what we lost in the fire

fiction by Amy LeBlanc | second-place winner of the Blodwyn Memorial Prize in fiction, sponsored by BookThug

 

eight: what are you looking forward to?

 

I stand at the edge of the barn and watch the oak tree go up first.  From where I’m standing, it looks like the tree is spitting its leaves, trying to save them from the wreckage.  The trunk splits down its center, shuddering more leaves out into the air.  Fall is a beautiful time for it all to burn.  The fire spreads.  The tendrils of smoke drift across the field and latch onto the siding of the farmhouse.  Not long now.  There are no more footprints lining the way from the oak tree to the farm, but now oak leaves litter the ground and the low riding smoke snakes between the two.  I try to clean my hands, but the gasoline spreads across my palms and seeps into the fine lines.  It pools under my fingernails and I hear the crackle of our radio from inside.  A news report about colour blindness, I think.  I think about what Grandma used to say as I watch the tree shudder in the smoke.  We don’t know what it’s like to be the ocean.

 

 

 

 

one: what do you think brings you here?

 

Grandpa says the people in this town honk their horns to talk to each other; one short honk to say hello, three times to warn that police are down the road with breathalyzers, and one long for when the hockey team wins. Grandpa says we should honk our horn when we turn the blind corner just before the farm; that way whatever’s on the other side knows we’re there.  Grandpa says you don’t want to miss something just because you didn’t listen.  Grandpa says if you see a kid on a bike honking their plastic, clown horn, you better smile at them, too.  Grandpa says they might squint at you from under the visors of their helmets, and you’ll remember when your muscles were loose and lanky like theirs.  Grandpa says never forget that.  Grandpa holds the horn down the whole time he rounds the corner. Grandpa doesn’t slow down, because he has flowers in the trunk and wants to get home to us as fast as he can.

 

 

 

 

two: what is the problem from your viewpoint?

 

Grandpa sweeps his hands across the maple tabletop and sends the funeral home forms floating down onto the linoleum.  I think he wanted them to fall faster, like pots and pans might have. He wanted them to crash and dent the floor, but they just float down until they coat the floorboards like petals.  I think he wanted Grandma to be cremated here at the farm, but the funeral home won’t let him.  I don’t want him to know that I saw him throw the paperwork; I keep my eyes just above my Maya Angelou book.  I used to close my right eye and walk around the house to see what Grandpa saw when he walked.  He told me what he has is called Glaucoma and there was nothing we can do about it.  I found the word in my science books and saw we could fix it if we went to the doctor fast enough.  It wouldn’t go away, but we could make it better for him.  When I told Grandpa, he said like hell I’m going to the doctor. know what they’ll do to me? they’ll take it out. i’d rather have a bad eye in my head than a bad eye floating in a jar.  All I could picture after that was an eyeball floating in the center of a jar and Grandpa walking around with a hole in his head like an open mouth that never spoke.  He rakes the forms up off the floor and walks out the door.  I run to the window to watch him leave.  The cat follows him out the door, and they leave two pairs of footprints in the snow.  Grandpa’s footprints are straight and evenly spaced but the cat’s footprints snake around his like smoke tendrils.

 

 

 

 

three: what makes the problem better?

 

We had to burn the cat.  Grandpa was turning the blind corner and didn’t see her in time to stop.  He honked as he turned, but the cat didn’t move. The screen door creaked, and he came in with a brown lump in his arms.  He carried her the same way he carried firewood; her straight body leaned against his arm and shoulder.  Grandpa settled her down, packed her in hay, poured the gasoline and lit the match.  My eyes watered with familiar heat and it all sounded like crackling leaves.  We had just lost the chickens and their ashes were still dissipating.  The smell coated my nose and wouldn’t leave, no matter how many times I blew into Grandma’s handkerchief trimmed with violets.  I kept expecting to see it coated in black when I pulled it from my face.

 

 

 

 

 

four: and how does that make you feel?

 

I reach my hand into my pocket to feel for the metal angel that Grandma gave me.  I feel its weight in my palm and trace the pressed angel’s shape with my fingertip.  She kept it in her change purse and almost mistook it for a quarter a few times when she went to the store.  I had to tug on the hem of her skirt to get her notice her mistake.  Tugging on her skirt released a puff of old cigarette smoke smell from the fabric.  I liked to think that I could associate a time and place with each iteration of smoke.  It could have been from her cigarette, sitting at the back of my school gymnasium for the spelling bee.  Or it could have been the smoke bouncing off the closed car windows when Grandpa was driving us home.  It could have been the smoke dispersed when she took her scarf off at the front door.  She used to say that she hated the smell of old cigarette smoke.  I never understood why.  Instead, Grandma loved the smell of gasoline.  She kept her handkerchief tucked into her sleeve and sometimes loose tissues, too.  I used to follow behind her, picking up the ones that dropped to the ground. I followed her trail of tissues and smoke.

 

 

 

 

five: how are you sleeping?

 

Grandpa asked me to crack eggs for dinner.  We’d been buying eggs from the store since the chickens died.  He handed me six eggs from the carton that creaked when he pushed the tabs back into place.  Grandpa’s hands were big enough that he could hold four eggs in each hand.  I took one egg and cracked it against the side of the chipped glass bowl.  I half-cracked the egg, creating little rifts in the white shell and then had to peel bits of the membrane back to fully open it.  The yoke hung in the center of the bowl, swimming in the rest of the egg white.  I reached for the next egg when I noticed a spot in the bowl.  A red smear like string clung to the yoke’s center.   My stomach turned and I cupped my mouth with one hand and pushed the bowl across the table with the other.  Grandpa noticed.  it’s just a little blood.  come on, you won’t even taste it once it’s cooked.  Grandpa took the bowl to his side of the table and mixed the egg with a whisk.  The red stretched into a thin strand pulled taut, then finally yielded, breaking apart and dissipating into the rest of the egg.  I closed my eyes and waited for my stomach to turn itself right side up.

 

 

 

 

six: when did you start feeling unwell?

 

I keep the cat’s ashes in a box under the kitchen sink.  I haven’t decided where to scatter them yet.  She liked to watch birds under the oak tree; maybe I’ll scatter them there.  I used to go down to the oak tree with Grandma.  Grandpa had gone into the city and we were going to have a picnic.  She held a basket of apples in one of her hands and my hand in her other.  Halfway down the hill she took her hand from mine to cough into her handkerchief.  She tried to tuck it back into her sleeve before I could see, but it was covered in red strings, each one wrapping around the violets, crystalline, like a mosaic.

 

 

 

 

seven: do you ever feel ashamed?

 

There was a girl named Jubilee who lived down the road from us.  I told her that Grandpa died too, and she told me that everything happens for a reason.  She said that her dad died in a motorcycle crash and that it was her fault.  She said it happened because she’d lied to her mom about the cigarettes she’d stolen from her purse.  She said my cat and my grandparents died because my mom and dad weren’t married when they had me.  Her voice was gentle and lilting, which made me think that she really believed this.  I took one of Grandma’s cigarettes out of my pocket, put it between my lips and left Jubilee making crop circles in the red gravel with the tips of her shoes.  I walked back to the farm, and laid Grandma’s violet-trimmed handkerchief on Grandpa’s chest.  I’m starting to understand why Grandma loved the smell of gasoline.

 

LeBlanc headshot

AMY LEBLANC is currently completing an honours BA in English Literature and creative writing at the University of Calgary where she is Project Editor for Nōd magazine and co-coordinator of the SU Campus Food Bank.  Her work has appeared in (parenthetical) and Nōd Magazine.  She hopes to pursue a career in fiction and poetry, and is currently working on a novella.  Her future plans include completing an MLIS or an MA in English Literature.