The Devil’s Treasure
by Mary Gaitskill, recommended by Electric Literature
EDITOR’S NOTE by Andy Hunter
It’s always exciting to have the opportunity to give readers an early look at a new novel by a writer they admire. In the first issue of Electric Literature we published an early chapter from By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham, preserving material that didn’t end up in the final novel and revealing a bit about his creative process.
So I welcomed the opportunity to publish an excerpt from a novel-in-progress by Mary Gaitskill (my favorite living author of short stories) as my first pick for Recommended Reading.
Readers of serious contemporary fiction are more likely to encounter protagonists suffering from emotional detachment than stricken by passion. It’s rare that a literary author writes of a soul as if it’s a thing, the devil as real, or of love as an unknowable force that manifests in us. Like Flannery O’Connor (my favorite dead author of short stories), Ms. Gaitskill has an unsparing intuition for people’s weaknesses and motives, and she creates exquisitely drawn characters living in a ragged world where things matter.
I once asked Mary for her thoughts on the state of the short story. “Bloodless,” was her reply. At the launch party for Recommended Reading, I vowed to drown our readers in a river of blood. To that end, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce “The Devil’s Treasure” by Mary Gaitskill.
Founder, Electric Literature
The Devil’s Treasure
WHEN GINGER WAS SEVEN she went to Hell. She’d first heard of it because her father said “What the hell!” when something was funny. Then one day he came out of his bedroom shouting “This is hell!” while her mother cried behind the door and it was not funny. His eyes were staring and he was showing his teeth like a scared dog. When she asked, her grandmother told her Hell was a made-up place underground where people went to be tortured forever. Then she saw a cartoon in which the Devil sat on a pile of treasure and laughed while demons poked dancing people in the behind with pitchforks. It did not look like torture. It looked scary but interesting too.
The night she went to Hell, Ginger went to sleep in the bedroom she shared with her sister. They laid their heads on their pillows and their mother sang them “Tender Shepherd.”
One say your prayers and
Two close your eyes and
Three safe and happily
And then Ginger went looking for Hell. She didn’t have to look far. Her spirit rose off her and walked through the house. The furniture watched her kindly. The only thing that called her was the sugar bowl, from which she liked to sneak spoonfuls during the day. But her spirit didn’t stop even for that. She went straight to the backyard and found the trapdoor that lead to Hell. It wasn’t hard to open. The stairway down was clean and well-lit. She thought, “I will steal the Devil’s treasure and put it under my bed so I’ll have it in the morning!”
As she ran down the stairs in her nightie, she noticed pictures on the walls. They showed faces and scenes, and they moved as she went past. In one picture, naked people were being driven up a great stone stair by powerful men with no faces. It reminded her of the cartoon so she stopped to look at it. And then she was in it.
Now Ginger was not Ginger. She was starved hurting limbs. She was a dried sore mouth and eyes. She was a straining heart. She was legs that stumbled as they were pulled forward by the mass of driven bodies. On one side was darkness, on the other a wall. The weight and smell were horrible. The stairs wound up and up. A long scream came searing down; a body fell from above into the pit, clawing the air with its limbs. Softer and nearer came a moan — not just a sound, but a voice. The person who used to be Ginger stirred inside because she knew the voice. This stirring brought fear but still she turned towards the voice. She looked at the creature beside her; she saw a face looking back at her with terrible stretched eyes, speaking eyes. Recognition came hurtling towards her.
Then Ginger was only Ginger, and running down the clean, well-lit stairway. At the bottom of the stairs was a lit hall. Lizards the size of large dogs grew out of the wall, but they were sleeping. The next room was made of bathroom tiles and chunks of gold. Faucets and sinks stuck out of the walls, also washing machines and dryers, televisions, cell phones, computers, refrigerators, and microwave ovens; all the conveniences of the world were here and all of them were running. The next room was dark and full of glowing monitors embedded in the darkness. Scenes of war and torture were playing on all of them; Ginger saw bloody sights from the corner of her eye but this time wisely did not stop to look.
Soon she came to a quiet, old-fashioned room. One of its huge walls was made of bookcases full of books. In another wall was an open window with flowing curtains; it looked out on a starry night sky, and, beyond the stars, a universe of planets that was distant and vivid at the same time. There was an enormous fireplace with a pleasant fire in it. Before the fire was an armchair and in it sat the Devil. He was reading a book. Except for his red skin, horns, and tail, he looked like a regular man in a peaceful mood. Ginger crept up and saw, behind the chair, a bag of treasure. She grabbed it and ran.
She tried to retrace her route back home, but she took a wrong turn and suddenly realized that she didn’t have the bag of treasure. Where had it gone? She had not dropped it! She was about to go back and look for it when she saw a naked old woman walking towards her carrying something horrible and glowing. Ginger didn’t know why something that glowed should seem horrible, only that it did. As if she could hear her, the old woman said, “I carry love wrapped in pain. That is my treasure and soon it will be yours.”
“Thank you,” said Ginger politely, “but I don’t want that. I want the treasure I found. Can you tell me where it is?”
But the old woman continued as if she hadn’t heard. “Sometimes it is heavy in my arms, sometimes it is weightless,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t know anymore if it really is love. I have been carrying it for so long.”
The old woman kept walking, and Ginger fell in with her. She did this because while the old woman seemed weird, she did not seem bad, and also because Ginger thought she might be able to help find the treasure.
They turned a corner and entered a corridor with black walls out of which protruded hundreds of human heads. They were male, female, young, old, beautiful, ugly. Ginger was afraid, but not as afraid as you would think. “Can you tell me where my treasure is?” she asked the old woman again.
The woman turned and stared at her as if she were very stupid. “Don’t you know?” she said. “It’s in you. You’ll never get rid of it now.”
Then the protruding heads started talking. Some spoke in foreign languages, others spoke English. This was the funny thing: Ginger could understand them all, regardless of their language. But even so, what they said made no sense to her. She stopped before the head of a man with black hair; he was talking to the head of a woman with yellow hair. Their faces were rigid like death, but tears poured freely from their eyes. Ginger knew they were talking to each other, but although they were speaking the same language, neither was able to understand the other’s words, probably because they were both talking at the same time. And they could not stop.
Ginger looked for the old woman, hoping she would explain. But she had kept walking while Ginger had stopped, and was already gone in the darkness of the corridor. And then the things that were happening became harder to understand. Because instead of words, pictures poured from the talking mouths, blurred and run-together pictures, like there was a giant movie on in the air in front of her, but it was too mixed-up to see what it was.
Until finally one scene stood still. It was an image of a beautiful young man. He had pale blond hair and full, pale lips and hazel eyes that were full of movement. He was like a song playing in a locked room, a song which you could not quite hear, but which you strained to hear because something in it promised that it was beautiful, more beautiful than any other song, more beautiful than anything of any kind.
Ginger heard herself say in a voice she did not recognize as her own, “I love him.”
Now the young man was in a delightful room where people wearing beautiful clothes were smiling and talking like they were outside in the sun, and playing the most wonderful complicated game — except that they weren’t. They were only talking. In this room, the song that you could not quite hear was one of mysterious, powerful joy translated as social beauty, personality, and bodily love, and because the young man had so much of it, he was surrounded by girls who loved him. Ginger could not see herself, but she felt that she too was there.
She whispered it again: “I love him.”
“Yes,” said a voice. “He is your love. You see him now as he will live in the world.”
Ginger could not look away from the young man to see who spoke to her, but the voice made her feel such fear she could hardly stay on her feet.
“Here he is in the world. Now feel him as he will be with you.”
And Ginger was knocked on her back. She could still hear the sound and speech of the delightful room but she could not see it because it was dark and someone was on top of her. His tongue was in her mouth, and her tongue was in his. At the same time her tongue was up his bottom, and his was in her brains. Their tongues were poison, and both of them knew it, but still she sucked on his like she’d tear it from him. All around them people spoke lightly and laughingly, as if they did not know or were pretending not to know. She felt terror. Still she sucked and grabbed and so did the man, and she was gnawed by pain until she stopped being able to see or feel anything else.
Then the pain stopped and she was standing, though reeling, before the saturating image of the beautiful young man. Except that she was in the image too, and she was smiling, shyly and hopefully. She nearly fell and the voice said, “Stay on your feet. We’re not done yet.”
And she looked to see who was speaking. It was a demon. It looked like a man but she knew it was a demon. Its eyes were lit by inhuman strength, and its gaze ate her from the inside. She nearly fell again, but she felt its will like a cold iron hand that held her steady.
“Now see him as he is with himself.”
The young man now walked on a gray path, so gray and vague that she could not make out if it were a paved street or a natural landscape or a moonscape. Neither could he; she could tell by his eyes that he saw nothing before him, for the light had gone from them; they were dull and simple with anguish and bewilderment. His walk was a lurching stagger; he could barely put one foot before the other and his arms hung loose at his sides. His clothes were ragged and his face was unshaven and his full lips were open because he did not have the energy to close them.
What she was seeing was worse than what she had felt, and she cried out, “What happened to him? This doesn’t make sense!”
The demon smiled, if you could call it that. And another picture came, of the young man’s smiling, beautiful face which, as she watched, transformed into a rigid mask with a gaping mouth and eyes. The young man seemed to resist this transformation; Ginger could see him resisting in his eyes and mouth, trying to stay in the pleasure and lightness of his earthly self. But he could not resist, and light pleasure turned into anger, fear and despair — and then became a mute totem of those things. The mask became wooden, and then it became the face of a building, its stiff oblong mouth stretched to become a door, its stunned square eyes the windows. And then Ginger was inside the building. She was inside the young man.
Inside the young man, she felt his soul and — Oh! His soul was the beautiful song that Ginger had sensed, and it was not a lie. It was vast and radiant and it was squashed into something small and hard, and it was dying of pain. Valiantly, he tried to bring his soul to life in the small thing through which it had to live, and it was crushed, again and again. Meanwhile, women came flying at him, loving him, swarming like hornets, beautiful with love, drunk with love, near-crazy with love, sick with it, buzzing all around him, looking for the beautiful soul they sensed unerringly. Seeking them too, this soul reached longingly through the upper chambers of the young man’s heart, and that way he loved the women as he could. And then, when he could do no more, he took each woman down into his basement and, one by one, threw them into that dark cellar, where they were digested and decomposed, one into the other, all the same.
“He doesn’t want this!” cried Ginger. “He so does not want this!”
“He dies of loneliness amid this broken flesh,” agreed the demon, “though he will occasionally chew some limb or other — wait, aren’t those your arms?”
Yes, Ginger saw her dismembered arms, reaching for the poor man, dying to touch him. “You think you are different,” said the demon. “But to him you are just one more.” As if to prove its point, the young man glumly reached out for an arm and hopelessly began to gnaw on it.
Ginger screamed, “It hurts!”
The demon laughed. “Of course it hurts! You’re in Hell, girl! And you came here deliberately!”
His powerful demon-hand dropped her; she fell on a stony ground. There were no more pictures now, no corridor, only darkness and hardness. “Where is he?” she cried, getting up. “Where is he now?”
“Oh,” said the demon. “He must be around here somewhere. Why?”
“I want to be with him, to tell him — ”
“That you love him? That’s funny — take a look at yourself!”
And Ginger looked and saw that she was no longer a little girl but an old woman, naked and visibly withered, feeble and dry. Ginger was so outraged by this low trick that she actually stamped her dry little foot and cried, “I don’t care! I just want to see him!”
The demon laughed and stamped its foot with such mocking glee that fire jetted out its leathery ass. “That’s rich!” it said. “Alright then, here he is, your love!” And he tossed a large black spider at her.
Ginger yelped with fear, jumped back, fell and broke her old-lady hip. She tried to brush the spider off her, but she was too gentle (in case it really was him), and it sank its fangs into her.
“Maybe you’d like to see your mother and father, they’re both here too.”
“They can’t be, they’re still alive!”
“Oh, they’re here, and I think you saw them already on your way down.”
And again they came before her, the driven people. Once more she saw the one next to her with his terrible eyes and bared teeth. Dumbstruck, she covered her heart with her hands; it was her father. It was her mother, her grandmother, her sister, her sister’s children, and they were driven with countless others into a grinding machine that crushed them and re-made them, over and over, into faces and postures and emotions that Ginger recognized and held dear, but which were now revealed as stiff and terrible mask-houses with unfeeling eye-holes and mouths in shapes of meaningless happiness or pain. Ginger cried out and covered her eyes.
“Life on earth!” cried the demon as he worked the machine. “Yes, life on earth!”
Ginger tried to get away, crying and hobbling on her broken hip. She stumbled and fell. The demon laughed and ground the wheel of the machine with pleasureful spite.
A voice said, “Enough.” The demon hissed. Ginger looked up into near-blinding light. She shielded her eyes and looked at the demon; it was no longer there. Out of the light came a girl, a dark-skinned girl of maybe twelve, a very dark-skinned old man at her side. The girl came forward and put her arms around Ginger; the girl was warm and gentle but her body was strong.
“Who are you?” asked Ginger.
“She is my granddaughter,” said the old man. “She is the one good thing you will do on earth. She is not your child, but a child you will love. Come with us. We are protected.”
They stepped into the light, which, Ginger realized, was the headlights of a large taxi. She saw that there were other people already in the car, too many than could logically fit. Some of the people looked strange, somehow misshapen; she hesitated but the old man said, “Come.” And, with the young dark girl, they got into the taxi.
As soon as she sat down, Ginger saw that she was seated next to a young boy with pale blond hair, pale lips, and hazel eyes. “Hi,” he said shyly; “Hi,” she answered back. The old man and the young girl were still there; the forms of other people were there. But all of her attention was on the boy. She reached for his hand; he reached too and they held each other.
“Be careful,” said the driver. “We’re at the crossing.”
And they passed into a field of beautiful voices talking and singing together, like flowers with intelligent tongues, growing in all shapes and sizes, and changing as they grew, joking with each other, privately and gently, as they spread over the field and beyond, becoming something Ginger lacked the ability to see. She looked at the boy, wanting to speak. But he said, “I have to go.”
“Oh,” she said, “but — ”
“Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ll see you again — back there.”
The taxi driver’s face flashed in the mirror. The boy dissolved in the field of voices; his voice joined theirs. In his place, Ginger saw the sleeping, dark-skinned young girl.
She realized: The voices were the poor, crushed, distorted and broken things of earth; as they sang and spoke they were unfolding and becoming whole. They were growing around an ancient, broken machine, helping it to soften and slowly decompose into the earth. Ginger did not know how she knew this, but she did. With gratitude, she kissed the young girl’s cheek. As if dreaming, the girl smiled. “How did you come?” asked Ginger. “How did you find me?”
“My granddaughter can’t answer,” answered the old man. “She doesn’t know she’s here; she’s asleep on earth. But I know she loves you. When I saw what was happening, I knew she would want to help you, and I knew it would comfort you to see the love in her face. And so I asked that we be brought here.”
“How did your granddaughter come to know me?”
“You lived in the same place.”
“Life on earth.”
“But — ?”
“Be still,” said the old man. “You’re nearly home.”
As he spoke the taxi driver dissolved in the mirror, and with him his car. There was nothing carrying them but the warmth of the old man’s arms and the sound of voices. There were no people visible, but Ginger thought she could feel their comforting weight still around them.
“My parents,” said Ginger. “Are they going to Hell?”
“I can’t answer.”
“Please. I need to know.”
“You spoke to a demon. Demons lie.”
“And the boy? Why did the boy say he would see me again back there?”
“Please tell me! Is he going to eat my arms? Even though he hates it?”
“Demons especially enjoy metaphors.”
“What do you mean?”
The old man was silent.
“Tell me! You have to tell me!”
The field of voices went silent.
Ferociously Ginger grabbed the old man’s arm and shouted, “Tell me!” And the old man let her go.
Then Ginger was running up the same flight of stairs she had run down, carrying the bag of treasure. She came to the trap door and pushed it open and came out in her own backyard; her heart burst with happiness to see the grass in the early morning light. She went straight to her bedroom and put the treasure under the bed so she would be sure to find it in the next day. Then she got in bed and fell asleep, dreaming of what she would spend it on.
When she woke in the morning, she looked under the bed and saw nothing. She was disappointed, but then she forgot about it. She ate breakfast and went out to play with her sister. They played in the back yard and ran back and forth over the spot the trap door had been. That evening they ate dinner as usual and watched the news on TV. Their father said, “The world is going to hell!”
Ginger remembered what had happened then, and, before she got in bed that night, she checked under it to see if the treasure was there after all. Seeing nothing, she sighed, got into the bed and listened to her mother sing them to sleep.
But, though she saw nothing, the treasure was there. The old woman she had met in Hell was not a demon and she had told the truth. It was there. Just not where Ginger could see it.