Know the Devil by His Name ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
I was walking on a country road. I didn’t know where I was or where I was going. Every time I came to the top of one hill, there were more hills stretching ahead of me. Uphill and downhill. My feet ached and my throat was dry, but I wasn’t bothered so much by those things. I just kept walking and believed that, in time, I’d come to where I was supposed to be.
The sun shone and a pleasant breeze cooled my face. Birds sang in the trees over my head. A little fox came out from behind a rock and watched me pass, but when I turned my head and looked directly at him, he was gone. I heard a dog barking faintly a long way off, but I didn’t see a dog or any person a dog might belong to.
Then I heard a wagon coming up behind me. I turned and looked over my right shoulder and there was a man in a devil costume driving a small, neat wagon pulled by one handsome brown horse. The man stopped the wagon and pulled up beside me.
“Where you headed?” he asked.
Having temporarily lost the ability to speak, I pointed in the direction from which I had come.
“Would you care for a ride?” he asked. “I’ll take you as far as I’m going.”
“Do you have any water?” I asked.
He reached behind the seat and brought forth a canteen, which he handed down to me. I liked him already. I uncapped the canteen and took a drink, smiled and got up beside him on the seat. He jiggled the reins and the horse started moving again.
“I’ll bet you never expected to see the devil coming along in a pony cart, did you?” he said with a flash of teeth.
“Are you on your way to a costume party?” I asked. “Is it Halloween already?”
He made a scoffing sound. “Halloween is kid stuff,” he said. “I really am the devil.”
“You’re Lucifer?” I asked. “You’re the angel that God kicked out of heaven?”
“Well, no,” he said. “I’m a devil but not the devil. I’ve never even met the head man.”
“He’s awfully busy these days,” I said.
“Yes, we all are,” he said.
“So, you travel around getting people to sin and, once they’ve sinned, you possess their souls. Is that right?”
“Well, something like that. That’s rather an oversimplification, though. They always have a choice in what they do. We just lead them in a certain direction and the rest is up to them.”
“Now that you’ve picked me up, I suppose you’ll try to get me to sin.”
He laughed. “Oh, I could get you to sin, all right, if I wanted to. Maybe I don’t want to. Maybe It’s my day off.”
“Well, I’ll resist sinning as much as I can because I don’t think I want to go to hell.”
“Oh, it isn’t as bad as people have made it out to be.”
“So, what’s good about hell?” I asked.
“Well, for one thing,” he said, “there’s no pretense of being good and no hypocrisy.”
“Isn’t it awfully uncomfortable there?”
“You get used to it after a while and come to think of it as home.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I said.
After a few more minutes of moving forward in silence, I realized, or thought I did, what was happening to me.
“Now it makes sense!” I said.
“What?” the devil asked.
“I’m dead and in the in-between place.”
He gave a noncommittal grunt and gave me a pitying look.
“It hasn’t been decided yet where I’ll spend eternity. I’m bad but not bad enough for hell. I’m good but not good enough for heaven. You were sent here to get me to sin. If you are successful, you’ll have a good reason to drag me back to hell with you.”
“Does it look like I’m trying to drag you anywhere?” the devil asked. “You’re free to get out and walk whenever you say.”
“Anytime I find myself in the company of the devil, it’s probably in my best interests to part company with him.”
“All right,” the devil said, stopping the wagon.
“Well, thank you for the ride,” I said. “It was most pleasant.”
I started to get down from the wagon and the devil took hold of my arm at the elbow.
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I have an excellent idea.”
“I don’t think I’m interested.”
“We’re coming upon a city. You’ll love the city and I’d like to be the one to show it to you.”
“What’s the name of the city?” I asked.
“People call it Sin City, but it also has other names.”
“I’ve been there,” I’ve said, “and I don’t care to go again.”
“No, wait a minute!” he said. “There’s everything there you could ever want: theatres, concerts, museums, fine restaurants, beautiful hotels, interesting sights to see, and more beautiful women than you’ve ever seen in one place before.”
“Do you think I’m so shallow,” I asked, “that I can be tempted by those things?”
“I never met anybody before that couldn’t be tempted by something,” the devil said.
“Maybe I’m not like the others.”
“We’ll get you a suite on the top floor of the most beautiful hotel you’ve ever seen. There will be people there waiting to satisfy your every desire.”
“It sounds sinful,” I said.
“But first you need money.”
“There’s the catch,” I said. “I don’t have any money.”
“I know where you can get some.”
“I’d have to steal it, no doubt.”
“It will be easy. I’ll make it easy for you. I have powers beyond your imagining.”
“No, thanks,” I said. “I’ve heard enough. I’m getting out here, if you don’t mind.”
“But I do mind!”
He speeded up the horse to keep me from getting out. I was thinking about taking my chances on a broken ankle and jumping when we came to a little house set back from the road, underneath some towering oaks. He stopped the wagon abruptly, throwing me forward.
“There’s an old lady lives here,” the devil said. “She always keeps lots of money on hand. All you have to do is hit her in the head and knock her out and take her money. I’ll wait right here.”
“That is the most outrageous thing I ever heard!” I said. “I’m not knocking anybody in the head and taking their money!”
“You don’t have to kill her. Just stun her. But if you kill her, that’s all right because nobody likes her, anyway.”
“I will do no such thing!”
“The devil commands you!”
“You’ll have to find somebody else to command. I won’t do it.”
“If you don’t do it, somebody else will.”
“I suppose I ought to go warn her, then.”
I jumped to the ground and went up to the house and knocked on the door. In a moment, a wizened old lady wrapped in a shawl came to the door. When she saw me, she smiled and beckoned me to enter.
“It’s the devil again, isn’t it?” she said, looking over my shoulder out to the wagon.
“He’s a devil but not the devil,” I said.
“All the same to me,” she said.
“He told me to knock you in the head and take your money. I have no intention of doing that, but I wanted to warn you that if I don’t do it, somebody else will.”
She surprised me by putting her hand over her mouth and giggling like a schoolgirl. I had the feeling she was laughing at me for believing what a devil would say. She picked up a canvas bag from a desk and opened it; took out a handful of fake stage money and handed it to me.
“Tell the devil that’s all the money he’ll get from me,” she said, “and a fat lot of good it’ll do him!”
When I went back to the wagon, the devil was examining his fingernails. I climbed back up beside him and handed him the fake stage money.
“Humph!” he said. “I see she’s up to her old tricks.”
“You know her?” I asked.
“She’s just another old devil,” he said. “She’s been at it a lot longer than I have.”
“She doesn’t look like the devil,” I said. “She looks like somebody’s grandmother.”
“That’s how they trick you,” he said. “You can’t always go on the way a person looks. A kind-looking person can be a devil and a horrible-looking ogre can be an angel.”
“That’s the way the world is, I suppose,” I said.
“With me it’s different, though,” the devil said. “I wear this devil costume so people will know who I am as soon as they see me.”
“Well, I’m glad I didn’t have to hit her in the head,” I said, “even if she is a devil. I guess if I had had to hit her in the head, though, knowing she was a devil would have made it easier.”
“Inescapable logic,” the devil said.
He looked at the fake stage money in his hand again and tossed it into the back of the wagon contemptuously and took up the reins.
“If you’ll just stop the wagon by that little bridge up ahead,” I said, “that’s where I’ll get out.”
The devil seemed sad to see me go. “Are you sure you won’t change your mind?” he asked. “The city is fabulous and I know you’d love it.”
“Maybe next time,” I said.
I wondered if I should try to shake hands with him and then I figured it wasn’t appropriate to shake hands with the devil, so I didn’t.
“It’s been interesting,” I said, as I got out of the wagon.
“No doubt we’ll meet again,” he said.
I watched him drive away until the trees and hills seemed to swallow him up.
Alone again, I walked on endlessly. I was no closer now to knowing where I was than when I first met the devil.
Hours later, when I wasn’t sure if I could take another step, I saw a strange sight just off the road among some large trees. It was a staircase. When I went to the bottom and looked up, it seemed to go on endlessly into the clouds. This was what I had been waiting for! The staircase to paradise! I had resisted the temptation the devil placed in my way and now I was being offered the way into heaven!
I took a deep breath and began climbing the stairs. My tiredness disappeared. My legs worked without effort. I wasn’t even out of breath. The only bad thing was that the light was so bright my eyes couldn’t stand it. I took a bandana out of my pocket and tied it around my eyes and kept climbing, climbing, climbing.
And then I opened my eyes. I didn’t remember removing the bandana. I was lying on my back, surrounded by white. Everything was white; I could see the molecules in the air and even they were white. A woman moved into my field of vision on my right and I smiled at her.
“An angel,” I said.
“He’s awake,” the angel said. She moved out of the way and was replaced by an old man, also white.
“Are you God?” I asked.
The old man leaned close to me and looked into my eyes. “Can you see me?” he said. “Can you hear me?”
“Of course I can see you,” I said. “Of course I can hear you.”
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
“You’ve been out for a very long time. We thought we were going to lose you.”
“I finally made it,” I said. “This is what I was looking for.”
“I’m so happy for you,” the old man said, but I could tell he didn’t mean it.
He stepped out of the way and then there were angels on both side of me.
“Keep working with him,” the old man’s voice said, beyond where I could see him.
“I was walking on a country road,” I said to the angel on my left, “when I met the devil. He gave me a drink of water and offered me a ride in his pony cart. We got to talking and after a while he tried to tempt me. He tried to get me to hit an old woman in the head and take her money, but it turned out she was a devil too.”
“This one’s a talker,” one of the angels said.
“All you can do is listen,” the other angel said. “Three more hours of this before I get to go home.”
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp