There are nine circles of Hell, each crafted to bring its trespasser to the breaking point. But what no one tells you, is that the true hell of it, is Hell is uniquely yours. Why send the outspoken, though in pain, to a place with companions to suffer and talk to? A bond over misery is still a bond. No, their Hell consists of a room in which all life is absent. Silence their only companion. Or what about the greedy? You don’t send them off to hoard large rocks, hoping to drain every last ounce of avidity out of them through sweat and tears. No - you give them absolutely nothing in a world of everything. Their deterioration comes from comparison. Then there’s the lustful, who have been said to be blown around as if caught in a storm of violent nature. Who’s to say they can’t find their fleshly desires in the wind? Their Hell is almost. Almost a touch. Almost a kiss. Almost love. But theirs is an itch that can never be scratched, a lifetime of near relief.
The other thing no one knows is the devil is a woman. She happens to be my mother. “What did I tell you about plucking the feathers?” She growled. She took her meaty hands and yanked on my ear. “Since you can’t listen, I will show you.” With the chicken in one hand, and my ear in the other, she pulled all the way till we reached the porch. The pounding of blood echoed in the appendage she had her talons around. She shoved my shoulders down onto the splintered wood deck, nearly missing a rusty nail jutting out. “You take those scrawny fingers of yours, and start plucking.” Her own hand was around the neck of the bird, the other ripping out feathers that dotted the body and head. She didn’t speak as she worked, but she didn’t need to. You’d think she’d be a crude woman, cursing God and life itself any chance she got. But I learned pure evil is in presence alone. “If you bring this back in with a single feather…” Her breath reeked as she brought her hollow face closer to mine. “It would be best for you to not come back at all.” She dropped the dead chicken at my feet and slammed the porch door.
I never understood why executioners wore masks. I used to think it was to be menacing; death in a personified form. I have since learned it’s just as much for their protection as it is for their image. Every time I walked into the pen, I was no longer the animal's caretaker. I would spend hours out with the livestock, escaping my mother's wrath. I would stumble into the hay and lie there for hours under a leaky tin roof. No one in the world listened to me. The livestock did though, even if their moans and groans didn’t mean shit. But I was not the same person who would name them or give them origin stories. I was their executioner. When they saw me, they fled. When they smelled me, they hid. To them, I was the monster worse than wolves. The only friends I had in the world, I turned against in my mother's name.
I sat, plucking feather after feather in the autumn dusk. My mother’s warning echoed in my mind. What could be worse than what she’d already done? I shook my head, realizing the notion was utterly foolish. Ignorance was bliss, but your body still bared the scars. And mine was a canvas of mangled flesh and broken bone. The first time I underestimated her fury, I left the barn with a cast iron branding on my leg. The second, the disappearance of a fingertip. The third, the swing of a thousand damned souls connected with my nose. She didn’t always resort to violence - she was the devil after all. Variety was still the spice of life, even if the life was filled with turmoil. Humiliation, labor-intensive jobs, false hope. She shuffled her plays like a well-versed gambler.
When I was younger, I once sat at the bus stop for eight hours, the Nor'easter winds and rain pummeling me flat on the bench. She told me it was Friday, when it was Saturday, so there was no school that day. The tears of the gods swallowed my own on that decrypted bus bench. Then when I was older, I asked a dainty blonde to prom. She had the prettiest freckles and the biggest brown eyes. She was my Helene of Troy, a beauty to behold; but I was only destined to be Hector, dragged around for pure amusement. I had stepped out of my room, bow tie crooked and shoes too tight. The suit was rented and the hair gel was old, but nobody would care when they saw the girl on my arm. “Mom, how do I look?” I stayed still as her sharp eyes scanned me. I shifted back and forth under her scrutiny. “I’m glad I sent her away,” she finally replied. “What?” I yelled. She yanked my red rose boutonniere straight out of my jacket lapel. “She was much too pretty to go out with a thing like you.” I asked her what the pretty blonde said, why she did it, and how a mother could be so cruel. She set the rose on the counter and walked away. The thorns left her hand sprinkled with drops of crimson. That is the day I learned that the devil bleeds red too.
When she tucked her pitchfork in the closet and covered her protruding horns, she might seem like a conventional mother. We would have taco Tuesdays and popcorn with movies. She’d sit on the couch and cross-stitch under a dying lamp. We did laundry on Sundays and grocery shopped on Mondays. She loved the midday soap operas that came on television, eating up every predictable plot twist. I'd still have chores, but while most mothers might yell at their children to pick up dirty socks off the bathroom floor, mine would just burn them. When I left the toilet seat up one too many times, I would come to find it nailed shut the next trip in. Not that she was any cleaner than me, she was just the one in charge, so her mess didn’t count.
I examined the pile of feathers at my feet, some strewn about by the chill breeze. The legs, chest, wings, head, and any area once covered by a feather were now bare; pale, pink, pebbled skin was left in its place. The bird's neck hung limp over my leg. Its eyes were blank with death. “Oh, Polly…” I whispered. I knew I couldn’t name them anymore, but she was before my mother's decree that I - the spawn of the devil - would slaughter the livestock. I took my pale hands and closed Polly's lids. It signified she was no longer Polly, just a cut of meat. I held the carcass up into the remaining light, making sure my job was thorough. When I thought the job was satisfactory, I did another round of inspection. If judgment day was to come, at least I could say I died trying.
I came in from the porch to find my mother standing in the kitchen wielding a large butcher knife. Littered on the counter was an assortment of veggies from the garden. A pot of water sat boiling on the paint-chipped stove. “Set it right there,” she said while pointing at an empty scuffed cutting board. I laid down the bird and stood back waiting for instruction. All that was heard was the rhythmic chopping and the pungent smell of onions. “Go get more carrots.” I paused to see if that was the extent of the list, then left. I walked by the barn and past the pen, around the shed, and through the brush. The garden got the most sunlight here and was far enough away from grazing animals. I dug within the earth, bringing out three crooked, thick carrots. The dirt coating their skin and getting under the crevices of my nails. You’d think the wretched woman wouldn’t have a garden teeming with life; but that's where humanity went to shit, so I thought it fitting.
The leaves crunched beneath my feet, and the wind blew all remnants of the feathers off the deck. Some were stuck in blades of grass, while others floated in the mighty gusts of air. It was as if my backyard was where Icarus fell. I kicked off my dirt-ridden shoes before stepping back inside the warmth of the kitchen. “I grabbed three, the other sprouts are too new,” I said. She nodded, not glancing my way as she continued chopping vegetables. I went to the sink and ran water over the orange stalks, making sure I got within the nooks that harbored dirt. I patted them dry and set them near my mother's awaiting hands. Noticing she hadn’t retrieved any of the herbs or spices she typically put in the cauldron, I went to the pantry. You can’t reason with the devil, but you sure can stay on her good side - if she even has one of those. The jars clunked on the counter upon setting them down. “I’m not sure if you still liked thyme in the stew, but I brought the black peppers and cumin just the same,” I said. When I didn’t receive a response, I looked up from the assortment of spices. Her eyes were not on me, - but on the bird. The bird she held up to the light. The bird, whose wing she lifted to reveal a single feather.
I froze; I felt the blood drain from my face and could already see its future on the kitchen floor. With a slow crane of her neck, her icy eyes met mine. We stood there staring at each other for what felt like an eternity, my neck slick with sweat. She finally broke eye contact to set the bird down. She plucked the single feather and laid it on the cutting board. She grabbed the butcher's knife and swung it down, slicing the remnants of the fowl's last wardrobe. And I knew. I knew the next thing that would be laid on the chopping block would be my head. So I ran.
I rounded the island as I heard her footsteps close behind me. I sprinted out the backdoor with the devil on my heels. My sock-clad feet trampled the dead foliage and wet earth. I ran hard and fast. The pounding of my heart mimicked the pounding of the footsteps behind me. Past the barn, past the pen, past the garden. Into the woods I ran, shoving at tree branches and tripping over logs. “Shit!” I screamed as I tripped over a rotting mound. I grabbed a mossy rock and scouted back in the dirt. All that could be heard was my breathing and the rustling of trees. I sat there for a moment, waiting to see my mother burst through the foliage. But she never came.
The woods were dark, quiet, and damp. My breath had returned, and with it the reality of what had just happened. I had just run from home with no shoes, no food, and no plan. I couldn’t go back; I don’t think she would let me back. This wood had no path or trail. The house was far enough from civilization that my life - my nine circles of hell if you will - couldn't be heard from the road. And I had to choose a path not just to exit the forest, but to leave the devil behind. I wanted a world where I could go get chickens from the freezer aisle and milk from the fridge. I wanted a life with friends and a home with a legitimate postal address. I wanted a girl who would never meet my mother and never see the place where I grew up. Yes, an orphan, that’s what I’d be. My feet started walking on their own accord. I didn't know where I was going or what I’d do. My socks had holes and my bloody sols met the earth. And all the while I thought; everyone is lustful, gluttonous, greedy, angry, violent, a fraud, and a heretic. But most pay for their sins in the afterlife. I paid mine in this life. And if anyone is the traitor, it is the devil herself.