Home Fires Burning
by Edward Ahern
Duane was patching the trailer roof, sloshing down tar where he guessed the leaks were. The swamp sprawled outward from his back door, tussocks and pools punctuated with the trunks of dead trees.
The swamp hid its moods, rarely breaking out in waves or ripples. The ambiguity bothered Duane. He felt that if he could just look at the swamp from the right angle, he would see its pattern, the lines of its body, its breathing.
Duane ran out of guesses on the leaks, gathered up his gear and backed down the ladder. He popped a can of beer with sticky hands and sat down in a folding chair on the patch of dry ground the swamp had left him. The sun was lowering behind the front of the trailer, putting him in deep shade with spectrum-shifting colors out over the water. Evening bugs were starting to swarm. It was his favorite time of day.
As the browns and greens shrouded down into black, Duane noticed indistinct flickers of yellow: two of them, no, three. They oscillated but held to the same general areas. My God, he thought. Foxfires, Will-o’the-Wisps. Duane’s neighbors had warned him that he would see them. “Corpse candles,” one of them had said. The lights held, swaying, well into dusk and then fluttered out.
Duane pried the can from his tarred palm and tossed it into a pile of empties near the corner of the trailer before going inside. He turned on the dish antenna. Highly defined commercials streamed by without registering, his vision short-circuited by the closed loop of his thoughts.
Duane led an equally disconnected life. He had fetched up in Ema four years ago, propelled by his needs for distance and anonymity. His get-lost severance had been enough to buy land and a trailer, with a little more available each month. And I got lost, he thought. Couldn’t handle the big show, the woman with demands that matched her attractions.
His street was one of two dozen in Ema. Most residents lived in haphazardly placed single- and double-wides, accented with a few small houses. Four businesses crouched along the county road: a gas station, a convenience store and beer outlet, a one-room post office, and an auto parts outlet. Everyone drove to the next town over to shop at Walmart, where Duane worked.
Ah, he thought, and I am a department head for men’s clothing. As he was preparing for bed, he noticed through a window that the foxfires had rekindled, all three of them, brighter now in the full darkness. He went out back in his undershorts and settled into the folding chair.
The curling yellows danced in an unknowable rhythm, powered by the gasses of decay: dervishes whose evanescent poise would never let them collide. As he stared at the flames, they appeared to seethe nearer, and Duane could almost discern features on their surfaces.
The sting of a large insect jerked him erect in his chair. I may be a recluse, he thought, but I don’t want to become the village madman. He turned his back on the flickers and went into the trailer.
* * *
When he got off shift the next night, he skipped his usual pit stop at a local bar, hoping that the lights had come back. They had.
Duane sank his two hundred pounds into the aluminum chair and popped his first beer. All three flames were riding the air again but were differently positioned, closer together and closer to him. They waved like flags in the soft breeze, furling and unfurling in sinuous patterns. Two guys and a girl, he decided, the guys a little stiffer in motion, the woman all soft waves. He surmised that the flames had a history together.
He watched without impatience through two more beers. The softly edged tapers seemed to be flowing toward him, leaning as if pushing their way through spider webbing.
Duane’s thoughts detoured over to an image of Lucy. She lived in the village and worked nights at the convenience store. She was not so much an object of lust as a hope of rekindled romance, but Duane had never regained the poise to banter with her in an “I’m interested” way.
Duane’s prior existence had been undercut by the corrosive certainty that he was a sham, pretending to be a high-powered executive and urbane lover. He had taken shortcuts to maintain his results, and when his sleights of hand were revealed, he had avoided prosecution by agreeing to permanent silence. He had divorced Sarah abruptly so she could move in with her lover, who, it turned out, had been involved with her the last three years of Duane’s marriage.
He ate into himself again with the thought that he hadn’t really retreated, for that implied counterattack. He had just gone into hiding. After four years he hadn’t opened up enough to be a local, just a resident alien who bought gas and paid taxes.
He glanced up and started, the fires were much closer and more intense, as if thoughts of Lucy had fueled them. Images, scenes, seemed to play along their furls. He thought them somehow intrusive, invading, and he retreated back into the trailer.
* * *
The next night Duane drove his pickup from Walmart to his habitual watering hole. His drinking companions had only a casual interest in him, and the only thing he knew about the bartender was his name. After four beers, Duane drove home with exaggerated care and slewed into his drive, the sway sloshing the beer in his belly.
He took his nightcap vodka bottle out back and eased into the plastic webbing. The foxfires seemed excited by his arrival, jittering rather than waving. He took an emphatic pull from the bottle, sat for a minute, took another pull, and waved with his empty hand. The wisps of candle flame seemed to bob back at him.
As Duane sat and drank, his conscious thoughts leaked away and were replaced by a mood: not sad, not happy, just a strong sense of his own presence, the kind of feeling he got too briefly when hot clean shower water first flushed his body.
When he refocused outwardly, he saw the wisps had moved to within a few yards of shore. Up close, he could see that their edges were not defined but were frayed into rays like tree roots sucking nourishment from the air.
Duane watched for several more minutes and, still without conscious thought, got up and walked into the swamp. He stepped through rotting vegetation that sucked at his feet and ankles lurching forward until the cold water was up to his nipples. My remote truck key, he thought vaguely, will never work again.
The wisps of flame had advanced as well and were fluttering within easy reach. Duane perceived that the fires were not solid but shifting filigree, finely woven cloths of gold that reknit themselves constantly. I’m meant to touch them, he thought, and he did.
Each of the three was dryly warm, like the air over a winter radiator. With each touch Duane felt an unknotting, a tension loosening that left his muscles so flaccid he almost dropped under the surface of the water.
The triumvirate seethed backwards and held still two feet away from him, like magi who had delivered their gifts. Something else, Duane thought. There’s something else. He bent forward and sucked in three gagging mouthfuls of swamp water.
When he straightened up, he saw the foxfires moving like ice dancers back into the heart of the swamp. I’m cold, he thought, and tried to turn his body toward shore. His legs had sunk to mid-calf in the ooze, and it took almost a minute to reverse the direction of each foot. One of his sneakers was sucked off in the process.
Duane was shivering by the time he staggered out. He stripped in the back yard and went under a shower. I wonder, he thought, if I should try and puke up the booze and water? No, too late.
He retrieved his pants and emptied out the pockets onto the kitchen table, then pulled out the contents of his wallet and stacked them like a house of cards for better drying. Thank God for plastic, he thought.
His sleep held unremembered dreams. When the alarm roused him, he gave in to his urge to vomit, still shivering and with a noticeable fever. He called in sick and let the illness envelop him, able to eat nothing and drink no more than a few sips of water. He bobbed above and below consciousness all day. During one surfacing he wondered if what he’d done was a born-again baptism or just suicide.
That night he dreamed, or thought he dreamed, that the Will-o’the-Wisps had entered the trailer and wavered near his bedside. Indoors, the flames seemed orange rather than yellow, bobbing and weaving in a three-part dance that ignored him. Like a wake, Duane thought, where the living focus on the fellow mourners rather than on the dead. Odd, he thought faintly, I never dream in color yet here are three golden fire lights.
On the second day, he was able to eat a little, and on the third day he returned to work.
Duane felt lighter, cleaner, as if the wisps had drawn out his sorrows. I’ve been such an idiot, he thought.
* * *
Stocking the displays of clothing was a mindless activity, like a wordless litany. It usually freed Duane’s mind to wander elsewhere. He poked at his memories and found they no longer hurt to touch, not even those of Sarah. His guiltless satori washed over him as he tended to the underwear and socks.
That evening Duane drove past the local bar and went directly to the convenience store in Ema. Lucy was behind the counter, as she was most evenings.
“Hey, Lucy. I finally saw those swamp fires. Weird. It almost looked like they were dancing together.”
“Hey, Duane. Lucky you. Don’t believe what these old bastards tell you, it’s just swamp gas that’s burning off.”
Lucy hadn’t redyed her hair blonde in two months, and when she’d nodded to him, Duane saw twin brown strips flanking her part. At forty-one she was twice divorced and twice a grandmother, a situation Duane knew to be common.
“Lucy, I... I was thinking that maybe it would be fun for you and me to grab some dinner together one night.”
Lucy studied him. She experienced men as vagrants who were occasionally fun to misspend a night with, or as drones with self-inflicted chastity. Duane had always seemed to be a drone, nice but harmless. What the hell? she thought, Variety. “Gee Duane, I dunno. Okay, maybe. When?”
“Saturday? I thought we’d go over to Cristo’s.”
Christo’s was one step up from fast food. Duane had carefully rated the alternatives, not wanting to imply too much with his choice. He drove the three blocks to his trailer slowly, amused that he had finally gotten the courage to ask her out, mildly surprised that she had said yes.
* * *
That Saturday he switched from jeans and sneakers to slacks and loafers. He decided social lubricant was called for and poured himself a shot from the nightcap vodka bottle. He carried the shot out the back door.
The afternoon sun basted the surface of the marsh, giving off aromas of toasted reeds. There were no foxfires, only stuporous dragonflies and water boatmen drifting over the water.
Duane roused himself and drove over to Lucy’s trailer. She let Duane in but wasn’t ready. “Sit down. Hit the remote and grab a beer. I almost forgot we were going out tonight. Look, I’m sorry but I just got back and I’m all sweaty. I’ve got to grab a quick shower.”
“No problem, Lucy, take your time.”
Duane sipped a beer and wondered that he felt comfortable, at ease.
Lucy emerged in jeans and sneakers, her hair still damp. “Okay, let’s go. Where we headed?”
Cristos was in the next town over, a trip of some twenty minutes. Duane and Lucy knew almost nothing about each other and began asking the seemingly innocuous questions that would fit each other into context. But Duane knew no local gossip and was leery of talking about a pretentious-sounding past. He had no children, and Lucy had lost closeness with hers. Let’s get up front and basic, he thought.
“Lucy, you’ve probably figured out that I don’t play well with other kids. But don’t give me a time-out. You’re sarcastic, I’m sarcastic. I figure we have the same warped view of things.”
“I’m not sarcastic, just realistic.”
“Okay, and I’m studying to become a preacher.”
Lucy smiled. This might not be too awful after all. “All right, Duane, tell me the worst thing you ever did.”
“Not until the statute of limitations runs out. But you’re only one divorce ahead of me.”
They went into Christo’s and ordered drinks at the bar. Lucy liked to drink, and Duane parlayed his head start. They were slurring comfortably to each other by the time they sat down to eat.
“So, Duane, you’re living so quietly the local women quit talking about you.”
“Sorry to disappoint them. Maybe you and I can start some gossip.”
“They already figure I’m a tramp, You hang out with me, and they’ll consign you to doom.”
“What’s the best time you ever had?”
“Not with those two jerks I married. I dunno, maybe my second boyfriend in high school. He was nice. What about you?”
“The first month of my marriage, before I figured out what my wife really wanted.”
They both ate big meals, soaking up much of the alcohol. Over coffee Duane leaned forward.
“Lucy, let’s stop by my place on the way back, and I’ll show you the swamp fires.”
Lucy laughed. “That’s a line I don’t get every night.” She studied him again. “Okay, why not.”
Back at his trailer Duane handed Lucy a can of beer and took her out the back door. The night was still, the swamp empty of any lights.
“I’ve been gypped. It’s false advertising.”
“Nah,” Duane responded,” you’ll just have to keep coming back until they show up.”
They moved together and kissed, still holding their beer cans. Their parts fit together badly at first but quickly found comfortable positions. He sat Lucy on his lap on the groaning aluminum chair and began a gentle kissing and stroking. Over Lucy’s shoulder, he thought he could glimpse the feathered tips of foxfires concealed behind tussocks.
Scheming little voyeurs, he thought. Or maybe just witnesses to my emergence. I wonder if this is really a gift or if there’s a penalty to be paid. Lucy stirred, and he returned to the matters at hand.
Copyright © 2014 by Edward Ahern