Fear of Fire
After all the little fires, Penelope had been sent away to live with two dreary relatives who didn’t know anything about the stars or how to relieve ringing in the ears. These are things her mother knew.
Penelope was eleven when her father sent her away. Now, she was a young woman returning home. When Penelope arrived by carriage the morning before Thanksgiving, she was surprised to see that the land had been more or less kept up. A horse was in the stable, the fields, though smaller than she remembered, had been tilled. There were even a few meadows of violets and clover scattered in places where they had buried dead animals throughout their childhood. The small ground plants were shrinking up for the coming winter.
Penelope’s father had sent her away because the girl had become another thing to worry about in the wake of her mother’s compulsion to set small objects on fire. Penelope could have soothed herself with the notion that her father was trying to protect her by separating her from everything she knew. But even among the smoldering little flames, Penelope knew her mother had a purpose. Their separation from each other had been merciless.
Penelope was soon to be twenty, and her little brother, James, was only one year her junior and had written that their father was sick, but no news of her mother. James needed help, she thought. And she was now of an age to give it.
James had stayed behind to help their father cope with a mother who could, at times, be the sweetest, most generous soul on the planet. During her good days, she would make thick stews, laced with rosemary and tiny onions she’d grow in small pots outside the kitchen window. They were the only vegetables that could sustain prolonged periods of neglect. So, when she felt alright, they became little shiny jewels at dinner, soaking up the steam of the meat.
But on bad days, their mother would ruminate in the fields, or the stables, or sometimes next to a small cave beside the creek running north of the house. It was like a tragic game for James and their father to discover which location in which she would be hiding. Penelope’s mother would be soaking wet, or withered by the sun, or chilled to the bone. She’d never protect herself, always saying her soul needed to be released from her body, but it was not hers to destroy. Only God and Mother Nature had dominion over this.
Once they’d find her, her father would drag her by the back of her dress through the mud, not caring if her mother stumbled or if her hair became tangled in brush. He never yelled. He never said anything until they reached the house. He would roughly push her into an armchair in the corner of the kitchen next to the fireplace and say, “Stay there.” If she tried to move, he’d push her back down.
Over the years, she had tried to debate him and say things like “You don’t understand. I need to be outside. It’s too hot in here. I promise I won’t go beyond the fence.” He would say things like “You can’t be trusted. I’m tired of looking for you. You only care about yourself. You’ll die out there.” Eventually, they both stopped talking and just played a hide and seek game no one liked.
Once, Penelope’s mother set toy soldiers on fire which were given to James by their Uncle Mathias during the winter holiday. This was especially tragic, because Uncle Mathias had only girls and looked forward to going to battle with his nephew. After that, their relatives never came back.
Other times, Penelope’s mother set fire to a dead dove, a nativity scene made of branches, an old cloak stained with blood and oil, and a bowl of walnuts. Why would she set such inconsequential items on fire? It was when Penelope’s mother gathered every single item belonging to her children and set them ablaze that the decision was made to send Penelope away. She did not want to go.
Penelope and her mother had secret conversations about the universe, the nature of all things, and questions about the church that neither of them could answer. They talked about running away from the scrutiny of men who only wanted food and warmth and comfort from them. Whenever Penelope would say, “Not James. He’s different,” Penelope’s mother would swing her head around her neck, like a marble. She’d look up to the ceiling or the sky and say “Yes, you’re right. Not James. He’s good.” At the thought of it, she’d search the pockets of her dress for matches. But they all hid the matches. Day and night, she’d search for them, until she found ways to make her own fire through flints she’d find in the woods.
Penelope was the only person on earth who knew why her mother used fire against these nonsensical bits of matter. But she never told. Not even James, with whom she was very close. She was afraid that, if he knew, he might do something drastic—like join the cavalry or set all the animals free. He might even become an atheist, or a criminal. Because if he knew, he would never forgive her for leaving him there to grapple with the hardness of his father’s heart. He took no comfort from him—not a hug, or a good word. But he had gotten used to small kindnesses like warm meals, a hand up from the mud, a clean shirt, a quiet summer night without words or incident.
As Penelope’s carriage moved on, she walked toward the main house and noticed a small wooden cabin behind it. She had never seen it before. She wondered if her father used it for woodworking, as he had always wanted to begin a new endeavor away from the back-breaking work of the fields. But he knew it would not be a good idea to bring more totems into the world that would entice their mother to destruction.
She walked up to the house with a bag of apples, when James appeared running, from behind the house. His face was tear stained, and he was panting. This was not the welcome she expected.
“You shouldn’t have come,” James declared, not even acknowledging how long it had been since they had seen one another. He was several inches taller than her now, a thin but sturdy and handsome young man. But his face was the same as the 10-year-old she had left behind—panicked, and forlorn.
“I wanted to surprise you and mother and father,” Penelope said. “What is this? What’s wrong?”
James tilted his head toward the cabin and grabbed his sister’s arms. The apples fell to the dirt and scattered. Penelope wrestled herself away from James’s grip and ran toward the main house. Inside, it was peaceful, though the curtains were gone, as well as the rugs. There was only simple furniture she did not recognize, and not a picture to be seen anywhere. It was skeleton version of the home in which she grew up—still familiar, but no life.
When she went outside, she turned toward the small clapboard structure with a door, and no windows. It was not painted. There were no plants surrounding it. It looked as though it had been plucked from a painting and set, awkwardly, on the land all alone.
“Where’s mother? Where’s father? What’s going on?” Penelope asked.
James’s head dropped to his chest, and he let out a great sigh.
“I think they’re in there. I don’t know what’s happening. He went in there a month ago, and he hasn’t come out. I told you, in my letter, that he was sick. But, really, I don’t know.”
“What do you mean? Are they in there or not? What is that place?”
“It appeared one day, and mother went into it. I think. Again, I don’t know,” James explained.
“Appeared? What do you mean? Did father build it? What is it for? Why did he do that?”
Penelope was finding it difficult to breathe. When James hesitated in his response, Penelope ran toward the cabin, trailed by screams from James.
Only ten feet away from the front door, Penelope was shot back into the air, hurled violently to the dirt, knocking the wind out of her. James rushed up to gather her in his arms and check her breathing.
“You can’t get in. No one can get in. I’ve tried a thousand times. It doesn’t work.”
Inside the main house, James recounted the history of the cabin. It began when, one day, their mother had gathered every random thing she could find of value in the house. She went behind the house and set everything ablaze. Photos, the curtains, rugs, furniture, bowls, clothes, documents of every kind. Their father, enraged, nearly killed her that night, repeatedly beating her with his belt, and kicking her as she tried to crawl toward the safety of the forest. James had managed to pull his father off their mother for a few moments, so she could get away and disappear. That night, James was not sure that he would ever see their mother again.
“The next morning,” James explained, “Father and I woke up and searched the house to see if mother had returned. She was not there. But when we stepped outside, there it was. It was standing there as though it had been there all along.”
“The cabin? It just appeared?”
“Did you search it?”
“We tried, but the same thing happened to us that just happened to you. No one can enter.”
“Is mother in there?”
“At night, we would sometimes hear singing. And a piano. A few times, I’ve heard something that sounds like a party. And other times, I just hear the sounds of birds singing from inside the house. And plates and glasses clattering during a meal. I’ve tried to call to it, to see if she’s in there, but no one answers.”
“But it is her? Is she there?”
“I don’t know.”
“But where is father? You said he couldn’t get in.”
“He couldn’t. No one could. Not even the postmaster, or the doctor, or the priest. A few people tried, but when no one could accomplish the task. We’ve been banished from the town. No one speaks about it anymore. People do not feel safe on our land. We’re alone now. We are not welcome anywhere else. It’s just us.”
“Then, where’s Father?”
“Father was not feeling well. He had a terrible fever. Because we’re alone, I had to try to cool him myself and make him comfortable, but he was getting worse. That’s when I wrote to you. Then, one night, he got up from his bed. I begged him to rest, but he ignored me. Without a word, he walked out the door and toward the cabin. I tried to grab him before he was thrust backward from the force around it, but he walked right through the barrier, opened the door, and walked inside. I tried to walk in, too, but I couldn’t.”
“That’s it? So, he’s still in there?” Penelope began screaming toward the cabin. “Mother! Father! It’s Penelope! I’m here. Are you there? What’s happening? Please come out!”
Penelope and James waited in the dark. Just then, a thin sliver of light emerged from the bottom of the front door. The brother and sister sucked in a quick breath and waited for more. Then, they heard the faint sound of a piano. A waltz. It was only for a few seconds, then it stopped, and the house darkened again.
“Why didn’t you write to me sooner? I could have…”
“You couldn’t have done anything. I promised Father that I would stay until they both passed on. They wanted me to keep the land for my future. But I don’t want this place anymore. I want to leave.”
“But we can’t leave. What if mother and father are in that cabin? We can’t just leave them here.”
“This is unnatural. No one can survive in a house like that without food and water. The whole thing is impossible.”
When Penelope was just about to turn nine years old, she and her mother took a moonlight stroll to the cave by the creek. Penelope’s mother told her the story of a wise witch—an ancestor who knew things about the universe that would scare the most devout people in the town. She talked about the power of something called matter and spacetime. There were universes aplenty, each containing a different version of our lives. These were concepts that seemed devilish to most people, but Penelope’s mother knew her daughter was ahead of her time, like her.
“Why do you set things on fire, Mother?” Penelope asked.
“Because the fewer things we have from this earth to hold us to this life, the better chance we have of seeing the other ones. Things do not matter, Penelope. But wouldn’t you like to see one or two or your other lives?”
“No, I want to see this one,” Penelope said.
“You’re too young to know that this is a time when some mothers, like me, can’t be or do what we would like.”
“But what about Father? Don’t you want to be with us?”
“I want to be with my children. And perhaps I’d like to be with your father in another time and place. Not this one. This one has made him cruel and unkind. It’s not all his fault. But much of it is. Remember that. We make choices.”
“What do you want, Mother?”
“I’d like to be in another time, Penelope. I’ve seen things that I can’t explain—about these other lives.”
“What do you see?”
“Once, as I burned my green dress, I looked into the fire and saw a large feast by the seaside. Around a beautiful table I saw people I didn’t know—strange looking people of all colors and shapes. Children were playing in the surf. Small domes of light, like tents, dotted the shoreline. The moon was full. And I was there. I think I was smiling.”
“Was I there?”
“I felt you were there, but I couldn’t see you. Maybe you were with the whales.”
“What are whales?”
“I’m not sure.”
Penelope’s mother, Eva, explained that their ancestors travelled the cosmos… just like her. But with no one to instruct her in these magical ways, she had found it treacherous to be in this time and place.
“You’ll understand more later,” she said. “Someday, if I burn everything down to the ground, maybe I’ll find a way to be free.”
“I’ll help you,” Penelope said.
“Thank you, sweet daughter. But perhaps it’s mine to do… someday.”
No one knew of these conversations.
The next morning, James and Penelope woke up, and peeked outside their kitchen window to see the little cabin on its circle of dirt. They had stayed up half the night to contemplate and discuss what to do next.
As James went off to free the animals, Penelope carefully lit small fires around her childhood home to make sure fire would quickly engulf every corner.
When she went outside, the cabin had changed. There were windows now. And from them emanated the golden light of dozens of candles, the smell of fresh bread, and the sounds of a man and woman singing a song so beautiful, one she had never heard before. Their voices were in perfect harmony. The melody, sweet and new.
This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine
I’m gonna let shine
This little light of mine
I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine…
She committed the song to memory. And when it was done, and James had returned, they stood side by side watching the cabin for a sign that would help them decide what to do next. They stood there a long time. Then, the front door opened.
“Should we go in?” James asked.
“No.” Penelope did not hesitate. “I want to see them one last time, but I want to stay.”
“Maybe the new place is better? Maybe there is not so much hard work or ridicule or suffering. I’m going in.”
“James, please don’t leave me. We need to stay. The door is opening because it’s showing us how much we want to stay. We have things to do here. Things Mother and Father couldn’t do.”
“No, it’s telling us to get away now, before it’s too late.”
Their parents didn’t appear. And while the two debated the signs, the cabin rumbled for a moment, the front door slammed shut, and the cabin burst into a single flame, then fluttered out of existence in a flash.
J.B. Hill earned a BFA with honors in Writing, Literature and Publishing from Emerson College in Boston, MA. Hill worked as an editorial assistant for Ploughshares and recent work has appeared in the San Antonio Review. Hill is a freelance writer and communications professional who has also performed as a slam poet and public storyteller in Austin, TX.