To your left, you will see what appear to be nuggets of charcoal,
but in fact, they’re considerably rarer than lunar rocks.
This glass case is airtight and soundproof. Contain them
in anything less, and the screams in these hell stones (think
of the waves in a conch shell you hold to your ear)
would echo throughout the exhibit, if not the museum.
At noon, we’ll be feeding the hell stones. You heard me:
They need us to feed them. Now what does a hell stone eat?
They prefer those parts of the body that grow after death.
So fingernails, mostly, that sizzle on contact and vanish.
Our docents, trimming their mustaches, gather the trimmings
in Ziplocs and sprinkle them over the stones like fish food.
The crackle they make when they eat, I am told, resembles
the neck of a hanged man the moment the trapdoor drops,
though to my ear, it’s more like Rice Krispies in milk.
There isn’t a hell anymore, not as Jonathan Edwards
conceived it. That hell and the furnace in Hansel and Gretel
are equally fairy-tale, equally hokey antiques.
Though some of our curators note that our hell stones still
have an appetite. Some have suggested the screams
I was talking about are a war cry, or mating call.
Just a couple of stones could rebuild the entire inferno.
I guess that we house them the same way the CDC houses
its vials of smallpox and polio. Keeping a sample
of what you eradicate guards you against a recurrence.
It’s like that for all our museum exhibits: the trace
of the god in the comic-book hero, the trace of election
in fame. Such a project is, naturally, not without danger.
This glass case? It’s bulletproof. Nevertheless, we have had
to replace it twice since the artifacts went on display.
In the dark, after closing, they pelt themselves against it,
a hailstorm that stops at a swing of the night watchman’s flashlight.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.