Art by Angela Yuriko Smith.
From the author: Dominick's mother is dead, and her lies with her. Now, on the day of her funeral, he's determined to solve the mystery of the storm cellar.
“Don’t go in the storm cellar—there’s monsters down there,” Momma always told me. But there ain’t no monsters. Momma was always telling me them things to make me mind, me being an ornery kid and not easy to bring up. Like she told me be good or Santa won’t give me nothing, though he never did give me much anyway, mostly old used toys like from a second-hand shop. And the Easter Bunny—that story didn’t make no sense, some magic bunny leaving me a bag of jelly beans from the Dollar Store with the price tag still on. And of course, Jesus. I got more Jesus in one week than all the chocolate and Christmas presents I got my whole life. I guess Momma figured toys and candy wasn’t enough to make me good, you know? But maybe heaven and hell would do the trick.
The monsters was like that, just another dang lie to keep me in line. Momma and Father Farrelly was always going over all kinds of sin, like stealing and lying and sassing back and saying Jesus’s name in vain, and how Jesus ’n’ Santa was watching me all the time and knew when I ever did any of those things, but the monsters was only ever about one thing: don’t go in the storm cellar. I’m thirteen now and I know them things is all foolishness but still I never did go down in that cellar. Funny how the lies folks tell their babies stay with them.
Most boys like me had older brothers, and sometimes sisters, who explained things, and got them past the age when stupid things made sense. I didn’t have no olders nor no youngers neither, being the only child. I figured things out myself, kind of late, no help from Momma. Momma was the only one told me anything after my daddy lit out.
My daddy went away when I was little. I remember he was a big man, and loud, but what he looked like I can’t say. In my mind I see a big, black shadow, with no face, looming over me and Momma, and awful loud. Momma’d be loud, too, when they got at it, the way they did most days. I don’t remember much more’n that, just Momma and Daddy fighting and me crying and holding my ears.
Daddy never hurt me, but he hurt Momma. Most times he slapped her, and that made Momma mad, though she never hit back. One time I know of he hit her with his fist, hard enough to knock her down. She crawled to a corner with blood coming out of her mouth that she wiped away with her shirt. I screamed and cried but Momma never did. Daddy raised his fist like he was going to hit Momma again and Momma lifted up her arm to protect herself. They stayed like that, not moving, Daddy with his fist raised up and Momma in the corner waiting for it, like they was posing for a picture. You know how you sometimes remember things like a picture, with nothing moving? That’s what I see in my mind now, just that one picture, remembering what happened before and after but not able to see it.
Then Momma laughed, not like she was happy, but more like she knew what was coming and didn’t care no more. I know she laughed, though I can’t see it in my mind, just like I know Daddy never hit her again after that.
Then one day Daddy was gone. “He lit out,” Momma told me, as best I can remember, me being four at the time. That made me cry to hear it, though I can’t say why a man that made me cry when he was around still made me cry when he wasn’t around no more.
The year after that is kind of blurry, but later years I remember was hard. “Daddy had a job in the mine,” Momma said sometimes, especially when she spent her money on liquor instead of food. “The mine was hard work,” Momma said, “but the pay was good.” Those was the only times Momma talked about Daddy, when she was drinking. She sounded like she missed him, but I think she only missed the money. Momma worked odd jobs, cleaning and such, but mostly we lived off help from Momma’s man friends.
It wasn’t long after Daddy was gone that Momma told me about the monsters. She didn’t go into a lot of detail at first. She didn’t have to—when you’re a little kid, you scare pretty easy. When I got older and started asking questions, Momma told me more about the monsters. They wasn’t monsters like in the movies, zombies and such, but animals who lost their eyes in the dark and grown big. Momma said animals stay naturally small in the wild, where people and other animals hunt them, but in the cellar they live off of small animals that wander in and get eaten and the monsters just keep getting bigger. The older I got, the more she told me about the monsters, to keep me scared and out of the cellar. When I was ten I started not to believe her, because the stories got so crazy—six-foot-long raccoons with fangs, their eyes turned blind and milky white from the dark, who could find a body and kill him, just from smell and sound. I didn’t believe it, but it worked anyway. I figured like even if there wasn’t no monsters down there, what there was was just as scary. I stayed out of the cellar. Until today.
We put Momma in the ground this morning. There was me by the grave, and Aunt Clara, Momma’s sister, and a cousin of mine, Aunt Clara’s daughter Ellen, an only child like me who I didn’t know too good. Aunt Clara looks a lot like Momma, only bigger and her face is younger-looking, though she’s Momma’s older sister. She doesn’t look no happier than Momma ever did. It’s just her and Ellen since Uncle Hap died in the mine, with Aunt Clara living off his union pension. I didn’t think Aunt Clara had any man friends, but she did take in laundry for money. Still, Momma told me Aunt Clara did okay for herself, since her money didn’t stop coming when Hap died.
Ellen looks a little like Momma, too, in her eyes and in her mouth, but a lot younger, of course. She looked like she didn’t know who it was we was burying or why she needed to be there, but she never fussed. She wore a black dress that came to her knees but no hat with a veil like the one Aunt Clara wore. She looked kind of sweet, standing there holding Aunt Clara’s hand, and I felt for her, being Aunt Clara’s only girl, and no olders to look out for her.
The only man friend of Momma’s showed up was Father Farrelly, who looked to me like he didn’t want to be there at all. Some years back when Father Farrelly’d come to me and Momma’s house he was all smiles, chucking me under the chin and saying “my son” like he was my daddy, before Momma’d send me outside, saying “don’t y’all come back for a while; Father Farrelly and me are talking about spiritual things.” Yeah, spiritual things. All the sins they told me about at home and at catechism must not of been the whole list, and Father Farrelly and Momma had a few sins they kept between them and never talked to me about. Like I said, I had to figure things out myself.
Father Farrelly wasn’t smiling today. He hurried through the Mass, hardly saying ten words about Momma, and he mumbled the prayers by the grave like he had someplace else to be. After he said the last words and blessed the coffin he lit out just like Daddy, if Daddy lit out. But I had my doubts about that.
Aunt Clara said she’d take me in, me being just thirteen and not ready to be on my own. Once Father Farrelly left she tugged my sleeve and said, “Let’s go now, Dominick, no point in hanging back.” I stuck by the grave, though, while the diggers covered it up, telling Aunt Clara to come by the house that night to collect me. I needed to get my belongings, I said, and besides, I had some things to do.
The cellar was outside, away from the house, set in the side of a hill. A storm cellar Momma called it, though we never did go there in a storm, not even when a cyclone came through when I was eight. Momma took me in the bathroom, wearing what she always wore when she wasn’t having over a man friend, an underthing like a slip, that came to her knees and hung on her like a sack, all yellowish, though it might of been white at one time. She’d been drinking again, and she brought a pint bottle, half-drunk, into the bathroom and set it on the sink. Her eyes was deep and dark around the bottom like they always was when she’d been at her bottle, but with the storm coming she looked even worse.
We hunkered down in the tub, Momma at one end near the sink where the bottle was, and me at the other, the both of us hugging our knees while the wind blew around us and the house shook. When thunder boomed I flinched and whimpered, and after I did that five or so times Momma reached over and touched my hand for a bit. That surprised me, because Momma wasn’t the touching kind, though it did make me feel better. When the lights went out I could still see Momma’s face when the lightning flashed. Her eyes was round and she bit her lip as she rocked to and fro. In the dark I could smell her, sour, like sweat, and her breath like liquor. She moaned and mumbled the whole time, and I couldn’t hear her too good over the storm, but I knew what she was saying. I was saying it too: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. That night I believed Momma’s stories about the cellar more than ever, if Momma was more scared of the monsters than a cyclone.
That was near five years ago, but even today, I didn’t want to go in that cellar. I told myself there wasn’t monsters there; they’s just another one of Momma’s lies, and I believed that was true, but going in there still gave me a bad feeling, like cursing Jesus Christ, which I know don’t mean nothing. But Momma and Father Farrelly telling me all them notions about Jesus and sin and heaven and hell since before I could feed myself worked its way inside me. I wasn’t going to talk myself out of them overnight. The monsters was like that, so crazy they couldn’t be true, but standing at that door I was that scared kid in the bathtub. I picked up my shovel and tapped on the door and told myself, Momma’s dead, and her lies with her. Any monsters in that cellar, Momma put them there.
Even after I broke off the lock I had to use the blade of the shovel to pry the door loose. The door creaked open, not a high, whiny creak, but low and slow, like a rusty hinge does that hadn’t been opened for a long time. I listened, but didn’t hear nothing. I picked up my flashlight and shined it down the stair. It was steep, but not long, just five steps. It wouldn’t take much to drag a heavy load to the door and push it down. Even a small person, a lady, like my momma, could manage it.
The roof of the cellar was a lot lower than I expected. I had to bend down to get in. I couldn’t see much, my eyes just come from the light. I shined the flashlight inside.
“The cellar,” I whispered. The word fell out of my mouth like a rock, weighted down by a whole life of lies and a little kid’s imagination. The cellar is a cavern, big as a school gym—the cellar is filled with huge columns made of rock, where monsters, blind cave-animals hide—the cellar is all twisty little passages where the animals above wander down and get eaten by the monsters, who grow enormous on their bodies—the cellar stinks of dead things; the smell of it will kill you before the monsters do.
I moved the flashlight around. The cellar was small, no more than a hollow in the hillside, barely ten feet deep, and not as wide. The air was cool and smelled of earth, not moldy or musty but clean, like a field just plowed. The walls was rock, the roof made of wooden beams set close together. The floor was made of dirt, mostly flat, but not all over.
There was a little hollow near one wall. That puzzled me, because I figured that if there was something buried here there’d be a mound to mark the spot. But then I realized that if I was to bury something that I didn’t want found, I’d spread the dirt around to level the floor. I don’t know if I’d of thought that the dirt would sink when the body broke down.
I put the flashlight on the steps to light the way. I poked the shallow spot with the blade of my shovel a few times before I started digging for real. I didn’t dig long before I hit something that didn’t feel like dirt. I cleared the hole out, then I got my flashlight and looked inside.
It was a skeleton, a human skeleton as best I could tell. I squatted down on my haunches by the hole, cursing, not caring if I took Jesus’s name in vain. I cursed at my momma and all her man friends; I cursed at God and the whole world; I cursed and cried and rubbed my face ’til my face was muddy. I laid down on the dirt and cried, with the sound of my crying sounding hollow in the cellar.
It wasn’t Daddy’s skeleton. It was tiny, a little baby. I wanted to know if it was a little brother or a little sister. I wanted to know if I would of loved her, and played with her, and told her secrets, and helped her to understand that not everything Momma told her was true, and that some things was lies.
I wanted to know if one of Momma’s man friends helped to put her there.
I laid on the dirt for almost an hour, then I covered up the hole and patted the earth flat. I went in the house to get cleaned up and to pack. Aunt Clara will be by for me soon. I’ll live in her house from now on. I’ll be okay. And there are things I want to say to cousin Ellen, who is much younger than me.
This story originally appeared in Dark Ink Press Fall Fiction Anthology.