Another Friday means another short story. I can't discuss it right now, as I'm checking on a lead I received regarding the location of William's Tower, but I'll be back to do so as soon as possible.
The Tongue Also Is a Fire, a World of Evil among the Parts of the Body
My earliest memories of are of staying with my “Meemaw” in her old, white house in the country. It was quiet there—nothing else around for miles. Meemaw liked it that way.
She was an extremely particular woman.
I was only six at the time, but already a headstrong young man. As a result, Meemaw and I would go round and round, usually over silly things. I remember, for example, playing in the front yard at dusk and being asked to come inside. Meemaw’s requests always came across a bit too much like orders for my taste. That night, I chose to ignore her and stay outside, though I did not voice my dissent. A few minutes later, Meemaw came flying through the screen door, down the wooden steps, and out to me, wooden spoon in hand. She gave me quite a lashing.
Another time, I’d been “asked” to finish my vegetables, but I didn’t see the need. So, instead, I sat quite still, my jaw clinched and my hands gripping the sides of my chair. Meemaw played it cool, but I could tell she was angry. The punishment, however, was cruel and efficient; she served me the same meal every night from then on until I finally ate it. I believe I had food poisoning for a few days afterwards.
But the worst row we ever had started because I refused control my tongue.
I’d been with my Meemaw for around two months over the summer (it’s hard for me to know exactly how long) when it happened. She’d been down in the cellar, working on her hobby—which was pickling—when I thought it’d be a great idea to rifle through the refrigerator. I’d barely gotten into the leftover pie when I heard the unmistakable sound of the basement door opening. Caught with my hands covered in evidence, I quickly slammed the door to the refrigerator and high-tailed it up to my room.
Meemaw was right behind me.
Now cornered, I didn’t even try to explain as she lit into me. Meemaw was really laying it on thick, too. She was apparently very disappointed and not afraid to say so. Eventually, through my sulking, I’d heard just about enough. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” she asked, her lecture still hanging in the air.
“Yes,” I replied, a wry smile on my face, “I wish… I wish you weren’t such a b****.”
The look on my Meemaw’s face was priceless; exactly as I had anticipated. Don’t ask me how I knew that word at such an early age—I just did. And now it was probably going to get me beaten. But, to my surprise, she didn’t slap me. Nor yell and pitch a fit. No, she simply stood there, shocked, before turning around and exiting the room. My victory rather hollow, I dared not move from my spot on the bed until morning.
The next day I crept tentatively down the stairs to breakfast. To my relief, there was Meemaw, bustling about the kitchen. Pancakes sat on the table. I took a seat, confused but relieved; why had she made a special breakfast after what I’d said the night before?
She didn’t speak until after we’d finished. “Son,” she began as soon as I’d taken my final bite, “last night, you said something pretty terrible to me.”
I nodded meekly.
“But I’m not mad anymore,” she reassured me. “I just don’t want you to ever say anything like that again.” She stood and began clearing the table. “After all, what if those were the last words you ever spoke to me?”
Swallowing hard, I rose and left the room. Meemaw was right; though I didn’t feel as if I really knew her all that well, she was old and the summer couldn’t last forever. I shouldn’t talk like that. Her guilt trip had at least momentarily worked.
That wasn’t really the end of the fight, though. Soon my mouth would make things far worse.
By now it was late July and the days were scorchers. My bedroom was especially unbearable, so I began spending more and more time downstairs where the air conditioning was the strongest. This, apparently, made things difficult for Meemaw to watch her “stories” in the middle of the afternoon. I remember her giving me the evil eye for the first few days, but eventually she came right out and told me to go back upstairs and be quiet. This did not sit well with me, but I was trying my best (as much as a six year old can, anyway) to control my tongue. I obeyed initially.
But children are impetuous and my Meemaw was incredibly stubborn. Eventually, push came to shove, and I’d had enough of being banned from the first floor and said as much—though probably in very different words. Meemaw, not at all pleased by my impertinence, began barking at me to get up and get out. Naturally, I refused, making matters worse. This continued for several minutes before, and I’m not sure exactly what precipitated it, I finally told her to go to hell. Again, my mouth had gotten out of control.
This time, however, Meemaw did not react with quiet shock and indignation. Her eyes flashed white rage and she leapt at me, her arms flailing. I immediately began running for the stairs, and my Meemaw, having driven me from the room as she’d wanted all along, thankfully let me flee.
The next few days were very different. I spent most of my time avoiding Meemaw while she returned the favor. In fact, she was intentionally spending more time pickling than ever, in an apparent attempt to have as little to do with me as possible. I didn’t care though; my childish mind had decided she’d been pretty unfair to me and I didn’t want anything to do with her. It wasn’t until she stopped making meals and the leftovers in the fridge ran out that I even became concerned.
Had I really not seen her in more than two day? She’d gone down into the basement to stuff fermented cucumbers into jars on Friday, but now it was Sunday night. Uh oh. Several miserable ideas began to run through my head. What if she’d simply left me to rot? She was pretty mad, after all. I couldn’t really imagine her doing that, though, so it seemed unlikely. Maybe she’d been down there alone and gotten hurt… or worse? Suddenly our last words had returned to haunt me, just as she’d promised they would. But maybe there was still time, I reminded myself. I would go down into the cellar and see if she needed help.
The door creaked as I rather timidly pushed it open. I’d never liked the idea of this cellar, so dark without windows, and now my first trip down into it came under rather inauspicious circumstances. Immediately the scent of spices and vinegar assaulted me senses, though I was relieved by the absence of the smell of death.
Descending further, the plank-like steps bending beneath me, it became harder for me to see. The lights were turned off for some reason and a haze hung over the stiflingly hot room. I eventually reached the bottom, feeling along with my feet as I desperately hunted for a light switch. But there didn’t seem to be one nearby. I shuffled out further, afraid of what I might run into or trip over, but resolved to be as brave as possible. Every so often I’d bump what I supposed must be a jar, sending it rolling and tinkling off into the shadows. This was the only noise to break the silence for several minutes; though I wanted to call out to my Meemaw, fear forbid me to do so.
Finally, just when I thought the suffocating darkness would break me, I felt something graze my face. Startled, I almost fell backwards before righting myself and recognizing what it must have been; a pull cord! I quickly tugged at the thin string, bringing much welcomed light into the cellar. Thanks to the many, reflective, glass jars stacked precariously around me, the one bulb was plenty to illuminate the entire area where I stood. Amazed, I took the sight in; Meemaw had been very busy. Columns of different colored pickles inside variously sized jars were everywhere, rising almost to the ceiling! It was a miracle I hadn’t knocked any over.
But my Meemaw was nowhere to be seen.
Relieved, I set out to investigate the area. The cellar was large and cluttered so I knew it’d take a few minutes to be certain she wasn’t hurt. Everywhere I went, though, I found only pickles, bobbing disgustingly in their musty jars. Finally, there was only the back corner left to search.
Picking carefully through the stacks of jars (some teetered as I passed), I eventually wove my way back to the solid, stone wall of the cellar. Though my Meemaw was not there, something else did catch my eye. Here, hidden away, was a shelf with several decorative jars upon it. Each had a date written across the lid, some going back as far as a decade or more. I picked one up to inspect it in the corner’s dim light. These must have been my Meemaw’s prized bunch. She’d mentioned them before, though I’d barely listened. Now it seemed sad to be standing there, holding them without her. I’d been so cruel, and now she was gone and I didn’t know where she was. I felt a tear roll down my cheek as I sat the jar back on the shelf, disturbing the dark liquid within. The object inside, visible now, did not look like a pickle. But what was it? I leaned in and squinted. Was that… an ear?
I caught a faint whiff of something terrible right before I heard her voice. “So, you’ve found them, eh?” Meemaw’s words were devoid of any emotion as she moved slowly through the room. She’d suddenly appeared, as if from nowhere, and she reeked of death. She stopped to smile when she was no more than a few feet away. “Those… those are my special ones. These others,” she said, motioning towards the hundreds of jars, “are just a hobby. But that back there, that’s my calling.”
In my innocence, I wasn’t sure what to think. She was safe, which made me happy, but there was something sinister in her voice, and then there was the matter of the ear in the jar. I backed away as far as I could as she moved past me and towards the shelf.
“Children are just so naughty,” she hissed while returning the jar I’d removed to its rightful place. “And I’ve been chosen to fix them. It’s quite a burden, really, but I don’t mind. These tokens of all the good I’ve done are reward enough.” She took another jar down before tossing it me. “Careful you don’t break it.”
I barely managed to catch the jar before it could crash into the ground. Raising it towards me, I noticed it was empty. The marking on the lid read 7/29/87. Today’s date.
“I did warn you,” Meemaw began as she removed a pair of tongs from her pocket, “that those horrible things might be the last words you ever said to me. But you didn’t care. You children NEVER care!”
Suddenly she lunged for me, but I managed to move just beyond her grasp, knocking over several dozen jars in the process. Her eyes were wild as she circled back around.
“The keepsake you found,” Meemaw said as she closed in, “belonged to a girl who wouldn’t listen. Her ears didn’t do her much good, obviously.” She darted forward but once more I was too quick. “Another, which you may have seen, is the hand of a boy who took things.”
“Meemaw, no…” I pleaded.
“I have many such trophies,” she continued, ignoring my whimpering, “a nose, several eyes… even a toe or two. But I admit; you’ll be a first!” This time Meemaw practically leapt upon me, catching me by the collar of my shirt. I could hear her cackle as she raised me from the ground before spinning me around to face her. Though I was struggling, she was surprisingly strong as she forced the tongs into my mouth, pulling harshly at my tongue. “You’ll thank me for this later,” she declared as she raised a pair of scissors to my eye level.
Realizing this was my last chance, desperation kicked in and I mustered all of my strength for one final attempt to escape. Rearing back against the wall, I brought my legs up and caught Meemaw in the stomach, knocking her backwards and into several dozen jars. My natural instincts were then to run, but I’d only reached the steps when I noticed she wasn’t following me. In fact, she hadn’t yet moved from the spot where she’d landed.
Against my better judgment, I slowly walked over towards this beaten woman, to find her coughing but otherwise lying still. Beneath her was a growing pool of blood from where she’d landed on several rather large shards of glass. Her skin was already a ghostly white as she looked up at me with pity in her eyes.
“You poor little fool,” she scolded. “I was the one chance you had at salvation and you spurned me.” She paused as she choked. “Those other children… they’re lucky to have met me. I saved them from themselves! But you… you’re beyond that now. What a disappointment…”
Those were the last cruel things Meemaw ever said to me or anyone else. I remember crying for a good hour before finally deciding to leave by the road that ran past the old, white house. Thankfully, I was picked up by some very nice people and taken to the police department. There, the couple who’d found me gave the authorities directions back to Meemaw’s house while I waited in a back room, scared and disconsolate.
It took the state almost a week to locate my parents. They were overjoyed to see me, though I didn’t really remember them. The woman who I’d known as Meemaw had apparently drugged me at the time of my kidnapping a few months prior, robbing me of many faces and memories. Thankfully that was all she’d manage to steal.
The police spent several months clearing out and cataloguing everything in Meemaw’s house. They found a secret door in the cellar that led to a sort of burial plot. There was one empty, freshly dug hole, but in total, she’d taken nine children. Several officers quit after the investigation.
To this day, I wonder what could cause someone to do something so terrible. I have no answer, of course. I’m pleased to say, however, that while my tongue has since gotten me into trouble more than once, I don’t believe it’s leading to any sort of damnation. And I’m very glad it’s still attached.
I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to eat pickles, though.Until next time...