I was thrilled to find that there was a way to get out of Hell. And it wasn’t even that hard. Steve, another member in my sulfur mine chain gang, told me that all you had to do was have a one-minute conversation with the Devil in his native tongue: Devilese. After one fluent minute, he’d pop you right back up to Earth or Heaven or wherever you wanted.
I was so excited I could barely sleep on my bed of hot coals that night. While I’d been alive, I’d learned Chinese, Finnish, Arabic, a little Basque, and a bunch more. Guttural, tonal, agglutinative, polysynthetic; I’d mastered them all. I’d also cheated on my wife in every country I visited until she finally snapped and shot me eight times, but details, details. All that mattered now was that Deviled Eggs-ese or whatever was going to be a cinch.
The next day when my twenty-three hour shift wheelbarrowing acid was over, instead of relaxing on the steaming rocks with my friends, I made my way to the library. I crossed the splintered drawbridge over the bubbling moat of lava and entered the rusty citadel, hoping I could get my hands on a few books about learning Devilese.
I’d obviously underestimated the Devilese literary canon. After a few good-natured pitchfork stabs and hoof kicks from the demon librarian, he showed me the rows of solid brick shelves filled with books written in Devilese, stretching in every direction further than I could see. After listening to his recommendations and signing up for a library card, I was on my way back home to my hole with My First 100 Words in Devilese, the Devilese Pimsleur Audiobook, and the one book I always read whenever I started learning a new language: Harry Potter in Devilese.
Right from the get-go I knew there was something special about Devilese. Just skimming through My First 100 Words, I saw that it had an extremely complex writing system. The alphabet, if it could even be called that, had about a thousand different letters that looked like bones, knives, and various organs. They all represented sounds from good old “g” or “th” to a high-pitched scream and maniacal laugh. I was already a little overwhelmed, but I felt confident that I could memorize all of them eventually. I’d learned thousands of Chinese characters before; how much harder could a few skulls or scratch marks be?
Once I started listening to the Pimsleur tapes though, I discovered something even worse. I realized something was up when the tape told me to say “I speak Devilese” as “KePPE’gblux’tserANtstr,” and then “Do you speak Devilese?” as “Zvik?” The two sentences had nothing in common. That meant Devilese was different from every language on Earth. It was lacking something that all human languages have: recursion.
Usually when you speak a language, you piece together words using grammar rules. Once you know the grammar rule, you can pick out and plop in whatever words you want. When you know how to ask “where is the bathroom?” you can ask “where is the sacrifice?” or “where is my hole?” too. You can even build on that with “where is the pig I slaughtered?” or “I know where the pig I slaughtered is.”
Devilese had no such patterns to it. “Please stop stabbing me” and “Please stop burning me” were as different from each other as “Did you catch the game last night?” and “Hail Satan, Lord of Hellfire!” Every conceivable thought, expression, and idea had its own unique way of being said, and they had all been decided aeons ago by the one and only native speaker of Devilese: the Devil himself.
To have a conversation with the Devil, I was going to have to become as fluent as he was. I had to memorize the random grunts, hisses, and howls that he’d assigned to every imaginable utterance. It was a tall order for sure, but not impossible. And it wasn’t as if I had anything better to do.
When my hour break was up, it was back to the mines. I climbed out of my hole, walked through the flame geysers, and sighed as I picked up my lead pickaxe and a demon locked my legs into the chains. I just wanted to get back to studying more Devilese.
But then I noticed something. I watched as two goat-like demons started barking and screaming back and forth at each other. Suddenly the sounds they were making had new meaning to me. They weren’t just spouting nonsense; they were speaking Devilese! I could practice with them!
“KePPE’gblux’tserANtstr!” I yelled to them. It was how Pimsleur had taught me to say “I speak Devilese.” I didn’t know if my pronunciation was any good, but it must have been passable. Both of them stopped, looked at me, and burst out laughing.
“Bpsdz’arthtGOk’loj!” said one of them back,
“Nmukl’HAha’pkjzw,” I said back. It means: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you said.”
“He said ‘Go to Hell mortal.’ Ha ha ha ha ha!”
“Oh! Okay. GrtAAng’fvrixplet’yegUR’ogboHEXapltzov.” That was just a simple thank you. The two demons laughed again and walked away, but I was proud. I’d just had my first conversation in Devilese. And it was at least ten seconds long. If I could do that well after just one hour of studying, I’d be shooting the shit with the Devil in no time!
Never before did my shift of soul-crushing labor go by so fast. Before I knew it I was back home, sipping on a bottle of Moxie and reading Harry Potter as I listened to my Pimsleur tapes. Some entire chapters were written as a single phrase (all of chapter one was simply “pifTEL”), and others were actually sentences put together like a normal book – usually the parts about Voldemort. I couldn’t understand any of it, but when my tapes told me how to say “don’t make me say it again” as “korvgtynTEEN” and then I read a part where Hagrid said “korvgtynTEEN” to Harry, I jumped up and knocked my bottle over with excitement. I was turning into a Devilese master.
At work, I started speaking only in Devilese. I needed to immerse myself in it; using English would just slow me down. I only knew a few phrases, but every time I wanted to learn something new, I just asked a nearby demon. They’d laugh, stab me a bit with their pitchforks, and then eventually tell me, adding on a “korvgtynTEEN!” at the end of course.
Every day I learned more and more. I eventually memorized all of Harry Potter and the Pimsleur tapes, so I went back to the library. This time, I took out movies dubbed in Devilese: Star Wars, The Lion King, and even seasons four and seven of Seinfeld. I watched them over and over again until I knew them by heart. Work wasn’t even work anymore. I just spent my time laughing with the demons, yelling “wrtkrEX’psahlalvbek” (don’t double dip) and “ujbhAldenv’HAhahak” (no soup for you), and explaining that Darth Vader and Scar were not usually considered the good guys.
One of my demon friends eventually dropped a hint that I should make my conversation appointment with the Devil as soon as possible. Apparently he was a busy guy, and even getting one minute of his time could take years. I was still nowhere near ready to have my minute talk, but I went to Hell Hall anyway, to get the process started. I walked to the top of Broken Glass Mountain, opened the barbed-wire gate, and took a number from the ticket machine inside the lobby. It was #8003. I looked up at a digital sign that said “Now Serving #4.” I walked up to a nearby guard demon.
“NvHexrkun?” (Is there any way I could get seen earlier?) I asked him. He laughed and slapped his hairy hooved legs.
“PwkxfgrtsAndlen’tnovzekrii’yrTf?” (What do you need, mortal?) he asked.
“RoShthz.” (I need to make an appointment to speak with the Devil.)
“OwrjkXp! Grenhaha’plDsrgFnchth.” (Ha, you’re pretty good at Devilese! Come with me.) He lead me down a pitch black hallway into an abandoned basement, lit only by a single dangling light partially covered in blood stains. There he guided me through the necessary paperwork, telling me where to initial, and checking a Far Side calendar on the wall when I needed to pencil in the date. Of course everything was written in Devilese, and he was impressed as I understood page after page.
“VgjkprEnw’zbntyYrdHj’nkerAALpbrenjurdgtf.” (You might be the first human to actually pass the test) he said once we were done. That’s something I’d heard often enough to understand.
“GrtAAng’fvrixplet’yegUR’ogboHEXapltzov.” (Thank you.)
“Nmukl’HAha’pkjzw.” (I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you said.)
“I said you should check out the video recordings at the library. They have records of everyone else who’s taken the test.”
“Oh, okay.” It felt weird to speak in English. I hadn’t used it in years. “Do you think I’ll have time to watch a couple of them before my test?”
“Ha ha, oh yes!” the demon bellowed, looking over the forms I’d filled out. They turned to flames in his hands, and a single piece of paper came floating down from the dark ceiling. He snatched it, grinned, and handed it to me. “This is your official appointment ticket. Your conversation with the Devil is scheduled for one thousand years from now.”
If the Far Side calendar was correct, I’d been studying Devilese for ten years. And I still didn’t know enough to even have a fluent conversation with a mere minion. I’d have to overhaul these next thousand years if I was going to impress the Devil. Chatting with demon guards at work and watching movies during my hour off wasn’t going to cut it anymore.
I came up with a plan. I begged my guards to please never send me to the “torturous” library, and they complied by sending me to work there immediately. I was given the task of putting the returns back on the shelves. The demon librarian showed me the football field-sized room full of restock, gave me a gentle poke with his pitchfork, and left me alone to work. It was too perfect. I put the books back one at a time, after sitting and reading the entire thing, and looking up any phrases I didn’t know in the mansion-sized unabridged library dictionary.
My hour breaks were spent in the torture-chamber-turned-AV-room, watching old recordings of previous attempts to speak with the Devil on a Windows 8 laptop. Some people were just asking to fail, not even knowing basic phrases like “korvgtynTEEN” or “nmukl’HAha’pkjzw,” but others were pretty good, even better than me, and still failed. One guy failed after the Devil told him “You’ve been talking with me for fifty seconds. That’s longer than anyone else has lasted before.” That had of course never been uttered before that point in Devilese, so he didn’t understand it, and failed.
But I wasn’t deterred. Even after watching over a million people fail. Then five million. Once I’d watched over ten million minute-conversation failures, I felt like there was nothing I didn’t know. By that point I was reading a dozen books in Devilese a day. When the librarian Demon got fired for having a conscience, I offered to take his place, and no one cared. But they started caring when I began publishing my own books in Devilese. And started teaching Devilese classes. And updated and corrected the outdated unabridged Devilese dictionary.
Demons started coming to me when they had to write letters to the Devil and needed help with more formal language. I was the one who taught the how to understand the new, dirty words younger demons came up with. They would invite me to parties at their caves, introduce me to their furry wives and children, and give me the honor of eating the eyes out of the sheep-head at dinner. I’ll never forget when, on my birthday, one demon family I’d grown especially close to gave me a pair of hairy goat-leg pants, since they felt that was all I was missing to become a true demon myself. I felt like I’d become a real member of the Hell community.
Before I knew it, a thousand years had passed. I’d watched over twenty-million Devil conversations. I’d read the Devilese translation of every book that had ever been published on Earth or in Hell. I’d been a speaker of Devilese for a dozen more lifetimes than I’d ever been a speaker of anything else. I was the utmost human authority on Devilese, and there was only one guy I had left to prove it to. I was ready.
The day of my test, my demon friends gave me a hearty feast of live-pig entrails, and then sent me on my way with my lucky goat-leg pants on. I walked to the Devil’s castle – a skyscraper made of flesh and bone at the center of Hell – gave my ticket to the demon guard, ran over the field of hot coals to the iron door entrance, and hopped into the elevator that opened up for me, after it poured out a puddle of blood and fish bones. I pressed the button for the top floor and whistled along to the constant high-pitched screams and childlike giggles all the way up.
When the doors opened, I knew exactly what to to expect. I’d seen it twenty million times. The Devil himself was there, a towering half-man half-goat made entirely of flowing lava, sitting on a throne of humans fastened together with rope and screws. On the floor in front of him was a roaring fire, and he was surrounded by thousands and thousands of golden tubes, each labeled with the Devilese name for a country, city, or in special cases, a specific person. The Devil reached into the fire with his knife-like fingers, pulled out a tiny ember and rolled it around like dough, then threw it into one of the tubes, laughing as it emitted a scream.
“YwlsMDhcurp’fogIUrgdsvcg’jhutihLJMBncxb’vwfEurhfjglGhpgfo,” (Excuse me) I said. I knew from watching that the one-minute timing started when the first words of Devilese were spoken. Better to gain a few seconds and take him by surprise. The Devil turned his smoldering truck-sized face toward me and glared.
“Pvrokn’BruxgAgAr?!” (What is the square root of six-hundred and sixty six?) he demanded, his fiery voice hitting me like sticking my head in an oven. But I didn’t let him scare me. I knew what he was doing. Starting off with a ridiculous question was a common tactic of his to end the conversation as quickly as possible and get back to lighting the world on fire.
“Msjfu’wpslsJFugb,” (Twenty-eight point eight zero seven, rounded to the nearest hundred-thousandth.)
The Devil threw back his head and let out a laugh so loud it shook the entire tower. The people who made up his throne tried to cover their ears with someone else’s nearby hands or feet. When he stopped, he leaned in so close I could feel my skin burning from the sticky-hot heat radiating off his face.
“Ndhrufpgflgh’weQtsxncjdlodifhTPyl’gmvbdHwek. KsjdjfurlG?” (I’ve heard of you, mortal. You’re the one who runs the library now, aren’t you?)
“DlfoeyhdbcNvjgiElsOsls’odpFhrbcUVjgnTmhl.” (Yes sir, that’s me.)
“PsldhfuVit. AzlsoDHfneEevoflgithf’nclsodifUTbsnxjspwn’vbvufHGbrbr.” (You must think you’re pretty hot shit, writing books in my language and wearing goat-leg pants.)
“Yrhflsvst.” (No sir, I’m just trying to make the best use of my time here as I can.)
“BreCHhahahazMsnDgfgrHXuth! LkpjkuhN! BhgryfVd’wsCkfdtfgdbFHgytp. Grgoth’eE!” (Please! You’re doing nothing but wasting my time! Listen to your accent. It’s horrible!)
“SlpeOdhfbvur’jfbVnGjtpwpsMDbvdvCFEfghjkulyp. PrWshsoctodtl-” (I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to-)
“RtfgcbvhfYGhtnGjhlUpjlk! OhlfjSBsuiWpz’mXnchfYRhvldpros’ueQzsbxvDbcn! ViforlTdncb!” (Listen to you! Using my language to say such pathetic things! You’re insulting me with every word out of your mouth!)
I knew what he was up to. He did it every time someone made it past the thirty second mark. He was trying to insult me. Shake me. Make me think I didn’t know Devilese as well as I thought I did. Make me think I wasn’t just as much a demon as any one of his minions. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t get thrown off when he did it, but it was a lot harder when he was screaming at my face. I took a deep breath
“YthgncbdJSkal’spsiEhfncvjfurIGjfldms’dbCbfhru. GrhfidlsPeeF. EpfldkSUshaVs. B’fjvirbxeCHenhaha!” (You know, I don’t appreciate being spoken to like that. I’ve spent over one thousand years learning your language, and at first I was only doing it to escape Hell, but now I’ve come to appreciate the beauty hidden inside its randomness. And I’ve learned how wonderful the Hell community can be too. Devilese is the finest language I’ve ever had the pleasure of learning, and everyone who speaks it has been nothing but kind and welcoming to me, except for you. And I think you’re doing a disservice to all of Hell by putting down people who are trying to learn Devilese instead of encouraging them to become demons themselves!)
The Devil leaned back in his flesh throne, looked at me, and gave an airy laugh.
I didn’t know what that meant. It wasn’t “dlsoebvNGht’yfiax” (you have nice earlobes). It wasn’t “dlsoe’BvNGhtyfiax” (colorful green ideas sleep furiously). But I didn’t need to know what it meant. I was in the last ten seconds. He was congratulating me on getting this far, just like he always did, and he was using a new phrase to say that I’d gotten farther than anyone else. I wasn’t going to fall for it. I was just going to accept the first nice words he’d spoken to me and finish this.
“GrtAAng’fvrixplet’yegUR’ogboHEXapltzov.” (Thank you.) I tried not to smirk, but I couldn’t help but let a little one escape. The Devil glared at me and gripped the sides of his throne.
“What?” he asked in burning English. “What do you mean ‘thank you?’ I asked if you actually thought just having some mediocre language skills and goat-pants made you think you’re a real demon! Because you’re not, and you never will be!”
My body froze. I felt the smile spill right off my face and onto the floor. Of course I didn’t know that phrase; no one had ever said it to me before. They’d accepted me as one of their own. But all it took was one jerk to make me feel like I’d wasted all of my time. Because I had; I’d failed.
“Pathetic!” the Devil yelled, slamming his molten fist on the ground and shaking the room. “You can’t even understand one simple sentence. How dare you try to tell me what to think about my own language after a mere one thousand years! Try one million years, mortal! Then maybe you can babble better than a baby. Now get out!”
I crawled my way back into the elevator with the Devil laughing behind me, tossing little embers at my feet and back. I slipped and fell on the puddle of blood on my way out, burned myself on the hot coals outside, and was laughed at by every demon I passed for failing. When I got back to the library, there was a Devilese language class going on, being taught by Steve, who was supposed to take my place after I passed the test today and left.
“What happened?” he asked. All eyes were on me. All the eager students who were studying hard to one day become as good as me and to accomplish what they thought I could accomplish. But I’d failed. And they were going to fail too. No matter how many Devilese books we read. Or how many demon friends we made. We’d never speak fluent Devilese. We’d never be real demons in the eyes of the Devil. We were stuck here forever, eternal second-class citizens, the hope of change forever dangled just out of our grasp. All because we couldn’t speak perfectly.
I ripped off my goat-leg pants and threw them on the floor. My legs were covered in sweat. It was hot. Way too hot! Had it always been this hot in Hell? Had I never noticed before?
For the first time since I’d started learning Devilese, Hell sucked.