…such infants that quit the body without being baptized will be involved in the mildest condemnation of all. That person, therefore, greatly deceives himself and others, who teaches that they will not be involved in condemnation…

Saint Augustine of Hippo

Kids that haven’t been christened don’t go to heaven–they’re carried off to hell by great big buses when they die.

These children have left behind bodies that are so small you could fit them easily into a violin case.  What is the fate of these bodies? Many of them end up on a table, where they are autopsied, where professionals look into their insides and discover over and over again the very same thing: that beneath the rib cage there is a heart and two lungs, and white bones, and red blood, and some (not much) flesh.  Some of these professionals look into the children’s heads: it doesn’t take much to bisect the skull, you just have to have some shears–the skulls of children are soft, and after the incision the head opens up like a ripe piece of fruit.

They make great baby-dolls, so beloved by little girls, out of some of the bodies. Inside you can put a barrel organ or a device that imitates crying. You install little springs in the eyelids that make the doll blink. The eyes don’t dry out because they’re varnished, which also means they’re always shining. But you can’t buy those dolls just anywhere, only in special shops, and they don’t make very many of them, either–it’s expensive, they’re so-called handmade, less and less popular in this day and age. The last master craftsman like that I heard about, it was eight years ago or so. He lives–if he’s still alive–in the little town of Chichester in the south of England, and his name is Augustinus.

The fate of many bodies is unknown, but I can tell you about the posthumous fate of the souls of those children: I happen to know something about that.

Big buses run day and night, in good weather and in bad, so that the eternal order is preserved and everything goes smoothly. They go both ways–some to hell, others to heaven; such is fate. Their route runs through the mountains; it’s chilly, there are smooth granite rocks, almost no plants, the air is brisk, and the sky cloudless. The children who are damned zigzag upwards–the myth about heaven being above and hell below is the invention of a pair of very crafty fellows; you can believe me or not, but I assure you, it’s exactly the opposite. Heaven is located in the sheltering core of the earth, warm as amniotic fluid, while hell is way up high, amidst heavy cloud masses, and who knows where it ends.

The bus climbs upwards; the fog thickens; the pressure falls. The children are aware of this, but they don’t cry. They are well behaved. Some of them have pacifiers in their mouths that they’ve managed to sneak out of this world.

The bus to paradise goes downwards, lower and lower, where there are lots of trees, and the grass is succulently green, and the roses purple. There are some animals there, too, but gentle ones, who don’t have claws or teeth, or even if they do, they don’t use them. The children look at the roses and can touch them without pricking themselves on thorns, because in paradise everything is made of light. And nor are there weeds in heaven.

There is in the eternal timetable a moment when the children’s buses pass each other. And then, for just a second, the eyes of the kids from one bus meet the eyes of the children from the other bus. The children look at each other without being able to say anything or make any gesture in greeting–they hadn’t had time to learn yet on earth. That little glitch is my favorite moment. Because the kids should never see one another. Did someone screw up somewhere, or is there really just no other road?

Some of the newborns have brought animals with them, live ones and plush. A cat, four puppies, a toy panda, a rat, and in the fist of one child even a golden fish. It had been dead for hours, but the kid didn’t know that, which was all right. The kids try to hide them, thinking that someone is going to take everything away from them. Nothing of the kind. Nobody’s interested in animals. Some of them, sick of the long journey, escape through the bus’ airshaft, but their soft plush toys most often remain behind.

The journey goes on, and it starts to get dark, and the children receive blankets and hot cocoa, because they have to keep warm, because it’s chilly. Some of them sleep, but most of them stay awake–dozens of pairs of eyes shimmering in the darkness like bats’ little eyes. The children are patient. In the end they reach hell.  The first thing then is to name them-oftentimes they hadn’t gotten a name yet when they were still alive. You couldn’t say that their names are selected with particular care, but they’re definitely not entirely random, either. Two twins (yes, sometimes both die rather than just one) will be named Kamil and Emil, a pretty girl with black eyes and very red lips will be called Carmen, and so on and so forth.

They have names, but they don’t use them. Evidently the names serve some other goal. Things are quiet in hell. There is no fire, no deep-frying people, or ripping out fingernails, or flogging, or blood. It’s like a November night when you can’t fall asleep and in tossing and turning you observe a gloomy dawn encroaching upon the window. The red is diluted, turns into gray, and then into a cold, milky shade, and somewhere out there there’s a pair of crows perched on a branch, and the trees are bare. That’s it: a dismal autumn.

The children don’t get enough sleep, that’s the first of the punishments that awaits them. Newborns need a lot of sleep, and in hell they only give them five hours. Because they have to work. But you have to be able to walk to work, you’ll say. Yes, well, some of them can–they walk strangely, shakily, unnaturally.

Those that can’t, crawl. Some of them aren’t even capable of that, so they just lie there. I can’t say why some of them can master the art of walking and others can’t. Perhaps it’s a question of their bone structure? Those that lie there just stare up at the ceiling, but not in sadness. Who knows–maybe they’re even happy that they don’t have to work. Their surrogate for walking is a weekly bath in the pool. The pool is enormous; the water in it is black and thick like chocolate or like venous blood. It floats the bodies of the children, even those that haven’t learned how to swim. But they can swim–they remember that still from their mother’s wombs.

The swimming pool is the only place where music is played. It’s mainly tango that seeps out of those speakers. On Saturday (which in hell is the same as Sunday in heaven and on earth) instead of tango the speakers emit the sound of a beating human heart. They attach wires to one of the kids lying down, and those wires are hooked up to the speakers, which then transmit the heart’s rhythmic beating across the stereo system. You never worry that someday they’ll just fall silent. You don’t die in hell–hell is a second more eternal than heaven. The kid won’t die, then, but nor will he go anywhere ever–as though he has an illness from which he will never recover, all he can do is move his eyes.

But you would be wrong to think he’s sad. I see joy in those eyes. The boy is not bothered by his own everlasting stillness. He is happy to have the innumerable Saturdays when thin wires link his body to speakers. It awakens in him a kind of hazy memory–I know what the memory is, though he never will.  Just sometimes, when he sees the water, a chill runs over his shoulder blades, and a sequence of associations crosses his imagination: warm goo, darkness, the sweet smell of milk and blood, a rhythmic rocking in a soap-like bubble.

But wait. The children came to atone, so let’s get back to their punishments. With some chagrin, I must admit that none of them is particularly sophisticated. In one of the rooms the children build towers out of blocks that always fall down right before they can be finished. Some of them cry when that happens; others don’t care. In the next rooms the children help build a bridge. They push wheelbarrows of mortar, carry bricks just light enough for them to be able to carry them. They climb up the scaffolding. The work is not exhausting. They have the right to take a break every three hours. Besides, I get the sense that no one is really supervising them. Despite this, they work.

Sometimes God visits hell. No one has ever seen the devil. God looks like David Bowie and smokes cigarettes. Supposedly he is all-powerful, but he doesn’t look like he’s getting enough sleep. He must have a lot on his mind–that’s how the children might see it, looking at his face. Although who knows what they think. Sometimes God takes one of them onto his lap and gives him or her a rattle or some other little toy, but in the end he always realizes it was stupid. The children don’t play with toys, generally speaking. They’re very serious for their age.

God is always intending to do something for the children, to modernize hell–a space that is increasingly savage and untended–but he always puts it off. Only one small piece of it is somewhat developed, cleaned and weeded. The rest is overgrown, or the ground cracks, or it’s dry, and in other places too wet again, and then you have to slog through swamps. Every night three new stones arise from every one stone. This is the result of some error amongst the mathematics here–an inexplicable mistake. The children can’t even be counted accurately. The system stops working when the children get off the bus.  After that, no one is especially interested in their fate. Besides, what use would anyone have for the statistics, since it is known that no one in this place will die, and no one will be born. That provides some reassurance.

The children eat their meals in an enormous dining hall at wooden tables, seated in single file. You might all think that this was a shelter at a convent or an orphanage. The hall is clean, the floor is freshly polished, the wood breathes, and the boards of the tables still, despite the passage of time, emit resin. It is quiet. The children drink their milk from white mugs. They don’t realize how much better it tastes than breast milk.


Sylwia Siedlecka

Sylwia Siedlecka teaches at the University of Warsaw and in the Collegium Civitas. Trained as a Czech and Bulgarian scholar, she knows seven living languages and three dead ones. “Children” is taken from her debut book of fiction, Szczeniaki (Puppies), which appeared in 2010. A recurring motif in the collection is death; Siedlecka is interested in particular in exploring the feelings of the bereaved in her work.

Jennifer Croft

Jennifer Croft holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Northwestern University (2013) and an MFA in Literary Translation from The University of Iowa (2003). Her criticism and translations have appeared in Quarterly Conversation, Critical Flame, Literary Matters, Common Knowledge, Two Lines, Washington Square, Words Without Borders, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. She has held Fulbright, Instytut Książki, and FLAS grants.

Dzieci. Copyright (c) Sylwia Siedlecka, 2010. English translation copyright (c) Jennifer Croft, 2013.