Till Hell Freezes Over


by Elizabeth Zelvin


The dog was brown and shaggy, of the indeterminate breed that might have been called a Heinz 57 if there were names or numbers here. The man was brown and shaggy too. He wore only a brown trench coat. Sometimes he took it off. The sun shone relentlessly in Hell. There was no night, and it never rained. So the man had been working on his tan for quite a while now. He couldn’t say how long. Time had no meaning here. And he knew, the same way he knew it was never going to rain and night was never going to fall, that he wasn’t going to get a haircut until hell froze over.

He didn’t mind the shaggy hair and beard so much. Full and bushy, they cast a shadow, protecting part of his face and neck from the worst of the sun. But he and the dog were chained together. He couldn’t remember why or even if there was a reason why. In the blurry way he sometimes grasped at a fugitive thought from Before, he thought that before getting to Hell, he’d believed that no one ended up in Hell without good reason. But now, experiencing the cruelty of Hell for himself, he didn’t think it worked that way. He and the dog were chained together, with a shackle at one end around the dog’s neck and a shackle at the other around the man’s neck, and that’s how it would be until hell froze over.

Surely he would remember if he’d done anything Before to merit this. What was the sense of punishment if you couldn’t remember the crime? Or, as he still believed deep down, he hadn’t committed one? And what about this poor dumb creature, the dog? Animals were innocent. If they did wrong, they were just following their nature. And in the case of dogs, they were always sorry.

Maybe the dog didn’t mind being in Hell as much as he did. Maybe it didn’t even realize this was Hell. It was used to having a collar around its neck and a human tethered to the other end. And it seemed to be dealing with the heat pretty well. It was able to pant. The man recalled in an uncertain way that panting was the canine equivalent of human sweating. Could that be right? And it had a shaggy stub of a tail to wag, raising a bit of a breeze around its hindquarters. The man felt so desperate that sometimes he even considered kneeling down behind the dog to catch that breeze. But no, that would be one humiliation too many. Oddly, the humiliation bothered him more than the eternal torment. Why couldn’t they have put his shackle around his arm or leg? It wasn’t decent, shackling him at the neck, exactly like the dog. But no one ever said that Hell was decent.

There were no walls in Hell. Walls would have provided shade, and that would never do. But somehow, it was not possible for either the man or the dog to lie down. They couldn’t close their eyes, either. So sleep was not an option. The man’s thoughts about his situation, always the same few thoughts, went around and around in his head on an endless treadmill. He envied the dog. It had a tail to wag. Not a fanlike tail, but still, it was a tail. And on top of that, it didn’t think. Dogs didn’t. In this situation, that was an advantage.

The man was so absorbed in these thoughts that he leaped in the air before he realized what had startled him: a deafening crack of lightning and rolling growl of thunder, simultaneous as they are only when the the observer stands on the spot where the lightning strikes. The dog was startled too. The man felt the chain jerk taut and then snap as the lightning severed it. Man and dog, abruptly freed, both fell to the ground. The air grew dark as it never had before in all the timelessness of Hell. Cold winds turned icy as they whipped around the man. He pulled the tattered trench coat around him. His teeth chattered. Torrential rain let loose, soaking him to the skin and turning the dog into an oversized rat trying to shake off droplets of water without much success.

As the man watched, he saw the rain turn to icy pellets of sleet and heard the dog’s wet fur crackle as the cold transformed it to an icy crystal carapace. He shivered. Reaching for the top button of his trench coat, he realized that his fingers were white with incipient frostbite. His bare feet felt numb. Looking down, he saw they were encased in the expanse of ice that now formed the endless floor of Hell.

What next? Since Hell had frozen over, perhaps there would be a next after all. But not having anticipated such a question, and for the moment having his feet frozen solid in the ice, he had no idea what to do.

As he stood pondering, the darkness lifted. The air warmed. The ice began to crack and melt. A more benevolent sun than ever seen in Hell before shone down.

The dog shook itself vigorously, spraying the man with droplets of water that melted the ice where they touched. A shake of its head, and the dog’s shackle fell away as if it too had been made of ice.

“Are you coming?” said the dog.