I first got to know something about good and evil in an abandoned cellar. To kids, it might have been anything - the roots of a house ripped from the earth by a tornado or some Civil War hideout or a place to keep escaped slaves safe as they made their way northward. It appeared at first to be just a hole until you'd see the spill of faltered stairs sticking out of the dirt decades had blanketed them with. And if you did decide to jump down in there (as it was only about five feet, or four where the right angles of floor and wall had collected more dirt), you could proceed into the darkness of the back where some floorboards remained hidden beneath the dirt above, roots dangling through like spinach in a stranger's teeth. You could tell then it was manmade.
Initially there were a few of us who discovered it, and we were gleeful that the beer bottles and cigarette butts of teenagers hadn't yet spoiled it. The sad farmhouse that used to guard the field it was in had been torn away to make room for a strip mall and it was during the summer while the few remaining farmers were trying to halt the developers and the city council was trying to appease them, so construction had not yet begun. We felt fortunate to find a secret in unconquered territory.
There wasn't much down there, for the hole being so filled in where it opened up to the sky. A few unidentifiable shards of glass or aluminum or pottery worn smooth as seaglass, bugs clinging to them like barnacles. We amused ourselves daring each other to stand against the far wall, where it was pretty much pitch black. With the hard midwestern sun pouring in right next to the covered area, there was no way for even such young eyes to adjust, so you just had to walk until you hit dirt. You held your breath and tried not to breath in the heavy earthy smell, which dogs knew would produce some mighty boogers later on, and waited there not able to see around you, invisible to the boys and suddenly a world away.
You felt a chill, then. You stood against the cold packed dirt and slimey fear wormed its way into you from your shoulderblades and the small of your back. You waited there as long as you could stand it, telling yourself you were up against the wall and well hidden, listening to the boys laugh and call your name in their sing-song voices, trying to scare you. Further. Then you ran back to the light and the heat, pursued by fear's long fingers.
It was certainly not a place I intended to go to alone, but maybe two weeks later my dad got drunk and my mom was gone, so I snuck out of the house to avoid what might be coming to me if his paternal jolliness should swivel on its heel and turn to rage, as it was threatening to. Our half acre was near what would be the strip mall and almost everything else that wasn't a house out there was a field. When I heard his terrible shout echoing above the crickets I flattened myself. And there it was, though I hadn't thought I'd come that far.
A little terror went through me and my instinct was to edge away from the precipice. Already, though, the still air did not have to carry my father's voice so long and I feared him more than the dark.
I crawled to the edge of the cellar and lowered myself feet first, digging my fingernails into the dirt. My legs swung through the colder air and my grip slid and I was sure I'd fall, making a noise or breaking a leg or both. But the tip of my toe touched the bank of a wall and I let myself down quietly, momentum silencing my footfalls against loose earth. I caught myself from falling backwards by crouching, and then edged back until I could see the ceiling block out the stars. I curled into a ball against one side of the cellar, as close to the opening as I dared sit, but not able to see the field over the edge of the hole. I could hear the faint swish of grass and my name growing louder.
I was sitting with my bony little butt on a rock, but doubly fearful of movement lest I anger the ghosts in the darkness or give away my location to my already angry father. In my heartbeat I heard horse hooves pounding the field above me, searching for me. I heard screams on the wind. Every second took incalculable patience. I ignored what may have been dirt or insects brushing my skin, promising myself the prickling was only nerves. Then something definitely touched me and I bit my lips together and scrunched up my eyes to contain the wail that wanted out.
It was not a hand, just a cricket or a spider. I felt its tickly little feet move across my forearm and carefully brushed it away. It put things in perspective.
If I made a sound, my dad would catch me, and if I tried to clamber up that dirt wall as I had before (going last because I was at that age where I was taller than all the boys with none of the chivalrous assistance they might have offered had we been just a year or two older) there would most certainly be some noise. If my dad did catch me, he would beat me and, who knows, he might just beat me to death for making him chase me all over in the middle of the night. Therefore I weighed childish fear of the unknown against practically certain death and felt I had understood something.
If this had been the home of a family there would be some artifact, yet it was swept clean, a mute witness. No trace had been left to suggest the identity of whoever sequestered themself here and that suggested to me that I was in the exact same boat as whoever built this place, trying to outrun a grievous terror.
In a moldy ascetic's tomb haunted by the plaintive, hungry paws of the pursued and long since trampled under, I saw the light. I heard him crashing through the grass above me and I heard the certain voices around me whisper not to worry, I was here with them, forever. I swear I felt a rain of dust freckle my nose as he passed overheard, but his voice did not tear open the hole. It boomed and began to fade.
I slept there all night. My dad went home and waited up to visit his wrath instead upon my mom, who went to the hospital. So I was brave enough to sleep underground with ghosts all night and terrible evil occured because of it, but the next time I saw my dad he was shame-faced and escorted by the sherrif as he packed a suitcase and disappeared from our lives for a few years. And that was good.
After my dad left I avoided that cellar for some time. Maybe it was that I no longer felt compelled to explore it, because its only secrets were human and internal, no treasure to unearth. Maybe I was still afraid, or more afraid. Maybe it was just that I was approaching the end of my tomboy phase, or maybe that I just plain couldn't find it.
It stayed with me, though. Often in high school I felt I was hiding in another world just watching the other kids move through the sleepy sunlight of tamed nature. I'd lay in the grass sometimes, smelling the dirt and thinking about the blood we feed it to buy our peace.
I was one of many solitary, harmless freaks. In my case, I was just poor and strange, and occasionally someone would take it upon themselves to try and right me. I tried to be good natured about it, because I was lonely in my head all the time and did want to be liked. Amy Lewis was one of those well-meaning kids and she asked me once if I'd like to go to church with her, so I said yes. She was honestly a little strange herself, the chubby daughter of hyper-religious parents. She had a likeability and skill for making her more mainstream views palatable to her folks that made you feel a little sad she hadn't been born into a family where she could really bloom into the youth group debutante she wanted to be. She was a nice girl and I was just flattered to be included.
The church was outside of town - I rode with the Lewis family in their world-weary minivan - in a sweltering wooden building that must have been a hundred years old, with spare 2x4 benches and a rickety little stage. I realized it had been a mistake when I saw the change that overtook Amy once we were inside. She became timid and obedient and it was like all the happy light just went out of her. The church people were all white, with thin, serious lips clamped shut in deference to their lord. They all seemed to give me the once-over, and their eyes cast the stones their tongues could not. We followed Amy's parents to a pew in front, and once we were walled in Amy gave my hand a quick squeeze, as though maybe she had come to feel bad for inviting me along.
As the sermon began to heat up I felt claustrophobic. The preacher painted a portrait of a feral god whose animal rage was just barely contained by the congregation's penitence. Outside the sky was clouding up to storm and it felt like any moment the preacher would announce that it was too late, we'd failed and the lord was coming back to swab the plague of man from the wounds of the earth. I tried to think about Wal-Mart, about tepid normalcy and the innocent, doddering sedans stabled out in the dust of the parking lot.
Finally the service was over and long-skirted women had established juice and cookies on tables outside, where it had cleared up once the preacher stopped spewing vitriol into the air. I got myself a drink, and broke away from Amy as she was surrounded by a few whispering girls who must have shared her situation, far too sweet for such an angry god. I sat under a tree, partially concealed, watching the other people from far away, as always. In this instance, though, I was really glad to be in my world and outside of theirs. That's when I met Billy.
He was that dire preacher's oldest son, dark in coloration and disposition, big and healthy except for his right hand. He'd been born with a malformed appendage that ended where the middle of his forearm should have been in a stump punctuated with helpless nubs of unfinished digits. Where some kids might have been coddled and encouraged to succeed to spite their disability, Billy had been shunned and feared by his superstitious family. They were all home schooled and he'd ended up largely on his own, raising himself and teaching himself, distant from birth.
He came up behind me and surprised me with his quiet voice. "You're new here."
I recovered myself, flicking splashed drops of lemonade off of my lap. "I came with the Lewises."
"You going to come back?"
I stuttered a little bit, wanting neither to be offensive or dishonest. He nodded, sadly but decisively, and sat down next to me under the tree. "Good," he said, "Don't. These people are a bunch of assholes.
"Pardon my language."
I shrugged. "I don't mind. The language. Or the people."
He ended up telling me about being part of the preacher's family. I got the impression he needed someone to talk to. But he was also a good listener, and I found myself telling him the reason I'd come along in the first place, which didn't seem to appal him. Then it was time to go and Amy was walking over.
Billy leaned over to me, quiet enough Amy couldn't hear as she approached. "Where do you live?"
"In town. By the strip mall with the Hollywood Video."
"No, your address."
"3208 Farm to Market Road," I whispered quickly. "Why?"
He ignored me, rushing words out. "Where's your bedroom?"
"Uhh.. Next to the living room?"
"In the front of the house?"
"On the right or the left?"
"Of the living room or of the house? Oh." There was nothing off the right of the living room, it was a small house. "Left. Why?"
But Amy had ducked under the swollen branches of the tree and interrupted us. She cast a respectful but dismissive glance at Billy, then turned to me, bubbling, "There you are!" Back to her normal state of cheeriness. She more or less dragged me away from the preacher's bad son and we all climbed back into the minivan, which had grown stifling from its proximity to the hellfire and brimstone. She did not invite me to come along next Sunday.
Not that I gave a shit, because I awoke that night to the soft sound of dirt clods pitched left-handed against my window.
It may be that all high school summers begin with teenage lust or that may just be the way it seems when you remember the heat and freedom of being young. That summer I'm quite sure about, though. School ended and if I wasn't serving burgers or asleep I was lying in a field somewhere with Billy, staring up at the stars with a full blush across my cheeks, trying to keep up conversation through the ache that climbed my body as we slowly moved our bare legs closer together so skin was pressed to skin. It was outwardly innocent, but something dark and ancient was thundering in me and, I assume, in him. The first time his good hand climbed timidly around mine I was almost gasping my words out.
It took a long time to get around to it, because neither of us knew anything about sex, even how to talk about it. He'd been born assumed to be a child of the devil, but he'd never actually sinned. And though I wanted very badly the taint of his first sin upon my conscience, I was still a little girl in some ways and not brave enough to ask for it.
It was August before he finally kissed me. We'd been out way too long, waiting the way you wait for a thunderstorm, and I was rattly from lack of rest, frustrated almost to the point of anger, and I announced I was going home. Like someone alseep, he rolled suddenly over, flinging his arm across my body, his face awkwardly against my breast. I think we both breathed in, huge silent oh-my-gods. He raised up on his arm, pushing up to my petrified face, and his lips met mine. He tasted both sweet and acrid and my heart was thundering, my hands terrified, wanting to pull him against me but stuck to my sides. They were slow kisses like sips of hot chocolate, and then it was over, he walked me home.
After the kiss, things became quiet. I sat on the couch the following afternoon with my head lolled back after a shower, pressing my wet hair against the back of my neck, watching evening sun slant in. I was thrilled, smug, but peaceful. With a new and certain maturity I envisioned myself going to the window that night to answer Billy's pepper of soil. I knew he would come, and then he did not.
Over days, I became edgy. He drove the incontinent pickup someone had donated to his father's church into town and I had no transportation of my own with which to go and hunt him down, and thus was trapped in the bleak walls of my unspecial home with no way of bringing him back to me.
I knew he had shame, built up like walls in his chest. Shame for being a human and a sinner, shame for his deformed hand, and now shame over what he was doing with me. There were imagined catcalls of shiny young girls, though, telling me he'd only been toying with me or maybe had found another girl he liked better. The more sensible parts of me suspected he didn't know what he was doing any more than I did and instead of complying with nature's demands had taken refuge in a resumed piety. Which left me alone with my own confusion and if there is a lord at least I can thank him for leaving me innocent of the influence of his followers so that I could see nothing wrong with my desire for that boy and had only my sadness at his absence to contend with.
When he finally came back, after maybe two weeks, it was as though I'd summoned him. Increasingly, ghosts of his hand and that brief impression of his lips had tormented my sleep. Summer wasn't helping. I'd spent three nights or so unable to get any rest, stripping my underwear off in the curtained darkness and twisting free of the sweaty sheets, lying awake most of the night with Billy on my mind.
I peeked around the curtain, concealing my naked body, and there he was, fidgeting at the edges of his perfect posture. I opened the curtains and raised the window, revealing myself and daring him to run away again. Shock was evident on his face, but he stood still as I threw on shorts and a t-shirt and climbed out to him. We made our way quietly from the house and once we hit the fields, we ran.
I collapsed giggling and he fell next to me. Something in the air, though, snuffed out our laughter. I was suddenly small inside my head, in control of very big heavy limbs that had landed the wrong way and could not be smoothly repositioned. We stared at each other frozen and on fire.
Sometimes in summer when the humidity is high and you're wearing the loosest, lightest clothing you can find, it feels as though you're naked. You fall under the thrall of the heat and it seems that if you forgot to put on a shirt or pants you just wouldn't even notice because already your body feels the same all over, not protected from the elements and greased up with sweat to the point where you can barely feel the cloth against you. Though I knew the consequence, I felt almost obligated to slip the hand I wasn't resting on up under his t-shirt, as though the covering shouldn't have been there in the first place.
A fever of slippery motion overtook us and his tongue was in my teeth, his good hand down my shorts. The clothes slid off like ice melting and we were rolling with eyes dammed against the freedom of sin, covered in fresh dirt. I'd never touched a boy and I touched everything, straddling him with my hips held high out of fright and reverence. Then I felt something almost as soft as my left breast pressed against it, and looked down to see the ruin of his right hand there, and the tornado sirens went off.
Dirty savages, we are running naked across the plain toward that old hidden cellar whose cold scent is now like a line of light cutting through the suddenly dead air. I slash through the grass and he is behind me, his lips moving with some hiccuped prayer and guilt all over his face. I find it and we fall in, scrambling for the darkest darkness where we huddle and hold still to listen.
Train sounds. I'm scared but excited, desirous of action, and there I feel him pressing against me, a bulbous erection sandwiched between sweaty planes of skin, he's the same. I turn and suck the prayer from his lips, pushing his impression into the wall.
Tornados can't find us, I want to say. God can't find us and the devil can't hunt us down and drag us under. We are virgins consumed by evil thoughts hidden in a sanctuary for people whose survival instinct trumped dignity and the rule of law. At the intersection of good and evil there is something more powerful than either.
It passes or it goes around and the roof stays put and the deafening howl is gone. And we don't lose our virginity and we don't make love, we just fuck. Like we knew what we were doing, like it didn't hurt, like the tornado might come back any second to swallow us up. We fuck covered in a pagan ritual's worth of elements - dirt and sweat and saliva and cum and a penny's worth of blood. We leave our offering, we cleanse the fetid temple with a puncturing of innocence.
I could tell you a lot of other stories about magic. The girl who fell down in a well and was wet so long she never again got dry. The old woman who lost her big house and her husband and everything to a fire who then fell victim to a flood which destroyed her apartment but deposited her husband's wedding band upon her waterlogged bed.
Or I could tell you I spent one more month in the crippled arms of a teenage boy. I could tell you he was sent away when his father learned he'd knocked me up, and that by that time my own father was back and my mother was too busy babying him to resign herself to being a young grandma. Could tell you the baby was born fat and yowling with ten good toes and ten good fingers on perfect little hands, and with no sense of sight.
I personally did not feel sorry for the little man. He had no daddy and began his life in pretty poor accommodations, which were all I could afford working the sort of jobs you get with the mark of teen motherhood upon you. All the safe and sacred cellars of our town were being filled in and paved over to make way for concrete monoliths meant to separate the already impoverished from what little they had left. They say in third world countries the lower class women eat dirt for nutrients, but our people had not quite come to terms with that and everywhere I witnessed suffering akin to that of a neglected pet. There just wasn't anything worth seeing.
It was magic, chaotic and senseless the way magic always is, but in our case lucky.
I never got Billy back and after a while I couldn't be sure what precisely I had felt for him. The boy grew up kind and strong and mercifully missing some understanding of what the world itself was missing. And I dreamed about tearing up parking lots until my fingers bled to find my way into the dirt that no man has passed judgement on, and life continued at a sullen pace as though I had spent all my miracles. I comforted myself with the knowledge that some day my angelic boy would find the evil of his humanity, or evil would be thrust upon him, and through the gate of that fire he would find the fearsome wonder we bribed into allowing us our ignorance of it.