The Utilitarian and the Devil: A ParableBy Quinn Norton |
One day, the Utilitarian got out some candles, noxious herbs, bread, sour wine and some blood, took off his clothes and summoned the Devil.
The Devil appeared in the palpable dark punctually, just as the last incanted word left the Utilitarian’s lips. He was dressed in a traditional suit, black and dark red. The air around him was musty, smoky and with that hint of rotten eggs and chocolate just burned too far to be pleasant.
The Devil had the smile of a man who knows he has won, but patient for the game to play out. He didn’t hide it, and he and the Utilitarian both knew the Utilitarian was outmatched. It made the Devil’s cheeks a little warmer red, and the Utilitarian even more wan than usual.
The Utilitarian, suddenly aware in the presence of the highest of angels that he was totally nude, shivered and crouched. The Devil grinned just a bit too far for his face, and exhaled. His breath was like the warmth of a brick fireplace to the cold Utilitarian. The Devil’s breath was a little too close, inviting, but uncomfortable like a winter’s morning when the cold has bit your bones and you think you’ll crawl into the fire so you can at least die warm.
“Yes?” said the Devil, in a growl that rumbled up to a hiss on the note of his curiosity, “What … would you like … from me?”
The Utilitarian stood dumbstruck for a moment, staring with his lips slightly more apart, seeming to get even paler. He remembered himself, snapped his lips together, and tried to bring his shoulders square with the Devil’s.
“I’d … I’d like to sell my soul,” the Utilitarian said, gaining back some of his lost strength as he went.
The Devil reached into a nonexistent coat pocket and pulled out a full clipboard, quill pen resting at the top, and took it in hand.
“Excellent!” he declared. “What shall it be? Money, sex? To be the most famous of philosophers, respected and beloved of Mankind? Or perhaps something more prosaic, in keeping with your demeanor. Peace on earth, perhaps? Please, my dear Utilitarian, don’t keep me waiting!”
As the Devil spoke, his smile never retreated an inch from his ears. He took up the quill pen in a position of mock preparedness, while the Utilitarian caught his breath again and cleared his throat.
“I will sell my soul to you in exchange for passage to Heaven for 10,000 unworthy souls.”
The Devil’s smile shrank to a dot of a mouth and he narrowed his eyes. Now, it is said that an unstained soul (which the Utilitarian had) smells ever so much sweeter to Hell than its sullied cousins. This is not untrue, but 10,000 was a lot of unworthy souls. They were perhaps not so tantalizing, but they were the Devil’s fair and square, and there were 10,000 of them.
On the other hand … he slapped his pen down on the clipboard and both vanished in a flash of fire. The Devil stared at an imaginary point across the basement’s width. To the Utilitarian, he seemed to be thinking, but it was terrible to watch the Devil think and it made him shake again.
The Devil looked back at the Utilitarian, meeting him in the eyes. “It may not be mine to give. I shall make inquiries.”
With that, the Devil was gone, along with the summoning circle and its creepy paraphernalia. All that was left was some misplaced wax and the cold, naked Utilitarian.
Months passed without a word from the Devil. The Utilitarian lived an ascetic life, balanced with charity and good works, in anticipation of the Devil’s return. He wanted nothing to sully the value of his soul. He remembered the Devil’s smile at him, and he knew the Devil would somehow find a way to pay.
The decades came and went, and the Utilitarian remained a blameless champion of the suffering. He fed the hungry and found great pleasure in it. He reached out to the mad especially, and sheltered them from the world when they couldn’t shelter themselves from the beasts of their minds. He came to enjoy his work, and his enjoyment only made his good work better.
As he slowly shrank into a stooped old man, he barely thought about the Devil anymore. He had come to love his life for the joy of the service. He was no longer holding his soul virtuous for the sake of good value, but had become that value itself.
One morning, as the Utilitarian was getting out of bed, he heard a caller knocking. It was the Devil, just as he had been, as if he’d just stepped out for a cigarette.
“Are you still interested?” asked the Devil.
“My soul for 10,000 unworthy?” asked the Utilitarian.
The Devil nodded once.
“Then,” continued the Utilitarian, “I am still interested.”
Sealing the deal
“Well, then. Let’s seal the deal over a game of chess, and drink some tea!” said the Devil, happily producing a kettle and game board from nothing and nowhere.
The Devil set out the board and patted his stomach unconsciously. He gestured for the Utilitarian to sit in his own seat while he poured tea in two abruptly existent cups on the table. Content, he seated himself behind black, and the Utilitarian took the first move.
“You’ve done well for yourself,” said the Devil as he made his move, “You’re well on the way to sainthood.”
“Nonsense. The mutterings of committees, talking about my death,” said the old Utilitarian, waving his hand dismissively in the air.
The Devil laughed and went on, “I have rather better sources than you in these matters.”
The Utilitarian looked abashed, and made his next move. They went on for a while longer, chatting, playing chess, and drinking tea, until the Devil paused, stealing the Utilitarian’s attention away from the game.
“You know, people get it all wrong,” said the Devil, leaning back from the game, tea in hand. “I don’t want good men to join me so I can torture them for all eternity, or eat them, or whatever people think I do. It’s just that the evil deceased can be so boorish. Black-hearted men don’t suddenly get easy to live with just because they’re dead. Whereas you, sir, are simply good company to all comers, even myself. I know from your life that you are not only kind, but enjoy being so. That you laugh in equal parts to your tears, that you think, and are willing to share your thoughts. Why on earth would I not want such company for my duties in Hell?”
He waved his hand gently around the bare room, as if impressed with its lavishness.
The Devil looked down, losing the Utilitarian’s eyes, and continued. “With that I must remind you of the terms of our deal and see if you agree. In exchange for your one, unblemished soul descending to the depths of Hell to be by my side for eternity, 10,000 souls marked for me by the unworthiness of their lives shall instead walk the road to Heaven, to dwell forever?”
“It is obviously better that this should be,” said the Utilitarian. “And whatever waits for me in Hell, the knowledge that 10,000 can rise toward bliss will be an eternal comfort.”
“Yes, that will be true. But my, shall we say, counterpart, wanted the deal repeated to you as his condition, to give you time to consider what you are asking for.”
“The math is simple. 10,000 will always be more than one,” said the Utilitarian.
The Devil put out his hand, and as the Utilitarian shook it, he felt the whole of the small house shift, and begin to sink into the ground. The Devil went on unperturbed.
“10,000 and one are not as uneven as you think,” he told the Utilitarian magnanimously, clasping his extra hand over the Utilitarian’s. “I’d wager Hell is nearly as improved by your grace today as Heaven has been diminished by it.”
Reprinted with permission by the author. For more “off hours thoughts, snippets of investigation and the accounting of too many projects,” visit www.quinnnorton.com/said.