Through Fire and Brimstone
By Tyrone Hamilton
Content warning: This story contains themes of family violence, mental health, drug/alcohol abuse and mortality.
Death Valley, Texas, 1968
THE first snow of winter has arrived, within weeks thick blankets of snow will cover the rolling hills. While to an outsider it might be an inviting and tranquil view, for those of us who live here, we view it as the burden that ensnares our town, depriving us of visitors and customers, and driving many to debt, before taking them to the darkest parts of their minds. For my family, this means work.
I pass my Pa a large needle, as he meticulously measures Mr Brooks’s abdomen and plunges it through his skin.
Mr Brooks can’t complain, not because he’s under, but because he hasn’t been able to speak ever since his neck snapped after a head-on collision between a telephone pole and his AMC, the snow providing an assistance to the booze in getting the job done.
My Pa’s piercing bark snaps me out of a trance. I pass him another tube, inserted down Mr Brooks’s oesophagus. My Pa, the town mortician, operating a crematorium in his basement. I look back at Mr Brooks’ right arm, there are strange paintings that I’ve never seen before, flames, skulls and devils dancing and twisting around one another, art on a body.
“Mark, don’t bother yourself with that, it’s the unholy ones marking themselves with pride, now, you remember what I told you?”
I nod as he removes the tubes from Mr Brooks, his chest and stomach have sunken. We slowly slide his body into the cremation chamber.
“Remember?” Pa asks.
“Door, lock, fire, safety valve”
I lock the door and twist the valve, releasing the flames into the chamber, the flames dance and twist, ensnaring Mr Brooks into an inferno, pulling his person to the depths of hell. I look up at Pa, however, he avoids me and shifts his vision to the corner, my little brother Kane sits alone, playing with his flowing red hair, though he is only 4, he has seen plenty more lifeless bodies than living. His hair the colour of the fire.
“Take your brother up.”
Pa grabs a bottle of whiskey and drudges up the stairs, as I pick up the little boy. Pa never touches Kane, but he told me that his red hair is because of being born from sin, although Mum said it’s from Mr Bearer, Dad’s old apprentice, whatever that means.
THERE is a small dark room, a soft rumbling noise perpetrates it, and in the far I can faintly make out a face, behind a small flickering fire, white pupils with now soul to them, guarded by the dancing embers, but as I move forward, nothing is to be made of it, a force, known as eternity lies between me and knowing who is there… the figure in the flames.
TWENTY plots lay in the ground behind our house. A little two-storey abode on the edge of town. Mr Brooks’ ashes are tossed in the ground in a freshly dug hole next to Mr Helmsley. Pa buries it below a scarce layer of topsoil as Kane and I look on. Mr Brooks is the 21st to go.
Ma calls from the back porch. Supper is served, sliced corn, which is bitter and hard from a poor season, and a stew consisting solely of potatoes with a broth of a mixture of wine and fat.
Ma spoons the food into Kane’s mouth as Pa watches with a certain disdain.
“Christ Mary, what you put in this shit? Fuckin' cat piss?”
Ma ignores him and goes back to feeding Kane. Stew drips down his chin as Ma wipes it with a napkin.
“You ain’t eating son?”
I poke at the bowl with my spoon, stirring a line of oil through the broth.
“Don’t blame you, I wouldn’t want to eat either if I was served fermented horse shit each night”
I look at Ma, she is obviously hurt by the comment, but continues to feed Kane.
“What’s the matter? You can’t acknowledge your husband but you can keep force feeding shit to that little inbred bastard of yours?!”
He gets up as she turns to him, dark brown hair covering her face, stringy and unkempt.
“He’s your boy too, Frank”
Pa is amused by this.
“Fuckin' really? Look at my hair huh? Black as a raven. And look at yours, huh? You think he gets those red locks from your side of the family?”
Ma’s breathing is heavy, he doesn’t look up at him. I try to stay still, and blend into the darkness round me.
“I guess you had to make up for your incompetence somehow … whore”
He sculls the last bit of bourbon from the bottle, and smashes it on the floor. Ma whimpers and Kane begins to cry. He wipes his mouth and looks at me.
I look up at him, cowering from beneath my own long black hair, watching as he swings the back door and stomps up the stairs to bed.
“Sorry baby” Ma quivers. She’s looking straight at me, while trying to comfort my brother.
“I’ll put him to bed Ma”
She nods and heads inside, a broken woman.
AGAIN I awake in the dark room, however, there is more light. I can faintly make out its surrounding, it is a wreckage, old bricks, timber supports caved in one another. There is also a faint odour, faint yet distinct, that of smoke, a stink as well, that I know… flesh. I push my way through the dark, every now and then tripping over an unseen obstacle, however the smell grows stronger, and another noise joins the low rumbling of flames… a faint scream.
The hairs stand on my arms, perspiration flowing from my face as the heat grows. A right turn, then a left.
And there he is…
A dark figure in a hat, robed in black, with eyes of pure white like the very snow covering our town, except he stands, waiting for me to come to him, a single raven on his shoulder. The flames rise and dance in front of him, obscuring any chance of me to gain more than the most base view of him.
I SIT in the crematorium, slouched against a cold slab of granite, slowly rocking my little brother to sleep. It’s cruel for him, a father who doesn’t want him, a mother who is unable to fully support him, trapped in a place where no one would give him a second thought. I often think about what Mr Bearer would tell me: “Can’t get far in life without love”. And I look at my brother and wonder if he will have that same love… if ever.
I place him down on the table, where he can rest in peace. I open the chamber and turn on the gas.
Door. Lock. Fire. Safety Valve.
The flames begin to dance again, wondrous enchantresses flailing about without rhythm. If ‘the flames of hell’ is a true representation of the underworld, perhaps it is a more appealing notion than that of white clouds and golden gates. Kane lies still sat on the bench, rolling over and sucking his thumb.
The flames slowly die out, as I turn and pick up Kane, carrying him up the stairs and into the living room. Faint sounds of an Elvis song play over the radio, I can’t name the song but I know his voice, Pa would never approve.
I notice standing at the edge of the wheat fields is Ma, just standing, smoking a cigarette.
I open the door and approach her, trudging through the dry grass, she stands like a lone statue at the edge of a sea of green, the stars littering the sky, teaming like diamonds.
“You okay Ma?”
She takes another puff.
“Ma? What’re you doing?”
“Ma, you can’t dream when you ain’t sleeping”
“You can, it’s the same dreams you have when you look into those flames … I seen ya, you become entranced, taken to another world of your own imagining.”
She has a slight smile on her face, something which is rare for Ma, the gentle breeze taking her white dress and tugging it slightly, as well as brushing her hair neatly into a long draping bunch along her chest.
“What’s your world like?”
She crouches down to me and places her arm around my shoulder.
“You see just beyond that field?”
“It’s a small village, where it never rains, it’s not too hot, and the people there are… happy.”
“Are you in this town?”
“Not yet, I wanna go there someday, with someone I love.”
“We can go.”
“Not this place baby, not together.”
“They’re all there.”
She looks over to the graveyard behind our house, the 21 headstones sit at the top of the hill.
“Daddy read about it to me, ‘The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light’”
She has her head to the heavens, breathing in the night sky.
“Sounds beautiful don’t it, Someday baby, then I’ll be with your Grandparents, and I’ll be happy.” “Aren’t you happy with us? And Pa?” She looks at me and with a calm voice, responds, “No.”
KANE is wailing at his chair again. A high-pitched scream rings through the house. Ma is sleeping, Pa is preparing the crematorium, this time a young man, killed by police stopping a robbery.
I walk slowly over to Kane and try to calm him down.
“Hey buddy sh-sh-sh, it’s alright.”
“MARK!” Pa’s voice cuts through the walls like a dagger, piercing my ears.
I make my way down to the crematorium, the young man is waiting on the table, Pa stitches up what remains of his body, left unrecognisable after a dozen police bullets were placed in the young man.
“How old was he?”
“How old was he? Don’t fuckin' matter now do it? All you gotta worry about is not ending up a piece of sidewalk trash like him. Put you on the 3:16 bus from Texas to Hel.l”
He continues to stitch the body together.
Then a smash rings from upstairs, followed by a faint crying.
He shoves me to the side and makes his way up the stairs.
I chase him up the stairs, into the living room. Ma looks petrified as Kane is sitting on the floor, a smashed bottle of whiskey by his hands, his small fingers covered in blood as Ma begins to slowly pick shards out, the wailing growing louder and louder. Pa stomps over and grabs Ma by the hair.
“That’s It! That fucking bastard of yours is finished!”
I run at Pa, but he grabs my face, and throws me over the coffee table, smashing my head on the floor, blood beginning to flow as I lie next to my screaming brother.
“You see what you made me did! I hurt the one person I actually LOVE!” He screams at Ma before ramming her into the wall. I can barely think, all I see is Kane, and the blood and glass. Pa takes Ma and drags her towards the door to the crematorium. A sharp piece of glass, I clutch at it with my right arm before lunging at Pa, sticking all five inches of it deep into his neck. Ma collapses, and Pa tumbles down the stairs.
Everything shakes, as I move down the stairs, leaving a long trail of crimson down. Pa is still alive, but barely, moaning as I grab him by his collar, dragging him to the table and lifting him over. He’s still wheezing, eyes open wide barely twitching to view me. Using every ounce of strength I pull the table to the furnace, and slowly slide him in, at least whichever one of three I can see, the head knock remains to disorientate my vision. But I manage.
Door. Lock. Fire.
I CAN see the fire emerge, and out of that fire the Man in the Hat comes to greet me, walking through the wreckage, taking my hand, saving me from Hell.
I SIT alone in the field, a sea of green, at the edge of a towering inferno. Just me and the Man in the Hat, I look at him as he watches the flames dance and light up the sky to meet the falling snow, he is in a trance, his eyes, not tarnished by a pupil, but rather just a ball of perfect white.
I HEAR a faint scream. I get up to help. But the Man places his hand on my shoulder.
“Not to worry, He will now be in a place where someone will love him”
“God?” I ask, however, he doesn’t reply.
Out of the blackness of the night a single raven is born, as it swoops down and perches itself on my shoulder. A faint sound of sirens comes, drowning out the screams that call for it.
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