, but no longer. Its deadly purpose is fulfilled in the corpse of Mariamne.

The fall’s deeper than it seems. Pale faces peer over the parapet, the moon among them. This same moon brought tides with Rome’s conquering armies to the gates of this city of kings, and the tides are washing out. Further falls the man, lower sink the tides. The moon says, “There is no triumph without tragedy.”

Watch. Listen. This is the last he will be seen alive.


“I eternal last. All hope abandon, ye who enter in!”

I have two faces: front and backside. You would expect, since I am a place of entrance, that my front would greet the new arrival. But there’s no reason for decorum, not here. Trust me, I am also upset by the fact of my backwardness. All I want is to meet people. Even that simple pleasure escapes me. No one turns to have a chat after they’ve passed under my arch, probably because they cast off all hope per the instructions.

Here’s a hypothetical to illustrate my point. An unfortunate character arrives from the sea above, naked and waterlogged. One of those kingly types from oh, why not a Spanish Baroque play. I watch him approach—but remember, my example is fake. He carries a dagger as if it were a snake. The dagger’s presence here means it was instrumental to the man’s story. No doubt that’s a real tearjerker: his face is mournful, though humility is still new and ill-fitted to his haughty features. He pauses to read my inscription.

“Through me the way, Through me the way, blah blah.”

We’re an exclusive group. Tragic heroes and villains only—cut down midway upon the journey of our life—no exceptions. Follow the old Greek model or don’t. Whatever’s in fashion for literature in your day: the important point is giving yourself some heinous flaw to mull over for the rest of eternity.

Here’s mine, for example. Some time ago I could mouth off in ten thousand languages, every conceivable slur and swear—to the lees of humanity in every age of the world. I was sublime, excoriating. My poetry burst the brain of every inbound creature, just to be sure they were dead. Can’t have too many living souls running amok in the underworld, I guess.

By the way, “living” is a complicated term here. These, the characters from centuries of literature, never lived except through the mind of the reader. Hi, that’s you. When their story ends, they have to go somewhere. Not all come to this side of the boneyard—we take the villainy and tragedy into one great whirling cesspool, which may be familiar if you know the pilgrim poet.

I won’t lie to you. Life’s bad here. Like constipated-for-eternity bad. Now and again some little pilgrim passes all the way through, climbs the dunghill and skips up into the stars, but most come in and never go out. I may be the mouth, but even your mouth knows when something’s amiss in the bowels.

Now I’ve gone off on a tangent. I was talking about the residents, my profane artistry… Yes, well, the local homeowner’s association engraved that chilly greeting into my lintel so I wouldn’t “disturb the good people in Limbo” with my riveting obscenities. By some infernal law, the inscription keeps my backside from talking.

I am first and foremost a text myself. Not a genuine archway engineered to terrorize, but a construct of words made to house words. Every single person in the vast radius of this dread kingdom is a reflection of reality. Remember that. They’re dreamt by poets who themselves become pilgrim characters, which is another story. The pilgrim is not the poet. I am not stone or mortar. I am not even paper and ink. I’m just a figment and a fiction.

To be clear, the hypothetical is a resident. He’ll never leave this realm.

Another odd effect of my inscription is revealing the residents’ lack of a self-sustained existence. These creatures can’t bear to learn that they were spawned by writers to become thralls of readers. Our hypothetical immigrant starts to understand the basic fiction of his reality. He trembles, looks at his dagger with wild eyes. In a sudden spasm of movement, he hurls the weapon through my archway and sprints in the other direction.

But escape is never that easy. No matter where he turns, I loom. And like all characters condemned before him, he comes closer with every step. Then he’s through me, slumped in defeat. Hope snuffed out all at once, like always. And he trips over the dagger from where it’s embedded in the ground. My guess, he’s never going to be rid of it.

I wait for him to turn and chat with me, even though I know it’s fruitless. One reason these damned characters don’t look back is because they’re fixed on the dramatic scene before them. It’s startling if you haven’t been staring at it for untold ages of human invention.

Behold, ye miscreants, the garden of terrors beneath life-stealing waves. Welcome ye to the undersea domain, estates of gloom and fury. Welcome to your doom. 

Hear the tempest of sighs, complaints, and ululations: dialects of agony and anger ringing through the starless night.

See the vast, desolate crater.

Rivers and sparks of fire gleam all around, as if the stars had fallen scattered and wounded to the earth. Crag and torrent plunge into twisting ravines deeper than thought. Foul creatures slither and swarm through currents of murk. On one side, a glowing vent spouts poisons and showers of fire.

Don’t forget the odors: brimstone, rotting guts, sewage, burning hair, harsh chemicals, armpit, sour milk, the whole stinking cigar.

With so much to entertain him, the hypothetical man doesn’t even realize I’m watching over his shoulder. He shuffles into a line of pitiable personas, waits a few lifetimes for his turn—the waiting is important to establish expectations. We are anxious to provide the most deplorable customer service.

Overlooking the terrible vista, reclining on pillows and silk, is the judge, that old giant with the tail of a whip. He’s ancient and blind. In fact his head, though human in shape, has no features except for a broad mouth about where the nose should be, splitting his skull almost in half. His lips, like those of a rotting fish, peel apart as the man steps forward. Through the judge’s spiny teeth, a stream of vague, breathy burbles. The exhalations coil and dance on the edge of meaningful syllables.

The man tilts his head and glances around with his brow knotted, as if looking for an interpreter. I’m never sure if the accused can understand what the judge says, but I sure can’t. The judge seals his lips and lashes his tail around the signpost. Seven times. Markings on the tail align in certain patterns with further meaning, but they aren’t much visible from my position.

What’s clear anyway, our hypothetical is consigned to the violence district. I see all kinds sent there, human or otherwise. One great hairy man-creature with its arm torn off. Another giant man-creature looking like a charred corpse dissected and patched together again. This second brute came bickering with a gaunt young man about the duty of creating life. It seems they had some debt to settle between them, and each claimed the other was worse. Ha, the judge closed that debate—sent the youth to freeze up to his neck with the traitors most foul.

Back to the fallen king…oh yes. Before he can object, a tremendous gale rips our man off the platform and hurls him out toward his final destination. He was only hypothetical, so there’s no need to feel sorry. But if you’re very curious, I suppose I might’ve noticed him strike bottom near the edge of that forest. He’s likely to be planted there until the end of time. River of scalding blood, flaming sand, scorching rain, you can’t miss the spot.


All waters weep. We spill together out of the uncaring sneer and hollow eyes of Ozymandias. Through forest we froth, across arid plain, until we arrive at the crag by the plain’s edge. There we plunge in torrents, past things that slither and crawl, onward to collect in the crater’s frozen pit.

Streams of white and gold fall from the sky. Like angels radiant, like liquid sunlight, they rush to meet the parched sands. Sometimes, when a flame strikes the sand just so, glass is born. The sands creep into the forest, and the trees encroach in return. Through each wends our stream of steaming scarlet, filled with the drowning and undying. Among these, the humpback tyrant earns no more renown than the faceless cannibal.

Thirsting, the trees spread their roots to us. Pulsing through their viscera, we hear the rhythms of their thoughts.

One tree dreams of quarries and mines and grandeur derived from them. In its mind a great temple overshadows the world. Crowds adore; the sun sends sweet beams to kiss its weary limbs; winds are favorable; the sea keeps its bounds; fruits and wines are plenteous; towers glitter across wide expanses; the land is tame; people laugh in the streets; stars lift the mind. But everything has gone awry.

A great owl settles on one of the upper branches, sharp talons pricking at the tree’s tender skin.

“Ouch,” groans the tree. “Clip your toenails once in a while.”

“I’m here to watch the flames,” the owl says. “You’re not the center of Hell, you know.”

“I’m not anything.”

“And be grateful. The company there is more pathetic than you. You haven’t seen it, but I’ll describe for you just one image from my last visit. Two men, a worm and his white-bearded master, locked in ice together, bickering for all eternity while incarnations of evil munch on their exposed heads. Gossips say the master was an honorable sage who sold his wisdom for one gold trinket.”

“Trinkets can raise or ruin empires.”

“Illusions. Smoke and symbols.”

“Everything seemed real before I passed the gate,” the tree says, twisting himself as if to assure his corporeality. “Come to learn I was the central character in a tragic play. But still not more than a character.”

“Yes, and I was spawned to be vicious. A monster. And yet,” she brushes the tree’s tears away with one wing, “I learned kindness.”

“It’s all the same. Every good tempts me to hope. If I indulge hope, I become more vulnerable to despair.”


“You mistake me. I’m a fatalist. Everything that wounds me, I deserve.”

The owl wears the face of one trying to hide her amusement. “I hear a story brewing, and you’re aching to tell me.”

“Yesterday I was ascendant. Another year of laying schemes and I’d have seen all my life come to fruition. By now—well, I don’t know how long I’ve been here.”

“Time’s funny under the surface.”

“My ambitions were never selfish,” the tree says. “Maybe when I became king over the Jews, or when we married: my claim to rule was stronger with Mariamne as my wife. But later all I wanted was to make her empress of Rome.”

“That didn’t entail you becoming emperor?”

“An incidental result. My wife was the finest woman in the world. I loved her with all my soul. Looking back, I don’t think she was happy—just when we were planning to seize the empire, she asked an astrologer for the outcome of our marriage. The stars revealed she would die a trophy of the monster most fierce, and my dagger would kill the one I most loved. Do you see the hilt lodged between my toes there? The dagger’s the killer, not me.”

“I think what you mean is, the dagger’s a compelling symbol. Especially in theatre, key props often behave like characters. Writers can make a real mess of agency.”

“The prophecy promised the dagger would kill her, and for all I denied it, she died by this dagger.”

“In whose hand?”

“Mine, driven by fate.”

“How is that?”

“The emperor found a copy of her portrait and fell in love. I had to remove her from his grasp, no matter the grief it caused me. I arranged for her poisoning before he could stain her with his greedy fingers. That failed.”

“But then—if the emperor claimed her, she would be empress. You said that’s all you wanted.”

“Not by another man!”

“We’re back to you, then, while the dagger remains a lifeless chunk of metal.”

“I had no choice but to defend her honor. By the end I was wrestling him in her own bedchamber, until she threw herself between us and the blade burst her heart. Mine died then too. I swear, the knife chose the target.”

“And you chose to kill yourself for it?”

“To avenge her, I did. The play gave me that small decency before my last exit, but in scant lines. Ending my life was the only good choice I made in all three miserable acts. I would have destroyed the dagger, but at least here it will kill no more. Here, I can’t kill either.” The tree pauses, adds, “You’re a sympathetic listener.”

“Thanks. It’s the only way to get stories down here. You must have noticed our entertainment is limited.”

Neither of them speaks for some time. The tree clenches his gnarled joints, thinking of that last glimpse of the woman fallen to the ground between the two men. At one time, he had ordered her death. To protect her. He senses that the owl, like the judge, is not convinced of that motive. In truth, the tree also doubts. Since diving from the palace wall, he’s been free of the play and its role for him, and he can imagine alternate pasts for himself. Except everything was scripted by the author.

The tree speaks again. “It doesn’t seem fair. Multiple passages in the play defend my case—fate forced my hand. Somewhere beyond our ken a man with a pen forced fate upon me, and for that I’m condemned to eat hot sand and blood through my nether parts and prop up harpies in my arms.”

“Speaking of what’s fair, I’d prefer you avoid that slur,” the owl says.



“It’s what you are.”

“And you’re a murderous, tragic suicide. How can I escape the role pressed on me by some hateful man’s pen if I’m only ever known as harpy? How can you?”

Confounded by the sense of her words, the tree falls into silence.

The owl fills it. “We in this underworld are shadows of reality. I’m sure you learned that from the gate or the judge. You know your true—your unreal—nature. We had a life as characters, and now we decide who we are in the aftermath.”

“I don’t think I can sprout legs and walk out,” says the tree.

“There are no stars here to impose fate either.”

“Fair point.”

“It’s a daunting road to overhaul everything we were written to be, but life here is already going to be daunting forever. We might as well find a little happiness.”

“We might as well,” echoes the tree, without conviction. “But how can I thrive under a sunless sky, with nothing to breathe but ash, or drink but blood?” He sways to one side, as if to indicate us, the deep red that we are. We feel no offense. Blood is essential to life, although it becomes a poison when drunk.

The owl ruffles her chest in annoyance. “You haven’t listened. We’re literary characters. Everything we are, say, or perform is governed by story. All you need is to have your story spread. That’s it. If you can convince enough audience that you’re growing, you will grow.”

“So simple.” Disbelief fills the tree’s voice.

“I said it’s daunting, but it is possible. We’re not in a musical, you know. I don’t have a brass band or troupe of flamingos to add pomp and flair. Just a choir of damned souls behind my little words of inspiration.” She stops to peer at the tree, but its face is wooden. “You don’t know what a musical is, do you.”

“There were a few touches of music in my play,” he says.

“Alright, I’ll leave you to brood.” She flaps away.

“Goodbye,” the tree says. And so he broods.

People are, as usual, screaming in every direction. Some run wailing over the sand as balls of flame assail them on every hand. Some cough and splutter when they break our placid surface. Some are being tortured miles away, but their shrieks still split ears at this distance. We, at least, are quiet at the tree’s tangled feet. Now and again, two or three centaurs gallop past and sink the swimmers with a flurry of arrows.

So much clamor makes coherent brooding impossible. Perhaps for this reason he finally perks up and says, “I can still be emperor. There must be millions around here waiting for the right leader to worship.”

Alas. As they say, old habits die hard.


I’m the biggest and the belchiest. All the runts are scared of me. My breath drives armies to the ground. My smokes spread all over and my fireballs are legend. I cook up the hottest balls, the brightest, highflyingest, and loudscreamingest that ever hit you in the face.

Every day I look for upstarts. Sometimes these young bloods come along with tall tales, thinking they’re the hotshots. They don’t respect the elders. Instead they rustle up a mob of minions to hear their stupid stories, they get a bit bigger, and they dare challenge me. 

Once there was a little runt in that colony down by the red river. I didn’t think much about him at the time. Then he got talking to one of the owls. Flying runts like them buzz around my gas holes asking for trouble. I don’t mind. More excuses to spit fire. I love my fire, don’t I, boys? It’s the hottest, the stinkest ever found under the sky. Anyway, the owls, or one of them, told the little runt he could be a big runt. Dumb, right? No, I didn’t hear what they said. I’m not a gossip, I just put down the rabble.

So the toadspotted chump decided he’d grow up to the tippytop and be king over me. At first I laughed. But he was eager to get pummeled. I’m always happy to oblige. When he outgrew his colony, I started scorching the runt. I shrieked at him too:

Hedgeborn fopdoodle! Paunchy weatherbitten minikin! Beetlenipped lubberwort! Cumberworld! Knave!

Make no sense? Only big bads like me know big bad words like them. Go ask the gate over there. It used to toss out all these nasty words. They chilled my balls to hear at first. But I saw the respect it got, and I learned to talk big. Problem for that old coot, he was crazy. So they shut him up.

For all my whipping, the big runt from the colony didn’t back down. Kids don’t learn from their betters anymore. He fixed a following for himself, the coxcomb. But he didn’t figure how much the runts around him love me most.

I looked down on his scrawny head to the end. He got nowhere near me before some smarter runts cut him down. He fell hard. They crushed him to a pulp for making paper to keep beside the judge’s toilet.

You hear these creeps saying life is fake. It’s all made up by old sots who live somewhere outside. Not overside, nowhere in our world, but another world; we’re all shadows of that one. These sots have magic pens to make us all come to life. We’re just words.

I say nonsense.

The runts can’t ignore my hot blasts. Can’t wish away their melted bones.

How did the one runt almost get to be the tallest runt? Who cares? They all lose in the end.

And I’m still the biggest.