OverviewLetters from the damned:

Cro-Magnons— men, women, children—compose letters to the living, describing life in hell and suggesting problems with damnation.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

From Cro-Magnon Woman:

All of us Cro-Magnons—the men, the women, and the children—are here in hell. Not a one made it elsewhere.

When I say ‘men’ and ‘women’ I mean what you would call late teens and young adults, because few of us Cromies lived very long. Not a white hair upon a Cromie’s head.

I was eighteen with four children when I died of exposure. I had wandered off in a heavy sleet, searching for one of my ambling children, the girl I etched an aurochs-bone necklace for. I slipped into a hole, knocked my head, and died under a floating snow.

That was where you’d call Britain, up near what has since been named Liverpool, where the latter Lads are from, late of Pablo Fanques’ faire.

Since my death, it has been a rough forty-five thousand years in hell. But with that kind of time you get used to the inconveniences. And you can counsel the newcomers. I think newcomer men take it the hardest, but there have been some women who’ve been crushed by damnation, absolutely crushed. And the children? They’re inconsolable.

Like any captive, it helps to protest your innocence. And that’s what I tell folks to do. There isn’t one person in five hundred million who believes he or she deserves this anguish.

And consider my case. What did I do that was so wrong? I didn’t wilt at the name of some invented deity, a deity no one heard of until forty-thousand years after I lived. Doesn’t ignorance excuse? Doesn’t mercy espy the mitigating feature of unfamiliarity with the law?

My life topside was already nasty, brutish, and short. And now this?

From Cro-Magnon Man:

It would have been fair if we had been made aware of the rules. But to fling us onto this bonfire for disobeying laws we were unaware of isn’t what I’d call justice.

How did an illiterate man like me become knowledgeable about a concept like justice? Well, let’s just say I’ve been schooled by the best in these here nether regions. First, I had to learn to talk, and that took a thousand years. After the talking, ideas sort of came naturally to me. But it required teachers.

Ari is here. He got here not long ago by my standards. I think on the topside he was called Aristotle or Aristutor, or something. Anyway, he has a way with words and a way with ideas. And this justice notion he talked about, retributive justice, is my loophole, I think.

If I can only get a chance to make my case. But I don’t even know the degenerate judge who threw us into this stink hole. He’s probably beyond reason.

From Cro-Magnon Child:

I was nine years old when I died of a cough. I think I was nine, but we could only count to five. I awoke to the fumes of this place, and though I was not alone, though indeed there were many others here engaged in grunts and groans and flailing gestures, I knew no one in this dungeon until my brother arrived, and then my father and then my mother and then my sisters arrived, in that order.

Not my brothers, not my sisters, not any of us, have aged these forty-five thousand years, though our torments have been such that, topside, we’d long ago have painted silver hairs and creased and drooping faces.

I heard this place is called ‘hell,’ a word that might have been beautiful if used for something like a riverbank flower. ‘She picked a bouquet of hells to sell by the dell’ might have been a child’s pretty ditty.

Too late for that. ‘Hell’ is the most wracked word in the list. It’s a damnable word.

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J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religion since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA Times, Huffington...