Southern Legitimacy Statement: Jeremy Tavares is a poet and writer of gritty fiction. He lives with his wife and son in Austin, Texas.
Salvation is Scarier than Damnation
Religion was scary in Middle Mississippi. It was a thing to be feared. There were dark forces slithering around in between the seams. They were real, and they were out to get and use and defile you. Otherworldly beings older than time that were more sadistic than a pedophile in a dirty van. They wanted you, and they never gave up.
They lived in a place so horrible it couldn’t even be described. The least objectionable part of it was the fact that it was made up of unquenchable fire. My grandmother held the tip of my finger to candle once to show me how bad it hurt to be burned. The flesh tuned pink and the skin underneath filled with fluid.
“Now, imagine that happening all over your body everyday forever and ever,” she said. “That’s what hell is like.”
She made me do without food and water for the rest of the day. “Hunger and thirst still exist in hell, but there’s no way to sate them,” she said. “A rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus with just a drop of water on the tip of his finger to lessen his thirst, but it couldn’t be done.”
She took off her glasses and looked into my eyes. “There’s a great chasm that separates heaven from hell, and nothing, not even the angels, can cross it.” I don’t think she ate that night either. My grandfather had dinner in town, so the kitchen stayed empty. She put her glasses back on and lead me down the hall to the spare bedroom that had once been my mother’s.
I was only five, and all I had eaten that day was a strawberry Poptart. I begged her for just a few crackers or a sip of juice, but she shook her head. The next morning, she set a plate of bacon, scrambled eggs, biscuits and grape jelly in front of me and made me steeple my hands and thank God for the food before I could eat.
“Hunger and thirst aren’t the worst part of hell,” she said. “It ain’t even the fire, though you never get used to it. The worst part is the demons. It’s their place. They live there, and they spend all their time torturing the people they have captured down there with them.”
I asked her what the demons did, but she didn’t seem to know. All she could tell me was that it was bad. “They’re everywhere,” she said. “They have powers, and they can disguise themselves as other things. The only protection we have from them is God, and if we sin, He takes that protection away and leaves us to fend for ourselves.” She crossed herself, like I had seen Catholics do, even though she was Pentecostal. She leaned forward and whispered, “That’s why they’re always trying to get us to sin.”
After breakfast, she took a cricket out of a mesh container my grandfather used to hold fishing bait and dropped it in my hand. “Cover it up with the other hand and hold it.” She waited for a few minutes, and let me feel the cricket jumping around inside my hands. “He can’t get out unless you let him out, can he?” I shook my head. “That’s how much power the devil has over us if God isn’t there.”
She placed her hands over mine, one on the bottom and one on the top. Her boney fingers felt cold and dry. She squeezed them together hard with a strength I didn’t know she had. My palms flattened, and I felt the cricket crush between them. She held them there and told me to bow my head.
“God please forgive us for harming one of your creatures in order to drive home the need for your grace. Amen.” She told me to go inside and wash my hands. When I came out of the bathroom, she was sitting in my grandfather’s chair in the living room. She motioned for me to come over and sit on the floor in front of her.
“Now, one day the devil and all his demons are going to come up out of hell and walk around up here on the dry land.” I felt my eyes open wide and my jaw start to quiver. “They’re going to turn this old world into the kind of place they came from, but before they can do it God’s going to call all of his people home to him.”
It was dark in the living room. The lights were off, and the curtains were closed. It was late fall, and the room was cold. “God’s going to call his people up to be with him in heaven.” She had already told me about heaven. It was a nice place with streets of gold. Nobody was ever sick or hungry there, and life went on forever.
She cleared her throat and stared into my eyes. Her own eye sockets were deep, and the dark cast shadows over them making it look like she had holes where they should be. “There’s going to be a loud sound like somebody blowing a trumpet. Then all the people who are right with God are going to float up into the air and disappear. At first the people who are left are going to wonder what happened, but then the Anti-Christ will come and tell them everything is okay.”
I asked her who the Anti-Christ was, but she didn’t have much of an explanation to give other than that he was pure evil and worked for the devil. “It’s going to be hell on earth for a long time. There’ll be plagues, and the waters are going to turn into blood. The sky will go black and everyone who has taken the devil’s mark will break out in boils all over their body worse than that blister on your finger.”
I could feel my heart beating fast. I was breathing harder than if I had been running. I begged her to stop, but she kept going. “When it’s all over there will be a big battle. The worst war the world has ever seen. They’ll call it the battle of Armageddon, and the angels of God will fight the demons of the devil.” She showed me drawings of what people said demons looked like in her Bible. They were monstrous things with horns and fangs. Most of them looked like a cross between a human and reptile.
“Ain’t but one way to avoid all this,” she said. “You got to pray and ask God to forgive you of your sins.” She sat back in the chair and looked up at the ceiling. I couldn’t tell if her eyes were open or closed. “You’ve got to ask for forgiveness and tell God that you want his son Jesus’ sacrifice to count for you too.” Her voice was loud now. She wasn’t shouting, but she was projecting. “You’ve got to tell God you accept Jesus as your savior.”
I asked her what if I sinned again, but all she could tell me was to keep on asking for forgiveness. Apparently, asking to be forgiven was all that was required, but it seemed a little more complicated than that to me. What if I died before I had a chance to ask for forgiveness, or what if I did something sinful without realizing it? I asked her about this, but she didn’t have much of an answer. She just told me to try not to sin, ask forgiveness immediately if I did, and every night apologize to God for any sins I might have missed.
I was surprised at how nonchalant she was about the only thing that could keep me out of hell. I was scared, and so I became obsessed with sin. I spent a lot of time thinking about it. At night after begging God to forgive all the horrible things I might have thought or done, I would lie awake and listen to see if my heart was still beating. I was afraid of dying in my sleep and waking up in hell, but the thing that truly terrified me was the idea of being left behind during the Rapture.
We lived in an old house my uncle owned. It was over one hundred years old and not in the best shape. His wife had bought it with the money in their checking account while he was working offshore on an oil rig. It was two stories of old wood supported underneath by columns of bricks that looked ancient. It had a tin roof that was rusted and dented by hail. The entire thing creaked and groaned when the wind blew. At night it popped and made strange noises.
Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and think that I had heard the sound of a trumpet blowing somewhere off in the distance. I would run my hands up and down the length of my body to make sure I was still solid. I was afraid it had been the trumpet of the arch angel that signified the beginning of the time of Tribulation. I would creep down the hallway to where my parents slept. I knew better than to wake them, but if they were still there it meant the Rapture probably hadn’t happened yet.
One night I stood in the doorway watching my parents sleep, and the idea hit me that they might have been left behind too. My father cursed and my mother lied a lot. Maybe we were all going to have to suffer through the Tribulation together. I walked down to the other end of the house where my sister slept. She was only a year old, and my grandmother had assured me that God wouldn’t leave the little babies behind to be tormented by the devil and his demons.
I eased into her room and saw her sleeping in her crib on top of a pale pink sheet. Her rib cage expanded and contracted with each breath. Watching her sleep made me feel safe. My heartbeat slowed down. I went back to bed and slept easy knowing that the time of hell on earth hadn’t arrived yet.
For the next few months, I started skipping my parents’ room and just going directly to check on my sister. I worked well until the night she was missing from her crib. She had been running a fever, so my mother had taken her to their bed where she could keep an eye on her. I stood looking into the empty crib for a while before walking back to my own bed. I climbed in and pulled the covers over top of me. There was no use worrying anymore. I had missed the Rapture and would have to face hell on earth now. I closed my eyes and went to sleep without praying. I would need to be well rested to face what was coming, but there wasn’t any need to worry about my sins anymore. I slept well that night. It was the first time I had since before the day my grandmother held my finger to the candle.