Out Here Where Everything Burns
Out here where I run past fracking sites that try to hide behind gravel hills and gates, where rusted metal gathers in piles like dead leaves after a storm, where I see more headstones than people – out here, I fear even the water I long to drink, but keep pouring down the sink. Why would I trust it, this water that could light on fire one morning, without warning?
I remember driving to the nearby reservation with my grandfather and sitting in the cab of his baby-blue truck while he filled a dozen red tanks with gas and lined them up in the bed while I spun the plastic eagle that hung from the rearview mirror, pleading with it to keep me safe from a cigarette flicked from a passing car, from a too tight turn, from a run red light. Please, plastic eagle, protect me from fire.
The burn barrels out here are rusted and coated with ash, some discarded for a large pile in the middle of the yard. Everything that will burn gets burned. With no cities nearby, the nights are dark enough to watch as barrels and burn piles send up sparks smaller than a babies finger nail, sparks that somehow light the hillsides. These burning piles bring to mind the beacons in England and Wales and Scotland, used to warn of impending raids. I walk in the woods and think of how a single spark could land in the summer-dried brush, how I’ve so often thought of fire as passion. How something that can burn and spread and destroy is something I want to hold in my chest.
We learned to make fires young. We’d light them next to our grandparents’ pond when everything was so dark we couldn’t see the hills in the distance, our bodies exhausted from swimming, watching for snapping turtles, exploring the cemetery that connected to the rural land we roamed. We’d gather kindling, make a nest of dried grass, and fumble with flint and pocketknives until the miracle of spark fell into the nest, setting it ablaze. When the grownups wandered off to the porch and their stories and debates, we’d take turns jumping our small fires, amazed we’d made something that could both warm and burn us. Amazed we’d been left alone with it.
Out here where everything burns because this stuff has to go somewhere, even if it’s the sky, out here even the idea of fire confuses me. Maybe everything burns because they want to smudge the sky because nothing should be that blue when you’re thirsty and the children are as quiet as the eye of a storm.
A log rolled from the fireplace in the only home my parents owned when I was a child. A blip in the long chain of moves. The log rolled and somehow burned the middle of the rug. Not a single singe along the path it took, but a black hole eaten through the beige. A reminder we can own nothing, the center can and will give out, or be burned.
Even plastic bottles out here are burned. And I can’t stop thinking about it. If you can’t trust the water in your sink, you drink water from bottles that promise pristine mountaintops and clear springs. Springs without refrigerators, plastic children’s play structures, and blue tarps littering them. Mountains that haven’t been destroyed to uncover more to burn. In the face of so much destruction, a few plastic bottles, collapsing and folding in on themselves seems right. How quickly can my own beliefs collapse and fold in on themselves, become shriveled remnants of what they were?
That same house is the one my father lit on fire. My mother wanted the teakettle on, but instead he turned on the burner where the pan of bacon grease sat, cooling. My brother smelled it first and nobody believed him until we saw the orange glow reflected in the stairwell. We ran from the TV, grabbed the dogs, and stood in the snow, barefoot, watching the flames lick the sky.
Out here, every piece of wood is hard earned with the swing of the axe, the piling, and the carrying indoors. When winter comes and there is never enough warmth, wood burning stoves send up their plumes of milky smoke; they mimic the plumes from the nuclear plant down along the river. All that smoke makes it look simple, all this heat that has to go somewhere. All this heat that feels necessary.
Another carpet burned when my friend and I tried to replicate a science experiment from our 7th grade class in her parents’ hallway. We turned a cupcake wrapper upside down, lit the lip of it, and let go. Instead of floating, it righted itself and fell in a rush to the blue carpet. We put the flames out with our feet. We scrubbed at the black singed circle with bars of Ivory soap for a long time until we admitted defeat, arranged a pile of laundry on top of it, and waited for our punishment to come. It never did, but the soles of our feet took weeks to heal.
Virginia Woolf whispers in my ear out here. Maybe because she wrote in To the Lighthouse, “I am drowning, my dear, in seas of fire.” And that’s what this feels like. How to look at all this light and heat and want to extinguish it all. How to understand, and still not get it.
Because we were teenagers with too much energy and time, we made a soccer ball of rags soaked in kerosene. We took the ball to a field and waited for the sun to set on those long summer nights. When the stars came out, we took a lighter to the ragball and kicked it around like we were fireproof. Like we had the right to kick the sun.
Out here, all of these memories catch, spread, warm me with the blush of embarrassment at the stupidity of my youth. But it wasn’t just youth.
All of this and I’m still unafraid of fire. I still love fire like a caveman. It seems too beautiful to fear. But my oldest daughter fears fire. She worries about every lamp, the wisp of smoke from a just blown out candle, a pot of boiling water. She witnessed a house burn down before she came to live with us, so we read her books and explain how we are safe with fire and how to call the fire department. I slid a boxed escape ladder under her bed by the window, because maybe fire lies in wait for that one inattentive moment, that one flammable second.
It feels like everyone is trying to get out of here. As if we can just pour water over the fire and walk away. As if we aren’t all carrying burning things with us, each of them ready to flare. Out here, all these burn piles hide embers, but embers can survive for months beneath the surface, smoldering, waiting for a breeze to lift them.