Cameron L. Mitchell
This is what Hell is like, my father warns, stirring the embers inside our wood stove. Lined up like dolls before him, my two older sisters and I wait for whatever comes next, afraid to take our eyes from the fire. The rising heat stings my baby-soft skin. I am still a baby, basically; small and wobbly on my feet, my hair is wispy and blonde, my cheeks are round and chubby, my world is the little red house we call home. Somehow, I grow up after all of this, tall and thin just like him. The son he always wanted, or so he thought.
Here in this memory, the first I can recall, I am terrified and know I mustn’t make a sound. Standing perfectly still beside my sisters, I am silent like no child has ever been. I know so little but instinctually understand that we can’t interrupt him. His voice is the only one that matters. As the flames flicker and the burning wood crackles, my father explains what happens when we die.
I don’t know why we are going to Hell. I can’t remember being bad. Then again, I can’t remember anything before this. These blistering moments standing in front of the open stove coalesce, forming my earliest memory. Before, I exist only in the stories I’ve been told.
I wish I could go back to ask him why this, the fires of Hell. What did we do?
My father’s breath brushes up against our faces, its warmth hard to distinguish from that of the flames. But there is something different about the way it smells. Later, much later, I’ll come to think of it as his whisky breath. But here before the raging fire, facing the promise of Hell, I only know there’s something off about his smell. A baby can’t explain why it’s different or understand why this is happening. But with a tremble and a shiver, there’s one thing the baby knows for sure – when his father’s breath smells like this, the night will be long.
We try to look away from the fire because it stings our eyes and bends the air around us with its immense heat. My gaze drops to the carpet below. It is brown and worn-out from all our feet walking across it, daily. I shift my eyes to the side, but only a little because I’m scared he’ll yell again. I catch sight of a foot sticking out from behind the stove, crooked and immobile. It hasn’t moved for a while, and I’m afraid it may never move again. I peek at the sister closest to me, dressed in her long, faded nightgown. She’s glancing over at the foot as well, her eyes watery, her face scrunched up like she’s doing all she can to hold it in, but then a single tear bursts forth, streaming down her cheek. I wait for her to wipe it away, but her hands remain bunched at her sides. We three children worry about the foot because it belongs to our mother. Her foot and part of her leg is the only thing visible, though we know the rest of her is back there, a body spread across the floor, unmoving.
I don’t know why they fought this time, but the screams that echo inside my head will never fade. He hit her again, harder and harder, though I’m not sure why. I don’t even remember that part, but it must be true. In our house, our father hits and our mother hides. These things happen. Our house is red, our world is violent.
Hey! he barks at us, bringing our attention back to the embers. He stokes them with rough, erratic force, telling us Hell is hotter. Boiling hot. Our flesh will melt from our bones while we burn. A cigarette hangs precariously from his lips, and his eyes are two dark slits across his face that reveal nothing. Bent down here on our level with his knees jutting out, he struggles to stay balanced. His words come out slow and slurred, but we must listen to them all, absorbing his late-night lecture when all we really want to do is make sure she’s okay.
You think this is hot? he asks, stirring the embers faster. Do you? He suddenly loses his balance and grabs my sister’s shoulder to keep from falling, nearly taking her down instead. From the mouth of our little Hell, sparkling embers spill out, igniting a small fire on the carpet at our feet. He curses, he yells – he pushes us out of the way, stomping the fire with his booted foot. Across his eyes that are suddenly open wide, I see tiny flames flickering. He’s lost control and, for a moment, he’s just as scared as we are.
He stomps the small, unexpected fire out before it spreads. The tension of waiting for what comes next disappears with the flames. He slams the door of the wood stove shut and leaves us alone at last, fleeing down the long, dark hallway. When our mother rises, it is a miracle. We surround her, reaching out, needy and protective. We can breathe again, all of us.
What we learned that night will never be forgotten. The carpet in front of our wood stove will bear the black scars of scorching flames that roared out of control. It will remain damaged like this for years, reminding us that Hell is real, even for children.
Author Bio: Cameron L. Mitchell is a queer writer who grew up in the mountains of North Carolina. His first novella is forthcoming from Running Wild Press; his shorter work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Queer South Anthology, Litro Magazine, Literary Orphans, Gravel Literary Magazine, and a few other places. He lives in New York and works in archives at Columbia University. He no longer drinks soda, but he loves seltzer. Find him on Twitter: @CamLMitchell.