A Souvenir of Hell
Written by Etgar Keret- Narrated by Kirby Heyborne
There’s this village in Uzbekistan that was built right smack at the mouth of Hell. The soil there isn’t any good for farming, and the minerals aren’t too great either, so whatever small income the inhabitants can earn to make ends meet comes mostly from tourism. And when I say tourism I’m not talking about rich Americans in Hawaiian shirts, or grinning Japanese who take pictures of everything that moves. Because what would anyone like that be looking for in a godforsaken place like Uzbekistan. The tourism I’m talking about is domestic. As domestic as you can get.
The people coming out of Hell are very different from one another, and it’s kind of hard to give an exact profile. Fat/thin, with/without a moustache—a very mixed crowd. If they have anything in common at all, it’s the way they act. They’re all kind of quiet and polite, always giving you the exact change and everything. They never try to haggle over prices, and they always know just what they want—no hemming and hawing. They come in, ask how much, gift wrap/no gift wrap, and that’s that. They’re all kind of very short-term guests, spending the day and then going back to Hell. And you never see the same one twice, cause they only come out every one hundred years. That’s just how it is. Those are the rules. Like in the army when you only get one weekend off out of three, or on guard duty, when you’re only allowed to sit down for five minutes every hour on the hour. It’s the same with the people in Hell: one day off every hundred years. If there ever was an explanation, nobody remembers it anymore. By now it’s more a matter of maintaining the status quo.
Anna had worked in her grandfather’s grocery store for as long as she could remember. Apart from the villagers, there weren’t that many customers, but once every few hours someone would come in smelling of sulfur and ask for a pack of cigarettes, or chocolate, or whatever. Some of them asked for things that they’d probably never actually seen, and had only heard about from some other sinner. So every once in a while she’d see them struggle to open a can of Coke or try to eat cheese with the plastic wrapper still on it. Things like that. Sometimes she’d try to chat them up, to make friends, but they never knew Uzbek or whatever you call the language she spoke. And in the end, it would always wind up that she’d just point to herself and say Anna and they’d point to themselves and mumble Claus or Su-Ying or Steve or Avi, and then they’d pay and take off. Sometimes she’d see them again later that evening cruising the neighborhood or hanging out on some street corner, staring out into the evening sky, and the next day she wouldn’t see them anymore. Her grandfather, who suffered from a condition that wouldn’t let him sleep more than an hour a night, would tell her how he’d see them at dawn going back down through the opening, which was right next to their front porch. It was from this same porch that he also saw her father, who was a pretty nasty piece of work, going down through the opening like the others, stone drunk, and singing some really off-color song. Ninety-odd years later he too was supposed to come back for a day.
Funny, but you could say these people were the most interesting thing in Anna’s life. Their faces, the ridiculous clothes, the attempts to guess what terrible thing they were supposed to have done to deserve Hell. ’Cause the truth is that it really was the only thing going on. Sometimes, when she got bored in the shop, she’d try to picture the next sinner who’d walk through the door. She’d always try to imagine them very good-looking or funny. And once every few weeks there really might be some gorgeous hunk or else some guy who’d insist on eating the contents of a can without opening it first, and then she and her grandfather would talk about it for days.
Once, this guy walked in who was so gorgeous that she knew she simply had to be with him. He bought some white wine, some soda water, and all sorts of hot spices, and instead of adding up his bill, she just took him by the hand and pulled him toward the house. And the guy, without understanding a word she was saying, followed her, and tried his very best, but when they both realized that he just couldn’t, Anna hugged him and gave him her biggest smile, to make sure he understood it didn’t really matter. But that didn’t help, and he cried right through the night. From the moment he left, she prayed every night for him to come back and for everything to be alright. She was praying more for him than for herself, and when she told her grandfather about it, he smiled and said she had a good heart.
Two months later, he was back. He came into the shop and bought a pastrami sandwich, and when she smiled at him, he smiled back. Her grandfather said it couldn’t be him, because everyone knows they only come out once every hundred years, and that it must be his twin or something, and she wasn’t really completely sure either. In any case, when they got into bed, things actually went fine. He seemed content, and so did she. And suddenly she understood that maybe it wasn’t only him that she was praying for after all. Later, he went into the kitchen and found the bag he’d left behind the last time, with the soda water and the spices and the wine, and he took it and mixed a drink for Anna and himself, that was fizzy and hot and cold and wine too. A kind of spritzer from Hell.
When the night was over, and he was getting dressed to go, she asked him not to, and he shrugged like someone who had no choice. And after he left, she prayed he’d come a third time, if it was really him, and if not, that someone would come who looked enough like him that she’d be able to make the same mistake. And a few weeks later, when she started throwing up, she prayed it would be a baby, but it turned out just to be a virus. It was just about then that people in the village began talking about plans to close up the opening from the inside. This had Anna very worried, but her grandfather said it was just a rumor being spread by people who had nothing better to do. “You’ve got nothing to worry about,” he said and smiled at her. “That opening has been there for so long that neither devil nor angel would ever have the nerve to close it.” And she believed him, except one particular night, she remembers, when she suddenly felt, for no special reason, and it wasn’t even in her sleep, that the opening wasn’t there anymore. She ran out in her nightgown and was happy to see that it still was. And then, she remembers, there was a moment when she had this urge to go down there. She felt as though she was being sucked in, because of how she felt about her special visitor, or maybe because she really wanted to see her father, who was a nasty piece of work, or maybe more than anything, it was because she didn’t want to go on being alone in this boring village. She put her ear to the cold air coming out of the opening. In the distance she could make out something that sounded like people screaming, or water running—it was impossible to tell just what it was. It was coming from really far away. Eventually she went back to bed, and a few days later, the opening really did disappear. Hell continued to exist down below, but nobody came out anymore.
Ever since the opening disappeared, it became harder to make ends meet, and also much more tired and serene. Her grandfather died, she married the fishmonger’s son, and the two shops merged. They had several children, and she loved to tell them stories, especially ones about the people who used to walk into the shop smelling of sulfur. Those stories would scare them, and they’d start to cry. But still, even though she couldn’t understand why, she went right on telling them.