It's Cbristmastime and I'm 9 years old and I'm about to set my little sister on fire. It isn't my fault. It's because we don't want to fall through the ceiling.
"Don't fall through the ceiling," my mother tells us when she sends us to the attic for the Christmas decorations. "Step on the big boards, not the little ones with the plaster sticking through."
As though she has to tell me that. As though I haven't worried about falling through the ceiling since I was 4 years old and my dad first warned me that if I stepped on the lathe and plaster from the top, I'd fall through.
"You might fall all the way through," he'd said. "Or you might be lucky and just fall through to your armpits."
I HAVE DREAMS about falling through to my armpits. My head and shoulders and arms are still in the attic, my lower body and legs hanging down into the living room. My parents are trying to pull me back from above; our skinny preacher is grabbing my kicking legs from below and trying to pull me down. The Sparks kids are there too, kicking fallen plaster at each other, stepping on nails in the broken lathe, laughing like demons.
That's when I know it's a dream and wake up: We never let the Sparks kids in our house.
They live across the alley behind us and they tear things up. So their mother doesn't let them in their house either. Not alone, anyway. When their father is at work and their mother has to go for groceries, she locks the two boys in their outdoor privy to keep them out of trouble.
"Hey, Lehon," they yell at me from
across the alley, "come open the door."
I DON'T KNOW WHY they call me Lehon, but that's another reason we
won't let them in our house.
"They can't even say your name," my
mother says. "Those yahoos can just
"Hey, Lehon," they yell from the front. porch. "Come out and play."
It's dark in the attic. We have a light bulb over the door, but deeper inside where the box of Christmas decorations sits on top the old cedar chest, it's dark.
I have matches though. I always have matches. I light one so we can see the 2-by4s we're supposed to walk on. My little sister is picking her way in front of me and we're both looking down at the lathe and plaster because we don't want
to fall through the ceiling. Neither of us is paying attention to the match.
SO IT CATCHES her hair on fire. She
has long blonde curls, like Shirley Temple's, and one of them gets too close to the match and the flame goes up inside the curl like it is going up inside a chimney.
I know I'm in trouble. I was in trouble in October when I burned the dry leaves piled up around the gas meter in the alley. I'll be in even more trouble for setting my sister on fire at Christmastime. Not even the Sparks boys have done that.
The Truth, Mainly
I'll probably go to hell. I imagine the trip down is like falling through a ceiling. One wrong step and there you go.
I probably won't get any Christmas presents either. I'll probably be stuck with just the brown paper sack of hard candy and walnuts and pecans and apples and oranges that our skinny
preacher gives out when he dresses like Santa Claus after the Christmas Eve
program where we all wear bathrobes. The candy isn't very good, but everyone gets a sack. And that's probably all I'll get.
So I know I have to do something quick about the fire inside my sister's Shirley Temple curl.
I BOP HER HEAD with open hand three or four times, mashing her hair. And the fIre goes out She hasn't even yelped yet. Maybe I'm saved. From downstairs I hear the radio playing "0
Come, All Ye Faithful," and I wonder if
"Hey," my sister says. "Quit bopping my head."
"I'm not," I say. "You were on fire and now you're out."
"Like fun," she says.
She smells like burnt chicken feathers though, so when we get downstairs with the decorations, my mother notices.
"Why do you smell like burnt chicken. feathers?" she asks. I tell her it was because we didn't want to fall through the ceiling and I put it out before my sister even yelped. While my mother heats the curling iron to patch up the burned curl, she tells me how disappointed she is that I set my sister on fire.
"IF I CATCH YOU playing with matches again," she says, "I'll lock you up in Sparks' privy with those two little yahoos of theirs."
I get presents anyway: a Mackinaw and gloves and Flying Tiger model airplane. The Sparks kids give me their father's broken cigarette lighter and I give them the head of an old claw hammer. They'll find a handle somewhere.
And of course everyone gets the brown paper sack from our skinny preacher. He says it works like Grace: You don't have to deserve the sack, you just accept it. While I'm accepting mine, I wonder if maybe a new flint would make that lighter work.
Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.