She was sitting in a small, well lit room. The only chair was the one she was sitting on. There was a steel door, no windows but there was a wooden table covered with letters that had been carved into the tabletop. Her hand rested on the table, they were the hands of an old woman, big knuckles, blood vessels protruding, her fingernails were long and when she was finished retracing the carvings on the table with her fingertips she started tapping rhythmically on the table.
The man in the corner was silent. He was ageless in a way only men of a certain age look ageless. He was wearing a dark suit, the kind associated with lawyers and undertakers. His hair was short and he looked cleanly shaved.
“Mathilda, was it?”
She jumped at hearing him speak. She pulled her hand away from the table quickly and started fiddling with the skirt of her dress. It was a dress filled with flowers. Once it had been a favourite because it looked like another dress, one from her childhood. It had lace at the edges and puffy, blue arms.
She didn’t answer the man and it seemed to irritate him a little. He folded his arms, unfolded them again and shifted weight on his feet back and forth.
“Mathilda, how long have you been sitting here?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she was looking into her lap.
“Have you met someone like me before?” he asked. He leaned up against the wall and folded his arms again.
“I’m sure I have.”
“So you know that I have a few questions for you. Are you ready to answer my questions?”
“I will do my very best,” she said and this time she looked up. She placed her hand on the table top again and tapped with her fingers, making a soft sound.
“What is your idea of hell?” he asked, his voice stern, a bit overwhelming.
“What? Well, ..” she hesitated, withdrew her hand and started rolling her thumbs.
“You can take your time,” he sounded like he was in a hurry, but she didn’t let it bother her.
“Well, I was never much for pain,” she said.
“Pain? So your idea of hell would be a place where you are in a lot of pain?”
“I guess,” she said, looking at him.
The man looked at his watch and changed weight on his feet again, leaning away from the wall. “Isn’t it true that you went two weeks with a toothache once? Wasn’t that awful? Why didn’t you go to the dentist if pain is the worst thing of all?”
“Well,” she said and smiled at the memory. “I did resist the dentist’s office.”
“Why was that?”
“Well, at the time I was afraid of the dentist,” she drummed her fingernails on the table again, the rhythm turning into a louder tapping.
“So, you thought that the dentist office was worse than being in that much pain?”
“I guess I did,” she said.
“So wouldn’t the dentist office, or chair, be your kind of hell?” he asked sternly.
“I don’t think so,” she sighed and pulled her hand once more. “I got over that. I wouldn’t mind sitting in a dentist chair, they are very comfortable.”
“Right,” he looked a bit disappointed, “are you sticking with pain? That pain is the worst scenario?”
“I don’t know, young man,” she said, “I guess there are worse things than pain.”
She looked up for a moment, looked at the lightbulb above her head and shrugged her shoulders. Then she looked into her lap again and shook her head unremarkably.
The man waited.
“I don’t know, I guess I find it hard to think of eternity in hell being something that I can relate to.”
“Right, but if you had to?”
“I had a few bad moments in my life,” she said looking at him. Her hand resting in her lap. “I had moments in my childhood I wouldn’t want to relive, and others during the war and then there was this thing towards the end.”
“Right,” he said. “And would you say that if you were stuck in those moments, that would be the worst thing you could imagine?”
He looked satisfied. He leaned up against the wall with his hands hanging limply by his sides.
“Well, it’s hard to tell. When it comes to childhood memories I think I’d be able to handle those situations now in a different way. I’m not a little kid anymore. I know how to deal with bullies.”
“Right, and the other things?”
“War is hell,” she said.
“So that’s your answer then?”
“Well, I guess if I have to give an answer that would be it. The worst things you go through is seeing your friends hurting, seeing those you love die around you. There is nothing worse. Seeing people suffer.”
The man looked worried. He folded his arms again and shifted his weight. “Alright,” he said.
“Is that it? Or do you have more questions?”
The man put on a broad smile, but was silent.
“Have you answered these questions yet, young man? Is that why you’re here?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did they make you sit in a brightly lit room for this long and answer what your idea of hell is? Did they make you answer the question yet?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“No, I guess you wouldn’t,” she said and started tapping her fingers on the table again. The rhythm was faster than before, the sound louder as her fingernail hit the tabletop.
“Would you please stop that?” he said.
“Would you please stop drumming your fingers, I dislike that, that sound…,”
“What? The melody? I quite like it, but I can’t seem to place it. I can’t remember much anymore.”
“How long have you been sitting here?” two big wrinkles had formed on the man’s forehead. He looked uncomfortable.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I can’t seem to get this thing right.”
“What thing?” He was sweating now.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess there’s a plan to this. How long have you been here?”
He walked towards the door and put his hand on the doorknob.
“What did you say?”
“When did you get here?”
“I don’t know…I guess I just got here. I was …”
“It’s alright, they’ll find a good place for you too.”
“Why are you here?” he asked, letting go off the doorknob.
“What do you mean?”
“What did you do to get here? What did you do? You’ve had to have done something. You don’t end up here unless you’ve…” his voice trailed off and he put his hand on the doorknob again.
“I don’t think I did do anything,” she said, “I’m here to be evaluated, is that not right? Did you do something?”
“I committed a…” his voice trailed off. “I never believed in this place though, I never believed in it.”
The old woman smirked.
“I did, but I didn’t think it would be like this. I thought it was brimstone and fire.”
“But this isn’t it,” he said, suddenly looking more sure of himself. “This isn’t it, this isn’t so bad.”
“I guess,” she said, “though I sometimes wonder”.
She said the last part in a low voice, as if to herself.
“Well then, I guess we’re finished here,” the man said, stretched out his back so he suddenly looked a meter taller than before.
The woman was quiet.
“It was nice talking to you, I hope you…” he didn’t finish the sentence, just looked at her, with his hand on the doorknob. He smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes and then he turned the knob.
The woman smiled when the knob didn’t turn.
“You know, the last time it took a lot longer…” she sighed and started drumming with her fingers again, “This takes a long time”.
He looked at her, surprise and horror in his eyes.
“You don’t much like me, I don’t know why, but you and I, we don’t have to get along, though I’m sure you’re a nice fella.”
He knocked on the door, “HELLO? LET ME OUT. I’M FINISHED IN HERE!” he screamed.
“Oh, there’s no one there,” she said. “You can yell and scream, but there’s never any answer.”
The man took off his jacket and sat down with his back to the door. He looked at the old woman and then he held his head in his hands, looking at the floor.
“Who are you?” he asked.
The old woman smiled. “My name is Mathilda, I thought you knew that.”
“I guess I did,” he muttered. Then he rose again, brushed invisible dust off his jacket and put it on again. He returned to his corner, folded his arms and looked at her.
“What did you do? Potion your husband? Kill a child?”
“Young man!” she said with surprising dominion in her voice. The man looked amused.
“What is the worst thing you’ve done?” he said.
“I never harmed a fly, I don’t think…” she said. “Why do you ask? Are you a bad one?”
“If I tell you, will you then confess.”
The old woman said nothing, just sat there slowly tapping on the table.
“I wasn’t a good man, I did many things. Will you please stop making that sound!” he hesitated only a moment before continuing, “I guess the worst of it all was killing someone. That’s frowned upon by the all high and mighty, isn’t it?”
“I guess it is,” she said. “Who was this?”
“My mother, she was old and needed a lot of care and I did her a bloody favour.”
“I’m sure you did,” the old woman whispered.
“What was she like, your mother?”
“She was old and she couldn’t remember anything, not even me and I couldn’t stand taking care of her anymore, so I suffocated her with a big pillow.”
“Is that right?”
“She was…” he hesitated.
“She was…” his voice trailed off and he stared at the old woman. The old woman stopped tapping her fingers on the table. She looked at the man.
“Yes? What was she?”
“She always gave me a cookie after school, two if I came home with a good grade,” he sighed.
“Was she nice?”
“She was, my father on the other hand…” he stared at his own hands, as if he could see some truths in those hands.
“I have his hands,” he said.
“Yes, you do,” the woman said and stood up from the chair. She walked to the man and patted his chin softly.
“I’m sure your mother would forgive you,” she said.
He looked at her and whispered her name, “Mathilda,” he said. “I think that was my mother’s name.”
The old woman smiled.
“It used to be,” she said. “Things are a bit different now,” she started towards the door, slow but with certain steps. She lay her hands on the doorknob but turned her head towards him before she turned it.
“It was good to see you,” she said. “I forgive you.”
The man looked at her. “But?” he started.
The woman turned the knob, opened the door and walked out. “Maybe I’ll see you later, dear,” she said and closed the door behind her.
She could hear him screaming, beating the door. A soft smile bloomed on her face, “I’ll tell you what my idea of hell is,” she said to no one in particular. “It’s sitting in a room, listening your son confess to his atrocities.”
She walked down the corridor and towards the light, wondering how long he would have to sit there and as she did her hands morphed into those of a much younger person.