Scry Through Phlegethon

When I was little, I thought the bathroom at my church contained a portal to Hell.

The portal took the form of a window of orange glass, close to the ceiling above the changing table. Its impenetrably translucent ridges glowed with a sinister backlight. I could sit on the pot and watch it flicker, half wishing I could see through it, half glad I couldn’t, entirely convinced that something was watching from the other side.

I envisioned lava, flames, and demons (back then, demons resembled the anthropomorphized germs I had seen in a picture book about Louis Pasteur: black, oblong, hideously toothy monsters that could get inside you and make you sick—small enough to infiltrate, large enough to kill). For Methodists, Hell is a heady concept, introduced early. I’ve often retooled my conceptions of Heaven and Hell, but my earliest imaginings still hold the most power.

I routinely made sure to go before we left the house. Therefore the demons rarely had a chance to watch me pee.

After college, I visited my parents’ church again. Long absences tend to blur my memories so that they can be overwritten, and the familiar can be seen afresh. My perception had changed. But the portal had too.

Hell, in some sense, was revealed. Someone had moved a bookshelf in the small treasurer’s alcove behind the girls’ room, fully exposing the back side of the orange window for the first time. The light bulbs in the rickety chandelier had been traded for a brighter wattage. The glass, thank goodness, was no clearer from the other side. Maybe demons could have seen through it, but the church treasurer couldn’t.

I went to wash my hands, and found myself at eye level with the window. It had never been as high off the ground as I thought. (I was a small child. My family raised lambs once, and in my memories they tower over me like llamas.) I had grown tall enough to touch my fears. I could, if I chose, touch the gate to Hell.

I considered it. But I didn’t quite dare.

Looking back, I shiver to think how low the window always was—how nothing but my own height kept me from realizing it. I’m glad I never knew. How easy would it have been, with better perspective, to climb onto the changing table, stretch out a tiny hand to unhook the latch, and open the window into the flames and lava and black germ-devils of my fears?

The clasp is in easy reach now, but I have never opened it. Part of me still believes that Hell may be no further than the width of a pane of glass.


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