The Ash Pit

by Michael B. Tager

A year after the scientist’s wife moved out, he held a Thanksgiving dinner for himself and the demon living in his basement. He – Clarence – cooked the turkey, the mashed potatoes and opened a can of candied yams himself. The turkey was burnt, the potatoes lumpy and the yams cold, but he considered it a success.

He brought everything down to the demon’s room and held everything out before him. The demon – a green-skinned, bony thing – didn’t speak as it watched him. “This is what Thanksgiving is,” Clarence said. “Do you understand?”

After a moment, the room charged with silence, he turned on the electric carver (powered by a long extension cord), vibrations filling the void with empty buzzes. It seemed to him, when the carver sliced and cooked meat drifted in the air, that a low chuckle rose from under the floor, though no one had spoken.

The next morning, Clarence went outside to see if his wife had returned. He looked every morning, but she had not showed in a long time. She had left saying, “You don’t listen to me. You need help. We all think so. This … thing, in the basement. It’s no good, don’t you see?”

When he shook his head no, she winced as if slapped and touched her graying hair. She was short and stout, her skin the color of rich mocha. She asked, “I’ll be back, Clarence. I’ll bring help.” She’d come back since, with doctors and lawyers and even once with a police officer. But there was never any demon in the basement when these professionals showed up and Clarence was careful to say nothing too provoking.

She hadn’t showed up in a while. The last time she’d gone, he’d watched her check her rear view and carefully drive away. She had not looked back.

After a few moments, Clarence knew his wife wasn’t coming back. He watched the dreary morning for a moment, massaged his wrinkled temples and went inside. He was still in his holiday clothes from the night before and felt an inkling of silliness: black wing tips, gray slacks, a red-and-blue striped tie. He brushed at a spot on the tie, noticed a stain on the pants. He sniffed himself and grunted: when had he last showered, he wondered. He didn’t remember through his imminent headache. He’d been spending all his time in the basement.

His steps echoed on the wooden floors of the French colonial they’d bought when he got tenure. He taught Physics and Biology at Morgan State to bored freshmen and boring seniors, mostly young, black, respectful and motivated. He liked the handshakes at the end of semester and cherry-picking the best of his student for his research; mostly, he loved the test tubes, Excel, white lab coats with his name embroidered in gold leaf.

He loved his research. His wife had used to joke that he loved his research more than her and the children. At some point, he wasn’t sure when, it was no longer a joke. And when the demon arrived, it was no longer spoken.

The wooden door to the basement hung open. The steps were old and creaky, the railing splintered; white paint chipped and rubbed off onto caramel fingers. Outside, it was warm and wet, the wind brisk and bitter. Inside, below ground, it was cold, dank, musty. The basement had been redone a year ago for his youngest daughter after college, but it didn’t take. Despite the white carpet, cheery green paint, and pristine IKEA furniture, the basement stayed unpleasant. She’d lived there for a month, then moved back out and downtown, complaining of weird laughter in the quiet hours. Without evidence, he had chalked it up to a young woman’s fear of the dark. It was only after she prodded him that he had found the demon.

Instead of dawdling in the empty basement apartment, he turned and opened a heavy white door. He entered the laundry room, cluttered with mostly-empty paint cans, crates filled with toys and board games, un-mended clothing. And in the back, between the utility sink and washer, there was a gap in the concrete wall wide enough to crawl through.

The stench of brimstone wafted into his face as he wriggled on hands and knees; he gasped for breath. The floor under his palms burned his palms with heat, then froze them with cold. Bits of rock that he couldn’t see scratched his kneecaps and the webbing between his fingers. The demon, he suspected, toyed with him in its small, venial way whenever he visited.

Not long ago, he’d asked the demon, “Why won’t you tell me why you’re here? Why won’t you tell me about the passage? Why, every time I see you, do I hurt myself?” He held his bloody hands up as evidence.

But the demon had said nothing and Clarence grunted and spun on his heels. He’d bumped his head on the way out, cursing, blood running into his eyes, the demon’s low laugh following him. He’d promised not to come back, but the next day, he did and every day after.

The passageway curved and spilled out into a room of concrete and lichen. Once upon a time it had likely been someone’s cellar but the rest of the house was long gone. Clarence had investigated, mildly curious, but discovered nothing. Records kept of historically black, pre-1900 Baltimore neighborhoods were negligible. He’d cursed at the civil servants when they turned up their empty palms and shrugged. Did no one care about answers?

In the center of the dark room were remnants of a stone and brick chimney: the ash pit and dump rose above his head. Below the chimney, a hole lead into blackness. Clarence was no but he knew that the ladder made of crude iron extending into the pit probably shouldn’t exist. In the dim light provided by tiny pinpricks in the earth above, the handles of the ladder were bone white.

Questions hammered him one after another, so many that he wobbled and clutched his head to keep it attached. Veins throbbed; he took a breath to calm his heart and faced the demon.

It sat in the doorway of the ash pit, long, thin green legs dangling over the hole’s darkness. In one hand it held a moldy paperback, a rat’s carcass in the other. It ate it slowly, with a small, lipless mouth filled with sharp teeth.

Shortly, it noticed him and it put down the book, regarding him with cold eyes.

“Why did my wife leave? Because of you?” Clarence wrung his hands and leaned back against the dirt wall, roots pressing against his spine.  The last few months – since he’d discovered the demon – played through his head: the initial curiosity at the discovery of the hole in the wall, the mesmerizing first encounter, the long nights spent sitting before the demon, asking it every question he could think of.

The first night it had rained. He’d gone to the basement to check for leaks. Instead, he found the passageway and, following it, the demon. It had sat there, staring and he wanted to know why it was there. He asked it, hope filling him. Now would be the time he’d discover something; now would be when he’d make his mark.

It hadn’t answered. It didn’t answer now, or any time between. It dangled its feet, tapped its fingers and stared. The demon said nothing, just dangled its feet and tapped on the brick.

“Is she ever coming back?” he asked. “Do you think she would, if I stopped seeing you?”

The demon turned to him and opened its ugly mouth; a small pink tongue flicked out and licked its lips. Its grin continued unabated; Its fingers tap-tap-tapped.

An aurora sparked behind Clarence’s eyes and he groaned. A vein in his forehead throbbed, pulsed. He said, “Don’t look at me like that. You know I hate when you don’t answer me.” He rubbed his eyes with his kunckles. “I’ve told you before.” He spat. “Whatever you are.”

No response, just tapping on brick.

“Why won’t you answer me?” he asked. He balled his fists and stepped forward, anger filling his mouth like dragon smoke. “Tell me the answer.” A few steps and he loomed above the demon. The demon was short, not heavier than a hundred pounds. He grabbed it by its thin arm and wrenched it.

It didn’t resist or fight back when he backhanded it. His fingers stung so he held it to his mouth and sucked on his knuckles, tasting bitter ichor. He looked at his hands, stained with dark stickiness. “Just tell me why you’re here. What you are,” he said, holding his fist before its face. “Tell me.” He shook his fist and felt something hot splatter into his eyes. Tears struggled to clear his vision, but his hands rose and fell on their own.

When he could see, the demon blinked at him, impassive. “What do you want with me?” Clarence asked, driving his hand into the ugly, alien face. “You have to tell me,” he said. “No one ever answers me,” he said as he felt something snap deep in his brain and white light filled his vision.

He stopped when he snapped its leg with a stomp. He didn’t remember breaking the teeth (cutting his fingers to the bone in the process) or the dozens of blows necessary to swell and scrape his hand so. But he must have. He sat down heavily on the cold ground. The form before him blurred.

The demon lifted its head from the dirt and found his eyes. Tired and panting, Clarence couldn’t hold its gaze. He was so tired.

“Please tell me,” he said without facing it. His voice cracked.

Instead of answering, it pulled itself along the ground to the hole, its claws leaving bloodstained gouges in the earth, its ichor deep blue.

“What are you doing?” he asked. “Why won’t you just tell me?” He followed it toward the hole in the earth and the ladder heading down.

It turned, its large eyes betraying nothing. Its mouth drew open into a caricature of a smile, broken shards of teeth jutting north-south, east-west. Its hand rose and closed, one finger extended at the ladder.

“Down there?” he asked. “I’ll find answers down there?”

It grinned.

“Will you just tell me yes or no?” he asked. When it shook its head side to side, he gritted his teeth, hauled his leg back and kicked it under the shoulder. Thick skin broke as the demon slid backward toward the hole, first its head falling, then the rest of its body dragged along. It disappeared. Clarence stepped forward.

He looked over the edge into the dark. He saw nothing, heard nothing. He sank to the ground, one hand resting on the ladder. He knew it lied. Of course it lied. But still, he wondered. What would it be like? Would someone be down there who would explain anything to him? There were answers down there to something. Answers to questions he hadn’t even thought to ask (maybe would never have asked).

He had to know, so Clarence gripped the ladder, swung around and began his long descent into hell.