After the Fire
The smoke was tremendous—choking flesh made sky. It was even lovelier than the flames, great hands wrenching wood from stone, not a surgeon’s hands—anatomical, precise—but a drunk old pugilist ready to go down swinging. Or maybe they were more like teeth, ripping and tearing in one long devouring breath the entirety of my childhood. Of course, it wasn’t just the house. My father, brother, lover all burned. The three men in my life, their bodies grown round with beer and steak and wine. My mother had disappeared long ago. Hers was a diminishment, a gradual acknowledgment that her space grew smaller and smaller with each breath of my father or brother or lover, until finally, one warm July morning, she exhaled and collapsed into memory. Now, the heat and smoke rise and take the shape of her, phoenix-like, though I know it is only an illusion, a trick of the mind to render what is painful, to feel the pleasure of lapping at old wounds. As my mother became air, my father, brother, and lover remain grounded, their bodies a kind of permanence. Now they are piles of ash and teeth and bone, ready to drift into a plate of spaghetti, to slip through the gears of a pocket watch, to be sucked into my little cousin’s nose right before he sneezes.
The Ember That Follows Me
I didn’t notice it at first, tiny incorporeal thing, lingering after the fire took everything. It hovers, tendril-bright, just above my head. It could be a piece of foundation or a bit of not-so-flame-retardant curtain, burning with the quiet intensity of sight. It has nowhere and nothing else to be. I hold out my hand and it lands, dust-mote of flame, and slowly begins burning through my skin. I place a washcloth beneath it. It takes an entire day to burn through the cloth. After all, isn’t that what washcloths are for: to stave off entropy? In this way we travel, the ember and I, through the neighborhoods that once belonged to me, or perhaps, that belonged only to the slow rust-vine slipping around the playground like a noose. Ownership is tricky that way. When the filet of salmon slides through your stomach, does it remember the fisherman’s daughter, the way she tucked her hair behind her ears when she was embarrassed? Does it remember last month’s unseasonably warm rains? Does it remember Christ, the way He ripped it from one into many and then nothing? Does it think this tearing of flesh brings it closer to God?
The First Place We Travel
The ember seems to desire somewhere noisy and full of life. Perhaps its hunger is stronger than I realize; perhaps I mistake wisdom for patience. I am not interested in buildings filled with people who scrape their teeth against the sky, so we walk through the woods at the edge of town. The trees shake their mystery into the damp air. They don’t seem to enjoy our presence. I remember the first time I kissed my now-dead lover underneath a sycamore covered in ants. That tree was dead, but my lover was still alive. The forest can tell I’m the kind of girl who ignores the pain of others. Have you always been so selfish, the tall pine in front of me asks. The ember comes to my defense with a stirring rendition of breakfast cereal. The trees shake their leaves at us, then their branches, then pour sap from several strategically placed holes. It is obscene. I lead the ember through the thick dead heart of the woods until we come to a cabin. It is made of logs but is not a log cabin. The chimney is not pouring smoke but it will soon. Inside there is a wooden bed and a wooden chest and a wooden rug and two wooden chairs. On the walls are wooden heads: bear, deer, elk. Their mouths are open and they are full of wooden teeth. Good one, I say to the trees. The trees shake with a mirth entirely at our expense. They are real assholes.
Melissa Reddish’s short story collection, My Father is an Angry Storm Cloud, was published by Tailwinds Press in 2015. Her flash fiction chapbook, The Distance Between Us, was published by Red Bird Chapbooks in 2013. Her work has appeared in decomP, Prick of the Spindle, and Northwind, among others. Melissa teaches English and directs the Honors Program at Wor-Wic Community College.
This excerpt is reprinted with the permission of Conium Press from Girl & Flame by Melissa Reddish. Copyright © 2016 Melissa Reddish and Conium Press.