Picture a box that can trap ghosts. It’s about 10 cm on each side, seemingly carved from a single log except for the lid. Created by two monks in the 14th century, it’s even simpler to use than the proton packs in that American ghost movie: just knock it three times in rapid succession, and zoop, the ghost is trapped. Now picture someone carrying that box around Europe in the wake of the Black Death, Verdun and others. They didn’t have to be notable sites, just anywhere humanity was too scared and lazy to deal with the leftovers of the dead manually. Ghosts can be a problem for the living, and this box was a solution so easy an illiterate farmer could manage it. But there’s a catch, a metaphorical catch to go with the literal one that keeps the box shut. The ghosts cannot be removed, cannot be dispersed or allowed to move on to the hereafter. No, they can only be released.
Released all at once is a torrent of the angriest, most tortured ghosts you can imagine, for what must it be like in there? Trapped in darkness with nothing but your remnants from life: your pain, your fear, your grief, your rage. It might be better if you were alone, allowed to wallow in your own crystallized misery, but you are not. You are surrounded by those as afflicted as you, and you feed off them and they feed off you. You torment them and they torment you, for it is all any of you have left.
Can you picture what that must feel like? Be like? I know that I cannot, not in any meaningful, useful way, and I don’t think any of us still among the living can. What I do know is a word to describe it: Hell. We upright apes of Earth, without the help of God or the Devil, have created a hell on Earth. And who have we consigned to this Hell? Merely those who were subjected to such pain in life to have been unable to move on. My great-grandfather, whose eyes in pictures seem so much like my mother’s, died at Verdun when the French shelled Fort Douaumont. Was the box his fate?
Picture me in a 6 x 8 cell with nothing but a bed, a toilet, and that thought roiling through my mind, refusing to let go, refusing to leave me in peace. We. Created. Hell. If there is anything we as a species have to atone for, it is that. Fifteen years of my life in that cell, thinking about atonement. It would probably have been more, but the French authorities couldn’t find all of the records I had stolen. They don’t take kindly to breaking into a church, but I had to know. It was there I found some of the only surviving records of the box’s powers. It was just as well they had caught me. If I had had my freedom, I might have done something rash, once the reality of the box had truly sunk in.
Now picture a vault in the Vatican, the deepest and most secret one they have. Brick and wood hiding steel. This is where the box was kept, for the Powers that Be know how powerful and how dangerous this box can be. But they haven’t thrown away the key, for in their twisted reality the box is still useful. Picture Auschwitz, train tracks leading under a long building and a sign in metal with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Can you imagine how many ghosts must have hung around with all that misery? Now picture the end of World War II, Hitler dead and a red flag over the ruined Reichstag. Europe is at peace, and the Konzentrationslager are no longer secret, not that the Vatican was unaware of them before, I am sure. But they know there is a lingering problem, and they have a solution. Picture the box being removed from its deep, dark vault in the middle of a deep, dark night in May. Picture a cleric loading this box onto a secret train ready to speed across the Alps to where the unquiet dead linger in the greatest concentrations in hundreds of years. The Vatican records, such as they were for this most-secret of operations, do not show what happened while the box toured the Polish countryside. What the records do show is that once the train returned to the Holy City, the box was no longer aboard, and nobody seemed to know what happened to it. Picture the Holy Father’s reaction when he hears of that, if you will. Nobody living knows where it is, but I had a lot of time in that cell to think about it, and I have some ideas. Communist agents lifting it from the train for use in covering up Stalin’s own better-concealed atrocities is my leading theory, and the information I have retrieved from the ghosts I have conversed with seems to support this. What I do know is that the box has not been destroyed. If it had, we would know.
Now picture me five or so years down the road, holding that box in my arms and standing in Times Square, the sun on my face and the tourists bustling noisily around me, gawking at everything. Picture me turning my face to the sky, eyes closed, as I open the box, and let the sufferers within wreak their vengeance on those who unjustly imprisoned them. I am sure that will be my last moment of sane thought, but I am sure it will be a sweet one.