"Well how bad can Hell be?" Morris Buttermaker asked.
After three years of the blight that had befallen us, most agreed with him at that point.
Our community those in and around Harper County is a farming community. For decades it was idyllic. The best crops on the most prosperous farm land in the country, maybe the world. Then it ended, abruptly.
Farms went under; families were forced to sell out and move away. We eventually pooled our money and hired every kind of expert we could find to try to find answers, to find out what had caused our crops to fail so miserably. Nothing came of it. It was a waste of money and a strain on already constricted resources.
Each year our crops got worse. Each year more families lost everything they owned. Each year we descended farther along our path toward that act that would close the deal on our sulfurous fate.
At a meeting to discuss the situation the idea that this was all caused by a curse was put forward. Everyone laughed softly at first, but it didn't last. Mrs. Traner, the History teacher, was the one that said it. She said that the Indians had something like this happen to them, long before our ancestors came and took this land from them. She went into great detail about their story, a story not so different than ours. She was very convincing, and after she was done I think many were well along the path to believing her. After all we'd tried, I suppose it was the only explanation left. I know it sounds crazy, and maybe it is, but it is what we came to believe. Even Reverend Pauly.
"And what do you propose we do about this curse, then?" the Reverend asked her. "We've done everything we can think of already. Our fate is in the hands of God now."
"The Indians overcame it." she said.
"How?" Morris Buttermaker asked her.
"They...." She looked around the room and settled back into her chair. "Not in front of the children."
We were sent to wait in cars, out in the storm. Alice Brite asked me to look after her four year old, Eric, who was even more afraid of storms than most children his age. I did so without hesitation, I didn't want to be alone in the storm either.
When Alice came for Eric after the meeting, it was clear that she had been crying and was upset. So were my parents, I saw when they made it to the car.
"You don't believe anything she said, do you?" my Mother asked my Father.
"Of course not," he said. But he hesitated before his reply.
"What if it is true?" she asked, almost hysterical. "What if what happened to the Indians is happening again? What if we lose everything. Our home?"
"Are... are we going to the next meeting?"
"It didn't sound as if we are being given a choice."
Then there was another meeting. The meeting. The one where Morris Buttermaker asked how bad Hell could be. We were all given a chance to opt out, to pack up our things and quietly go away forever, to put this out of mind and never speak of it again.
"This is superstitious nonsense!" Alice Brite said. She was standing, glaring at the rest of the room.
"Reverend, you can't seriously be considering this? You? A man of God. If we only pray..."
"We've already done that, Alice." he said. There was anger and frustration in his voice. "Some things God leaves us to deal with ourselves."
"And you think this is one of those things?"
"I do. God forgive me if I'm wrong, but I do."
"We can't do this." she said. Her voice broke as she choked out the words and fought back tears.
"What would you have us do?" Morris Buttermaker asked. "Lose the land that is a part of us, a part of our family now as much as anyone is?"
"You're free to leave, of course." the Reverend said. "As are any of you, if you don't agree with this."
Alice scanned the room slowly, then moved back into her seat, shaking and no longer fighting away the tears. There were tears and moans from many, especially the mothers, but we all stayed. Every last one of us.
In my own defense, I was only twelve at the time. Not old enough to take their oath, to agree to what they were doing. I've had my opportunities since; opportunities to take the oath or leave in silence. I've stayed. God help me, I've stayed.
Wind shook the windows of the courthouse we were packed into that dreary day. Outside the rain pounded. The morning had been hazy and foggy, but the afternoon brought an eerie glow to the sky. Lightning struck all around us, and the thunder shook my bones. Someone maybe God was trying to warn us not to proceed, to leave and never look back on the horrid thing we were embarking on. Nobody left. Even as the lights went out and the hail began to bang against the roof top, we stayed. We stayed and we continued. I think if one person would have stood up and left that day, it would have ended. Others would have followed. Nobody had the courage, and we all stayed.
Reverend Pauly stood before us and motioned the crowd to quiet. Sweat dampened his face, and his hands were shaking. Many of the women, and not just a few men, were sobbing silently and doing their best to maintain control. The rest of us sniffled. Those of us who understood what was going on. The children who were too small to understand still slid about in their seats nervously, understanding that something wrong was happening.
"In this bowl is the name of every untainted soul in our community."
He paused, then reached into the fish bowl. He swirled his hand around, stirring the torn pieces of paper that were folded within. We all held our breaths. The light flickered on, then off again, giving us a last warning before it was too late. Half the candles were blown out by some unseen breeze. The Reverend's hand stopped stirring and gripped onto one of the scraps. Limbs broke on trees outside, filling the room with cracking sounds and making people jump. The Reverend held out the paper and slowly unfolded it.
"Penelope Desousa." he said. He swayed, as if he might pass out.
"No." Mrs. Desousa cried out. "You can't."
"Honey," her husband started. He reached for her hand and she pulled away.
"Not my Penny!"
"It's too late for that, I'm sorry." the Reverend told her.
"The hell it is." She stood and started up the aisle. "You can't have her. Take one of their kids." She motioned toward the rest of us. "Take Joanna Miller, or Mikey Armitidge."
"Martha, he drew Penny's name fair and square," Alice Miller said.
"You said untainted. Untainted soul, that's what you said. I caught her with Billy, so..."
"No you didn't." Everyone turned toward a pale and very fragile looking Penelope Desousa. "Mama, lying to these people won't protect me."
"Just ay you did, baby. Say you did and we can go away."
"No Mama. It's wrong."
"It's too late, Martha. I'm sorry."
"You said untainted, you said..."
"Meaning someone that is still innocent, someone with unquestioning faith. Someone who hasn't been jaded by life and how we live it. Someone able to go to the hereafter with an open mind and an open heart."
That was that. Penny Desousa would serve as our sacrifice so that our famrs might flourish. I knew it was wrong and evil, we all did, but we stayed and we all played our part.
Penny was treated like a queen for a month.
That was the worst month of my life. I don't think anyone slept well. People you saw on the street or in the store would no longer look you in the eye. My parents stopped going to the Parkers for cards, and stopped inviting them over for dinner as they usually did several nights a week. At school even the usually rowdy kids were quiet and well behaved. There was just no energy in anyone anymore.
The day came.
When we got into town that morning, the drizzle that had been falling was beginning to let up. People were gathered in the town square, around where Penny would come to her end. All the children were crying and hold onto their mothers. The mothers were crying and trying to calm their children.
Penny was beautiful as she was led out of the church. She stopped and said her goodbyes as she was led out to the center of the square. She let us know she would be ok, and she hugged and kissed her boyfriend and told him she loved him, and he cried unashamedly.
There was a wooden table with stacks of chopped lumber spread around it. The fumes from the gasoline that Charlie Ottman was dousing it with made my eyes burn from where I was fifty feet away.
Penny was laid on the table and cuffs were placed around her wrists and ankles, locking her down to it. Her parents hugged and kissed her, then were pulled back by some of the others. Mrs. Desousa swayed and her legs buckled as she was helped to her place in the circle.
We prayed. Led by Reverend Pauly, we prayed for Penny, that it would be quick and that she would not suffer. We prayed for her family, that they would be strong and remember their time with her happily and not be saddened, for she would be awaiting their arrival on the other side. I think we all prayed silently for ourselves. For forgiveness for the atrocious thing we were about to do. That we wouldn't spend eternity going through the torture that we would soon be visiting upon Penny.
I prayed that Hell wouldn't be as bad as I feared. I had no illusions then or now of ever being forgiven, of ever being granted relief of my fate. I prayed that Penny's parents, if only them, would be forgiven so that they might once again see her when their time was through. Even if they deserved to burn as much as the rest of us did. The worst part of that day was knowing that the only one of us who didn't deserve to burn was Penny.
The Reverend made a final call for all the adults to draw together in a circle. Those who weren't already holding hands around Penny gave their kids a hug and told them everything would be ok, then joined the others. Alice Brite asked me to hold onto Eric. I had to pry his hands from her sleeves before she could go. Even he knew what we were doing was wrong.
They did not chant. Not like on television, or like you read about in books. They didn't pray. All the prayers were done. They stood in a circle and held hands and waited. Mr. And Mrs. Desousa had to be held up by those around them. Charlie Ottman struck a match.
"I'm sorry." he said.
There was a whoosh, then flames were everywhere, covering all the wood that was piled around Penny. Charlie stepped back to his place with the others, completing their circle. I pulled Eric's face against my side, hiding him so that he wouldn't be haunted by what was about to happen. Haunted as I have been since. It fills every vivid nightmare, occupies nearly every thought every single day, no matter how hard I try to push it away. It should.
"This is barbaric." Alice Brite cried out.
"It's almost done now." the Reverend replied.
At first the fire remained on the stacks of lumber around her. Penny cried, and I know it had to be searing in the center of that inferno, I could feel it from where I was. And then the hem of her skirt caught and the fire began moving up her legs.
"Mama, it hurts." she cried out.
"Dad, make it stop. Please. Daddy."
Her hair was aflame then. It was sudden, and it engulfed her face almost instantly. She let out a high, cold screech that hurt my ears and my heart. Eric tried to pull away, to see, but I held him tight so that he wouldn't see her, completely engulfed by then and writhing and jerking to the limits of her restraints.
When it was all over, all that was left of Penelope Desousa was blackened flesh, which had pulled away from the remains of the bone. What wakes me most at night is the sight of her exposed jaw and teeth where her pretty face had been only minutes before. Some nights the smell of her burnt flesh fills my nose and follows me through the entire following day.
Her remains were portioned out and sent home with each of the farmers so that they could bury it bury her when they planted their crops. Every farmer, including her parents.
That was a difficult year. Our community had changed from the quiet, friendly, family to a bunch of strangers who wouldn't look at each other, wouldn't talk to each other, couldn't stand to be around each other, and wouldn't let their kids stay at each other's homes.
We've never gotten that back. Not completely. Never became a family again, never have trusted each other, never gotten over the guilt and blame, I guess. The only time anyone spends with one another now is when we attend church. Somehow we've all become regulars. Even those who weren't before. We all gather and pray for Penny, and for the others since.
Our crops returned that year. Stronger than ever. They have been bountiful and generous every year since. All these years, all those children, and I pray for each one. Each and every day I ask myself how bad Hell can be.
Through the years, all these sleepless years, I've had plenty of opportunities to leave. Plenty of chances to break my oath and tell someone what happened here. Plenty of opportunities to stop this madness. I should have. I know that, of course I do. Maybe I wasn't able to at first, not when I was twelve, but now I'm as guilty as anyone. I've taken part, I've buried charred remains of innocent children on my own farm. I will again.
This year my son was chosen.
How bad can Hell be?