Home > The Light of the Fireflies(2)

The Light of the Fireflies(2)
Paul Pen

In silence, he looked around the table.

“Was it your mother? Your brother or sister? Was it her?” He tipped his chin at my sister. “She likes to talk too much. Because I don’t think it would have been Grandma, she knows full well the door’s always open.”

My father grabbed me under the armpits once more to lower me from his knees and leave me standing on the ground. I felt the chill of the tiles.

“Come on.” He gave me a slap on the backside. “Go over to the door, see for yourself.”

I wanted to look at my mother, but Dad held my head and made me look straight ahead.

“Go on, leave if you want.” The second slap on the buttocks was harder, so that I had to take a step forward to stop myself from falling. “Open that door and go. That’s what you want, isn’t it? So do it. Leave and forget about us. We’d rather stay here.”

Behind me I heard a chair scrape along the floor, as if someone was about to get up. But nobody did. I took another step. The basement smelled of carrot. I loved that smell. It was the smell of night. The only thing that told me it was day or night was the patch of sun that went from one side of the living room floor to the other, and seeped through some crack in the ceiling. The smell of carrot always came when the patch disappeared. If I left the basement I would never have Mom’s carrot soup again. An unexpected feeling of loss stopped me in my tracks. I had an urge to return to Dad’s lap and scratch my fingers down his hair scar.

“Are you still there?” he yelled. “Come on, run to the door. Open it and go. Leave this basement if you’re so keen to know what’s out there.”

I walked toward the door without stopping. I’d never been so close to it. A door loses its meaning if you don’t ever go through it. It becomes a wall. Standing in front of it, I began to suck my fingers. I was sweating. I observed everyone at the table. Mom had looked up again. There was a glisten in her eyes now. Dad was sitting with his legs open, turning in his chair. He raised a hand and waved me good-bye.

Dribble was running down my forearm. I looked at the door again. I took my fingers out of my mouth and reached up to the handle, several inches above my head. The first time I tried to grab it, the spit made my hand slip off. I dried my fingers on my pajama legs and held my breath so I couldn’t smell Mom’s carrot soup, and to fill the void I felt in my stomach with air.

I tried again.

This time I managed to grip the handle.

THE PRESENT

2

There were two windows in the basement. One at the end of the hall and another in the kitchen. On the other side of them there were just bars, and after that, another wall. When I was ten years old, if I pushed hard and put up with the pain in my shoulder, I could stick my arm through two of the bars and, with my middle finger, touch that wall. It was just more concrete. It was the same at both windows. It was as if the basement was nothing more than a box inside another bigger box. Once, I positioned the mirror from the bathroom in the space between the bars and the wall outside. All it reflected was more darkness. Another black ceiling. A box inside another box. Sometimes I would stick my face between the bars to stare at the blackness that for me was the outside world. I liked to do it because the draft of air caressed my face. Air that had a different smell from anything there was in the basement.

“Can’t you hear your sister screaming?” my father said to me the day the baby was born. “We need you in the kitchen. And close the window. Now.”

He opened the door to his room with the key he always kept hanging from his neck. It immediately closed behind me. I blinked several times to moisten my eyes. They were dry from the draft. Then I heard my sister. I must have been totally absorbed by the breeze from outside not to hear those screams. They seemed to come not from the throat, but from the stomach. From somewhere deep inside the body. The door opened again, and this time my father grabbed me by the arm. He dragged me down the hall to the living room.

“Stand there,” he said. “Hold that leg.”

My sister was lying on the table, naked from the waist down. I recognized the sheets from her bed under her. Mom was sitting where her head was, squeezing her daughter’s fist in her hands. My sister was looking down at her crotch through the mask, all white and expressionless. Just three holes showed her eyes and mouth. My brother, clinging on to one of her legs, was also peering at whatever was happening in my sister’s groin. My grandmother was boiling water in two big pots. She held a hand over the stove plates to feel how hot they were. Dad went to her and gave her two towels.

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