After the Fire
by Joanna M. Weston
The house stands foursquare to the road. Its granite blocks will never burn. A frisson of fear trickles under my skin at the thought of fire, even as I note the post and rail fence that marks the territory, without trees or garden, in a land that planes to the horizon under a streamered gray sky.
The house, uncompromising in stonework and four windows, two up, two down, with central black-painted door is familiar to me. The floor plan is simple with four rooms downstairs and up — this I’m sure about, I’ve been here recently and loved it. A picture of a sitting room in an apartment clouds my vision — and dissipates like the twist of smoke that rises and streams from the single chimney.
I walk up the straight brick path, put my hand on the doorknob and push the door open. The staircase rises directly in front of me as I go in, shifting the child on my hip. She curls a fist into my hair and burbles briefly. Our shadows reach ahead of us.
How long do I have to live here before this is ‘my house’, where I am always safe? Or do I live here now? Questions rise mistily behind the certainties of the building.
Mack sits on the red chair just inside the door. We have common memories — of this child, the one I carry. I place Mack as lover or husband: he moves warmly in my thoughts. But his identity has been blurred by the pain of my body.
He is crocheting a fine white square in a tulip pattern, his thinness accentuated by the thread. A pile of completed squares lies on his knee, each one fine as frost on an apartment window, light as the first smoke from a morning fire. He must be making a tablecloth. I hope it is for me. He sniffs the air and looks over his shoulder toward the source of the strange sounds behind him; his ginger hair flares like rays from a streetlight.
My yellow hat obscures my view as I try to see what causes the sloshy noises at the other end of the room. I put the child on the floor beside Mack, take the hat off, borrow Mack’s scissors, cut away part of the brim, and put it on again. I lift the child into my arms, settling her comfortably; she leans her head against my shoulder.
The shooshing sound comes from a man mopping the ceiling which emerges white from under black smudges and a haze of burnt sienna. His hair curls on his neck, almost touching his pale blue cotton shirt.
A young woman, wearing a long loose white jacket, cleans more huge black smudges from a wall. A stethoscope hangs round her neck. She moves to dust the floor, dig embers from the floorboards. Their faces are secrets turned from me, their personalities hidden. I try to give them names and fail; they exist on the edge of memory.
I should help them but my yellow hat would get dirty and I have the child to worry about. She gurgles quietly, heavy in my arms, eyes closing hesitantly. I carry her upstairs where she can sleep in the dark on a blue foam mattress.
At the top of the stairs I realize my foot has caught in Mack’s crochet cotton and I have dragged it with me. Mack and I are bound together.
I take the child into one of the rooms, lay her down and tuck a mover’s quilt round her so she will not roll. The air is sultry, the window hidden behind lengths of carpet. I pull the carpet away and open the window whose hinges squeak harshly. The child must have fresh air. The crochet cotton has wrapped itself around my wrists.
I can hear someone sweeping in the bathroom next door but, looking around the doorframe, there is no one there, only a few red hair-clippings and a piece of burnt metal on a sheet of newspaper. The sound of rigorous bristles continues without hesitation.
I put scouring pads on my hands and knees so that I can clean the claw-footed bath properly. The people downstairs need to know I am helping. I rap the information in Morse code on the floor. A chant of pleasure comes to me up the stairs.
Someone, perhaps the young woman, says, “You’re doing well.”
How long have I lived here? Or have I ever lived here? Memories of fire-trucks howling outside an apartment block surface like evening fish, creating ripples along my nerves, only to fade, leaving eddies of uncertainty.
Who are these people, here to help? Does Mack live in the house already? Questions float like blown soot but I have only the child and no answers.
When I go downstairs, my hands stained with ash and charcoal from the bath, footsteps follow but only my shadow drifts on the stairs behind me. Does a fireman touch my shoulder, take my hand?
I find the young woman cleaning the kitchen. She brushes torn bits of fabric, old poems, candy wrappers and grape-stalks from the back of empty shelves. Cinders rise and settle in her hair, aging her beyond despair. Her long jacket remains clean.
Mack has gone up and fetched the child downstairs. He sits on a charred stool, cuddling her close, combing embers from her hair. He puts one of his crocheted squares on her head. He shouldn’t have brought her down. She was asleep and safe from the rise of fire. She begins to sing, ‘Gonna rock’a my soul’, waving a crocheted square of smoke in time to the beat.
It’s all wrong: she is singing to the tune of ‘Fire down below’. She has bleached ginger hair: her smile is Mack’s smile; her voice is Mack’s. They are my husband, my child. This is not my house yet; we live in a second-floor apartment. We bought this house yesterday. Or was it last week?
I turn towards the front door and my shadow lies crooked over the floor, now partly obscured by black smoke that coils between the boards. It smells acrid and oily and makes my eyes sting. Small flames flicker and surge round the door.
Mack and the child run out before me. Embers catch along the edges of the boards and sooty fumes spiral between me and the apartment door.
We did buy the house, I know we did. Mack has repainted the bathroom in palest yellow.
The wail of sirens threads the hiss of flames in a thin counterpoint. A lean, misshapen hand, lengths of burning crochet cotton dangling from it, stretches across the wall to lead me out. A rank taste catches in my throat and I gag. Sparks cascade onto my skin. I shut my eyes and breathe smoke and smoke and...
I twist away and open my eyes. Mack sits on my right, holding my hand. The young woman with the stethoscope has her fingers on my left wrist. She smiles. “You’ve had a bad reaction to the painkillers,” she says.
Copyright © 2012 by Joanna M. Weston