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from the November 2017 issue

After the Inferno

A near-death experience prompts an argument between a couple on the nature of hell in this piece from Chinese author Zhang Xinxin.

It wasn’t the first time that Steve and I had talked about the next life. But this time I actually bared my soul. The red and blue lights of the police car were flashing. The ambulance siren wailed. I was strapped to the stretcher, my body all mashed up. But my mind was intact, and I was fully conscious—to the extent that I was talking to Steve about the most inappropriate thing. About to face death, I could have asked my lawyer-husband to make sure the insurance company paid up, or about life insurance, or about changing my will, but there we were, talking about the next life. He’s Catholic, and Catholics don’t have a next life.

When I heard him say he hoped his soul could go to Purgatory, I found myself floating about in my Eastern myths, where the soul leaves the body, and is reincarnated as another human or animal. But before reincarnation, you must pay for your sins in this life. Naked and barefoot, you must climb mountains like blades, cross seas of burning fire, descend into pans of hot oil, and be cut in half by the mighty saw. The raging fire, the hissing oil, the knives, the saw, the torn flesh, the fresh blood! The proper name for my purgatory was “Hell.”

The curious thing was that when Steve talked about his Purgatory, his face softened and his anxiety became anticipation, as though he could hear the shepherd playing his flute in the green meadows far away. He said his Purgatory was a resting place for the soul on its way up to Heaven. Not that he’d get there, he added, he’d be going straight down to Hell.

Oh, hell . . . the juddering ambulance had snatched one of earth’s monsters—me—and was hurtling across lanes of traffic, screaming emergency. I was being shaken about like a batch of goods on a delivery truck. I couldn’t see anything of the human world outside the window, but I could feel Steve’s grip on my hand, so soft, so tender, and I could feel him fighting off grief, determined to hold on to my life.

“You know, Steve, your Hell has a design flaw. The soul gets stuck in there forever. There’s no way out.”

With a drip feeding into the back of my hand, I was at the entrance to the operating theater. I went in, I came out, and as soon as the breathing apparatus was removed, my conversation with Steve about Hell resumed.

“Look at my Eastern Hell, Steve. Before the exit from this world there’s a big bowl of tea. You drink the tea and then, when you come out of this world, you remember nothing of your previous life. You become a human. Or a cow or a horse that does as the humans tell it to do. Or a pig, that humans will eat if you killed too many people in your last life. Or you might turn into a creepy-crawly without any legs, and have to move about on your belly, if you told too many lies. Or you might be a bird . . . ”

“I want to turn into a bird . . . ”

“OK, my blackface King of the Underworld will commend your current whiteface life, and in the next life you’ll turn into a bird.”

“There is no next life here. Sweetheart, you’ll go up to Heaven.” Steve saw the color coming back to my face, and gave a sigh of relief. “But I’ll be going down to Hell. I’ve known it since I was a little boy. I was a bad boy."

“Oh? How bad?”

“I lied to the priest. I scribbled in marker all around the world, did graffiti on boats, in cars, in airport lounges. When I got angry I lashed out at my little brother, beat him up until his howling filled the sky. And I masturbated, when I was six . . . ”

“Whoaa! Did anything come out?”

“What do you think?! But it felt good, real good! Oh, I was dyslexic, and couldn’t read until I was ten . . . ”

“An Einstein! A genius!”

“Shut up! I was sent to a special school. I spent all day with a bunch of bastards, and after school got the same bus home with the kids from the school for the mentally disabled. My mom and dad were sick with worry! They sent me to see a psychiatrist!”


“Excuse me! I wasn’t seeing some bogus shrink, but a psychiatrist, a famous Harvard professor. I was the youngest patient in the cuckoo’s nest!!!”

“Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! . . . ! . . . ! . . . !”

“What’s so funny? Is it my tortured childhood that’s got you rolling around? Or are the painkillers turning you nuts?”

A wandering soul must have rapped on my skull, and brought me to my senses.

I stopped laughing, and let out a long sigh, “You know, compared with what I was like as a child, you were as good as gold.”

Steve looked at me. In the fluorescent light of the monitor, my body covered in plaster, with tubes sticking out all over the place, I must have looked a sight.

“Steve, we’ve been together all these years, but you probably don’t know the real me. Street urchin in the Middle Kingdom’s capital city, Nazi Red Guard, Prisoner in Siberia, nuclear war pawn in Sunzi’s Art of War. That’s who I am. And Death’s Assistant too. I’ve had so many reincarnations in my lifetime: as a cow, as a horse, as a dog; as a pig that deserved to be eaten because I had blood on my hands; as a snake that crawls on its belly (although I was born in the Year of the Snake), because I told so many lies . . .

“Do you think what I’m saying is mad? Hey, I’m not Marco Polo boasting about the East in his prison cell. My Chinese GDP is racing ahead of yours. I’m the Girl-Homer with her eyes wide open. Dearly beloved, the last friend I shall see, as you sit by the bed in which I lie dying, won’t you listen to my odyssey, my Classic of Mountains and Seas?

“Oh yes, you said you’d like to be a bird in your next life. In fact, a little bird really did come into my life. Don’t be afraid, Blue Eyes, don’t be afraid, come closer, a little closer, look closely into the black pupils of the eyes right in front of you."


From《我 Me》[Wo Me]. © Zhang Xinxin. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Helen Wang. All rights reserved.

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