The stairs to the cellar of our farmhouse are crooked and uneven. They lead to the bowels of water pipes, gas lines, and sewer traps expelling nauseating fumes. Nothing good could emerge from those depths underground.
Underground is a place my mother calls Hell. A place our priest says burns hot. But our cellar is cool on summer afternoons. So cool, in fact, I go there to pick at salt crystals oozing through the cinder blocks and imagine they’re ice.
So cool, I sit there on winter days and let my breath congeal into a fog and visualize a sleigh ride through the snow, or a Polar bear, or the Christ child asleep on a mound of lamb’s wool—such are my boyhood dreams.
Dreams of joy, next to nightmares of beatings with a belt—swearing I didn’t intentionally break the bean stalks so I wouldn’t have to climb a ladder to pick them through July.
Swearing I didn’t play with my mother’s sewing machine to try my hand at a girl’s craft.
Giving an oath, between cracks of leather across my back, that I would never again try on my sister’s lipstick, but act like the man I was intended to be.
But all my promises make no difference to the man striking the strap across my back. And my anguished pleas for mercy make no difference as the cellar door locks.
Sunrise. Is it sunrise? In the cellar there’s no day, no night—only twilight.
There must be a way out.
Then, from the corner of my eye, I spy a pile of twigs and recall a school experiment. A day our science teacher brought our class outside to collect sticks to build a fire.
Yes, sticks to rub together to make fire.
I select the two driest of the twigs and rub them together fast and hard…faster…harder—until a puff of smoke wiggles out between them. A spark, then an orange glint in the wood. I puff. The smoke nearly chokes me, but soon a flame shoots up red and glowing. I hold it to the floor beam above my head. Scents of burning creosote and belt leather fill my nostrils. Heat singes my face and eyes, and I let myself drift into deoxygenated space.