The monks’ morning sutra-chanting had just ended, the last verse ringing in the air, when Mr. Gu peddled to the west side of the temple grounds and parked his bike in front of the azure dome-shaped building with paintings of Chinese deities ascending to the sky. He limped over to the door—his left foot was always numb these days, and none of the town “doctors” could give him any reason besides old age. He would have to go into the city one of these days to get a real diagnosis. The wooden signboard above the door showed the Chinese characters, “The Eighteen Levels of Hell,” in red, squiggly writing. He gave it a cursory glance and descended the spiraling staircase.
With each step downward his surroundings became darker and darker. The air was cold and stale, smelling of iron and mildew. Mr. Gu shuddered involuntarily; five years as superintendent of the temple museum and he still did not enjoy this lone walk down the stairs every morning. The walls on either side of him bore paintings of men and women with their hands tied behind them, ushered forward by horse-faced figures with pitchforks and maces—unremarkable art pieces, almost childlike in their use of bold lines and elementary colors. Mr. Gu wondered once again what crimes the captives had committed to look so remorseful, their heads hung low. The wall images continued all the way to the bottom of the stairwell, sandwiching Mr. Gu in the middle, as if absorbing him into the mural. When he reached the ground, Mr. Gu felt his way around in darkness until he found the power box and turned on all the switches. Electricity juiced its way through the power cords, sounding much like the late night humming of his twenty-year-old fridge at home.
The dark cellar came alive with green florescent lights and animatronics turning their heads at rigid angles. Recordings of shrieks and laughter spread through the space, repeating themselves again and again. Severed heads bobbed in a cauldron of boiling oil, horned creatures clawed out eyeballs, and wax figures climbed their way atop a mountain of swords, each scene depicting a different level of hell as described in the Sutra. There were eighteen in all, each a more severe form of torture than the one before. Some called the place a confessional or a museum, but to Mr. Gu, it was simply the best haunted house they had in their small town.
Part of Mr. Gu’s job was to survey the grounds before the house opened every morning, to check that all the machinery was working and no empty soda cans lay around for visitors to trip on. The other part was to sit in a corner and make sure visitors walked within the red-taped area. It wasn’t like he had anything else to do, his wife having died five years ago and all three kids living out of town. Next to the Bridge of Helplessness, Mr. Gu picked up a baseball cap bearing the logo of the Elephants and wore it over his thick head of hair. It was a point of pride for him, not having any bald spots or even that much silver in his black mane. He passed by a Hell Guard in lamellar armor and lacquered shield, and without slowing his footsteps, pounded his fist against the guard’s axe-gripping hand, stuck in mid-air. With a jolt the Hell Guard resumed his cyclic motion of lifting the axe and swinging it down on the man lying at his feet.
Mr. Gu reached the fifteenth level of hell and came face-to-face with a monkey-like creature with a foot-long tongue hanging down his front, tearing out the intestines of a merchant. This was the merchant’s punishment for hoodwinking people out of money, explained an erected sign nearby, using verbiage straight out of the Sutra. The intestines, made from curly telephone cords, had come undone from the monster’s grip, and Mr. Gu hooked them back into the rusted fastener in its claw.
“Well hello there, Mr. Evil Monkey,” said Mr. Gu with a chuckle. “How would you like your entrails today? Boiled? Stir fried? Deep fried?”
The monkey stared back, wide-eyed, while continuing to pull out the telephone cords with its motor hands. The cords went in loops so that the monkey never ran out of intestines.
Mr. Gu missed solving real mechanical problems, not the oiling, kicking, and telephone-cord hooking he did around here. For forty-two years, Mr. Gu had repaired field tractors for a living. Once he spent three days trying to revive a tiller, refusing to pronounce it dead because he knew his neighbor couldn’t afford to buy a new one. After dissecting the machine piece by piece, he found a baby grasshopper stuck in the insulation, still, miraculously, alive. All the farmers cheered when the tiller rumbled back to life and the grasshopper sprang off.
Mr. Gu settled in his corner between the twelfth and thirteenth level of hell, on a chair with upholstery poking out of the seams. He had chosen that spot because it was right in front of the bathroom-slash-cleaning-supply-room. Also, it gave him the widest view of the house while keeping him hidden from sight, as none of the green lights reached his chair. It was mildly entertaining to watch what people did when they thought no one else was around.
The first visitors, a blond-haired man and woman, came at eight-thirty. They seemed puzzled by their surroundings and kept squinting at the pages in their guidebook as if they had wandered in by mistake. They lingered before the scene of a woman being crushed underneath a car-sized rock and blood splattered all over her checkered clothes; they discussed animatedly between themselves, jabbering and waving their hands in the air. When Mr. Gu hobbled over, appearing as if out of nowhere, the foreign couple jumped a bit but composed themselves quickly.
“The woman under the rock is being punished for mistreating her husband’s parents,” explained Mr. Gu. He enunciated his words slowly, but the foreigners stared back blankly. “You know, bad daughter-in-law who talks back, doesn’t cook, or invents lies to create conflict in the household?” He acted out the scenario, first stooping dramatically and coughing into a cupped hand, and then putting his hands on his waist and taking deliberate, hip-swaying, head-cocking strides the way he imagined a wicked woman walked. The Western couple understood nothing but thanked him good-naturedly. They left hastily.
After the foreigners were gone, no one else came for a while. Mr. Gu sat in his chair and thought about his wife; if there truly was a level of hell punishing women for mistreating their in-laws, his wife definitely wasn’t there. She had been a good woman, raising three fine children and taking care of his parents for him without ever a word of complaint. They didn’t make women like that anymore. These days women needed to go on vacations and do their nails and be thanked for every little thing. He saw on a talk show that a man was now required to buy his wife an expensive present, like a pair of diamond earrings, every time she gave birth.
She had been skinny and shy, blushing thirty times a day, and wasn’t what anyone would call pretty. He used to imagine a gale coming through their town, and while everyone hugged telephone poles or temple pillars to stay put, his scrawny wife would be the only one blown away; she’d fly off like a bright red balloon, mortified at being singled out by the wind. He wished she hadn’t suffered so much during her last years, bedridden in the hospital, all those tubes going in and out of her tiny frame, transporting who-knows-what body fluids. It was a bad way to go.
At about eleven o’clock people started trickling in. Most visitors were local parents bringing small children, and for a while the noise of strollers snapping shut, squeaky shoes, and kids wailing overpowered the repetitive recordings of robot demons. Mr. Gu watched a pair of four- or five-year-olds, one with braided pigtails and the other wearing a superhero T-shirt. The kids clung to their parents’ hands, and stared open-mouthed at a pair of wax figures hanging from their necks to either end of a human scale.
“This is what happens to bad people,” the young father and mother whispered to their kids. “So you had better be good and do everything we tell you, OK?”
Mr. Gu smiled to himself. He and his wife used to bring their three children to this very place several times a year. He had been the bad cop, the one delivering the threats. He forced his two boys and girl to keep their eyes open, to take in all the blood and gore, while his wife allowed them to bury their heads in her stomach.
“Yeah, you kids listen to your parents, you hear?” said Mr. Gu. But the young family had already walked on and did not hear him.
At around three commenced the wave of hand-holding, belly-button baring local teenagers. They recited along, word for word, the pleading, crying voices of, “Please, no more! No more, Lord! I promise I won’t do it again!” A couple of boys made fun of the outdated technology used on the animatronics and commented on how a monster’s jammed machine arm, resulting in a repetitive jerking motion, looked like someone with Parkinson’s disease. The girls held on tightly to their boyfriends, pretending to scream and jump at every sound and light. Mr. Gu watched all of this hidden from view in his little corner.
There was a rumor that the place was, in fact, actually haunted—that at least one real ghost lived in the house. Every once in a while someone reported spotting a shadow lurking in a corner or coming face-to face with an old male spirit with a toothless grin who especially liked preying on teenage girls. Mr. Gu licked the gap in his front teeth and chuckled to himself. Despite his limp, he had mastered very silent footsteps while creeping up to unsuspecting youngsters. It was the only time he got a genuine scream out of them—how else was he supposed to pass his long, monotonous days? In fact, he had spotted his perfect target for today, right in front of where he sat. A tween girl in a denim jumper skirt with a high ponytail stood alone before several dismembered heads nodding in a pool of blood. The girl’s ponytail was neat to perfection, without a single strand of undone hair. The ponytail hung invitingly, as if luring people to give it a pull. It reminded Mr. Gu of the girl who used to sit in front of him in middle school. Or was it actually the fourth grade? The past jumbled up in his mind these days. He used to like that girl very much, and apart from pulling her ponytail several times a day, he would hide her pencil case so that she couldn’t find it.
Mr. Gu rose from his chair with a low groan. The numbness in his foot was worst after a long sitting. He waited a while for the numbness to subside, then crept up slowly behind the ponytailed girl, putting weight on his bad foot so that his steps evened out. There was a group of school kids a few meters ahead from them, and he wondered if she was with them, lagging behind. She stood so vulnerably alone, engrossed in the scene before her crafted through fake blood and red lighting, unaware that he was standing right behind her. He would give the ponytail one decent pull, stay just long enough to see the frightened look on the girl’s face when she turned around, and before anyone could come to her aid, Mr. Gu would disappear inside the bathroom behind his chair.
Mr. Gu gave the ponytail a good, hard yank, and then raised his hands in the air, curled his fingers into claws, and cried, “Boo.” He prepared his face into a grimace. The girl jumped and turned around, eyes widening at the sight of Mr. Gu, and screamed.
Mr. Gu’s mouth dried as he realized the girl was younger than he had believed her to be. A lot younger, for she couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. Her height and independent poise had misled him. Panic seized him as the girl’s face scrunched up with all the fury of a pampered babe, fat tears squeezing out from the corners of her eyes. A tiny voice in him reminded him it was time to turn around, to hide away into the bathroom, but his feet would not cooperate. His left foot felt number than ever.
A plump woman with loose skin on her arms like silken tofu ran up to take the girl into her arms and looked up angrily at Mr. Gu. The woman had been next to the group of teenagers, and Mr. Gu had not realized she was the mother.
“What is wrong with you, you dirty old man? Scaring a little girl like that! Pervert!” She said every word like she was spitting on him, as if every syllable was a bad taste in her mouth she had to get rid of. Her voice rang loud and clear. The mother rubbed the little girl’s back with her fleshy hands, uttering soothing sounds; all the while she kept her resentful eyes fixed on Mr. Gu.
The group of teenagers turned around to stare and point fingers, and Mr. Gu was attacked with shouts of “Pervert!” “Disgusting!” and “Shame on you!” More and more people arrived at the scene, coalescing from all around the haunted house. Mr. Gu’s armpits damped. He felt something warm rise in his gut and prayed his bladder wouldn’t give away. He wanted nothing more than to go back to his chair, hide in the comfort of his shadows. A couple of the teenage girls embraced one another to draw protection from each other. The little boy in the superhero T-shirt and the little girl in pigtails looked around in confusion, reading other people’s expressions to understand the situation. Comprehension dawned on their little faces: this old man was a bad person, someone to stay away from, someone to despise; how quickly kids learned, other people’s hatred mirrored on them in a matter of seconds. Their father drew them closer to himself with a protective arm across each child, as if Mr. Gu was someone dangerous, someone far more evil than all the monsters and ghosts around them.
Mr. Gu straightened his spine and lifted his chin. Anger boiled in him, and he balled his fists. Perhaps he was a bit old to be playing pranks—but a pervert? Dirty old man? He wanted to say something in his defense, but all he got was a quiver in his chin, a wheezy noise in his throat as if food was caught there. Panic seized his stomach, threatening to unleash the contents of his bowels any second, ready to betray him without warning. Mr. Gu turned around and ran off.
He wandered off mindlessly to the second section of the haunted house, which was lesser known and often empty of visitors. Many people did not even know there was a second part to the haunted house; they left through the exit at the end of the eighteenth level of hell without realizing there was an arrow pointing them to “Heaven.” Mr. Gu followed the arrow and took the deserted staircase up to the third floor. He could not stop thinking about the unfair accusations. He was a decent man. He had worked hard all his life, never taken anything that wasn’t rightfully his. To be called a pervert! Angry tears blurred his vision.
The stairs were out in the open, and along the way he could see the entire temple ground with its seven curved-roof dragon gates opening along the perimeter to different directions. The sun was setting behind the Grand Buddha Hall, and at the center courtyard, monks and nuns walked in formation while chanting in Sanskrit, striking a wooden block with a mallet and ringing a bell. He also saw the koi fishpond with the wooden bridge, willows, and sign reading “Fish food available for purchase in Hell.”
He watched the sky turn from violet to pink to a violent crimson. He imagined his wife blushing and looking away if he could tell her about what had happened. She was never one good with words, but she would have filled a washbasin with hot water for him to soak his bad foot in before bed.
At the end of the stairs was heaven. It was empty of any visitors. There were no windows up here, and the air smelled of stale metal and plastic. All the walls and ceiling were painted sky blue, mirroring the exterior of the dome-shaped building. There were no animatronics, sounds, or lights up here, just still wax figures with wigs and silk robes acting out scenes from the Sutra.
Heaven, much like hell, had its different levels and very specific rewards depending on behavior in life. Those who had donated blood to save lives could drink high mountain tea with celestial wise men. Women who had served their in-laws with respect were allowed to visit the heaven garden with beautiful fairies. People who had adopted an orphan could play Chinese chess with gods. Those who built roads and bridges for their village could attend a heavenly feast with wild game and fresh caught fish, listen to heavenly music, and party all night long with alchemists and fairies. “A celestial orgy,” Mr. Gu once heard some teenagers say out loud when passing this scene.
He moved to stand between the chess-playing pair: a man in a scholar uniform from the Tang dynasty and a pointy-bearded, white fu manchu alchemist. Mr. Gu wondered where he fit into this complicated reward-and-punishment system. He hadn’t built any bridges, but he did donate to the blood drive once every few months. And he had helped all those farmers with their tractors—didn’t that count for something? Mr. Gu moved a black piece on the chessboard, giving the earthly scholar a winning advantage. In general he was an honest man, but he committed his small lies like everyone else, calling in sick when he wasn’t, and telling his wife, when she had been alive, that he had quit smoking even though he had his two daily cigarettes. He moved a white rounded piece on the board, closing in around black territory, and now it was the immortal alchemist who had an upper hand. And what about scaring a little girl and making her cry? Would that be counted against him when his time came—if anyone was watching at all?
He wondered where his wife was now, whether anyone in heaven or hell had jotted down in their notebooks all her good deeds, all the tasty meals she had prepared, all the times she had stayed up cooking Chinese medicine for his elderly parents. In the end, did any of what anyone did matter?
Mr. Gu sighed, feeling his age come upon him, building up in his spine, calves, neck, and even in his brows. He pulled out an empty chair at the chess table to join the chess players. A tree with rosy, fat, ceramic peaches towered above them, and leaning on a branch, watching the chess game, was a goddess in a loose green robe with many ribbons, her hair heaped high in a complicated hairdo. Mr. Gu reached out his arm to adjust the goddess’s lopsided wig. As he did so, a gust of wind blew aside a strand of her hair, and Mr. Gu smelled a saccharine perfume unlike anything he had ever encountered before. He closed his eyes automatically to take in the fruity fragrance, but in an instant, it was gone. He shook his head and laughed to himself. Perhaps he was getting to be an old man, imagining things, acting on poor judgment. Mr. Gu glanced at the round, waxed peaches, their weight pulling down the branches, as if they were filled with nectar. He liked to think that his wife had visited the paradise garden and tasted a celestial peach or something before being sent to her next life. It was a small thing, he supposed, but he really hoped she had gotten something in the end, at least a little something.