The Fire Is Not Genetic
by Erika D. Price
When I was a young boy, my nanny lost control of me and I ran into the woods behind my parent’s house. We were living in Brazil then, still, before my dad got run out by the government. I was too young to have any idea of the larger world, or to realize that not everyone had a nanny, or that it wasn’t wise to play in the trees with matches.
It was the dry season, if you can believe that Brazil ever gets dry, and all I remember was cutting off deep, deep into the woods, rolling downhill past the dried-out trees and roots and fallen logs, and arriving in a small clearing and looking up to the sky. A halo of trees everywhere. It was midday but it was still very dark. There was still foliage even though the trees were hibernating from the lack of moisture. The sun was a big orb of flame igniting the dead leaves in the sky. It was still as the cemetery, and quiet except for my nanny chasing after me, crying, “Carmello! Carmello!”
It must have been the big orb of flame that gave me the idea. I had all these matches in the pockets of my overalls, from the bar and restaurant my parents took us too. They’d been out of balloons, the bastards, and tried to buy me off with matchbooks. In the woods there was no life or movement.
The next thing I remember was the trees engulfed, towers of flames. The fire ate up the trees from the ground to the crunchy, dying leaves and soon the entire darkened cloud of tree cover was ablaze, smoldering leaves and twigs raining down on my, the glow hot and orange all around, smoke swirling up to from the center of the clearing, escaping as if from a chimney. Everything swooned and melted in hot yellow and red and I crouched down.
My face grew rapidly hot and my lungs began to itch and feel as if they were crawling about inside my chest. I had the good sense to cover up my mouth with the corner of my jacket. I remembered the school fire drills and lowered myself onto the floor of the woods, and I remained there on my belly like a crocodile, breathing slowly through my nose.
I could see nothing but black and grey smoke and the swelling, shifting, hot brightness as the trees lit one another and then collapsed all around me. Deer and tree frogs and rodents scurried past me in a tiny, frenetic stampedes, one swell after another, sometimes climbing over my legs and scratching into my pants with their tiny claws. My eyes stung and flooded with water and my mouth sizzled and my lips dried with mucous all around the corners, and the flames fell hot upon me and lit the dead leaves all about my feet, and the sound of the sizzling was growing, deafening, and then I heard a scream.
My nanny came cutting through the flames and smoke before I could pass out or disassociate. She’d been wearing heavy clogs and a long dress, old-world old-timey clothing, but she’d stripped it all off piece-by-piece as she came running after me, as it became more and more clear how dire the situation was. She ducked down in one smooth motion and threw me, an eight-year-old boy, onto her shoulders and turned and broke back for home.
Along the way I hung across her, totally dead weight. I watched the forest floor fly by, first orange and yellow and glowing, then spotted brown and green, and finally the soft green turf of our backyard and the pale grey cement of our home’s patio. I saw her shoes in the grass and her apron, her stockings and her coat dropped into the flames and dirt along the way. She dropped me on the cement and we stayed there, watching the forest disappear.
My brother came out with the phone. By the time the emergency service came the forest was gone. It was a blackened spot that oozed smoke before us, with no signs of life. They asked us what we’d seen, what had happened, and my nanny said we had no idea, we’d been inside playing. When the officers asked me personally, I had my first-ever panic attack. They interpreted this as a sign of my gentleness, my fragility, more than anything else. My older brother was subjected to more suspicion, if anything.
When they left, my nanny took me by the arm and pulled me into my parent’s walk-in closet and shut the door behind us. She tugged the light on from above. She put her heavy, wide set hands on my shoulders.
“You realize we can never tell anyone,” she said.
I assented, gratefully. There was never any investigation or castigation on anyone’s part. My brother was the one they suspected, if they suspected anyone. He had a nasty habit of stealing my socks and pens. It’s funny that he became a theologist, really; he was far less trustworthy than me growing up.
— — — —
When I was forty-six my wife decided we should have children. I didn’t much feel like it, but I’d heard many friends say that once you give in, once you cave and have a kid for the sake of a woman, you learn to adore it. I always told my friends this was cognitive dissonance in action. But then the time came, and I had a woman that was worth holding my nose and reproducing for. I got into the idea.
But then we couldn’t have children. We tried and tried but it never took. We tried every position and supplement. We tried every time of day and every diet. We both ate nothing but Greek yogurt and kale for seven weeks. We tried visiting the ancestral home in Brazil and getting into the mood. We tried not trying. The statistics weren’t on our sides.
We adopted a little boy. A sweet, easily-terrified little underweight blonde from the Czech Republic. He hid behind the couch every time my voice rose. He ate nothing but mandarin oranges and was very pale. It was easy to love him.
Then my wife got pregnant and we had a daughter. They always say it happens when you stop trying. A beautiful little girl with strong teeth and good eyesight, always the tallest and fastest on the developmental charts. I peaked early, too. Despite myself, despite all my work to be unprejudiced, I found myself loving her more.
I complained to my wife in bed each night that I was a complete monster but I couldn’t quite get my head around it, this eugenicist crap, I just loved my biological daughter more. She slapped me on the chest and told me to enroll the boy in soccer classes, help coach, help him get his weight up. She slapped me on the chest some more. The boy and I took to lifting weights every morning. We drank protein shakes.
When the boy was ten he looked about six. I took him with me to a work-related barbecue and he physically crouched behind me in hiding the whole time. We enrolled him in everything. We got him a dog.
When he was eleven and I was at work and my wife and daughter were in the front yard playing, he crawled under the porch and set the house on fire with lighter fluid and a box of matches. My wife had time to run in and save the cats and the dog, thank God, but everything else was totally obliterated. We lived in an extended-stay hotel for eighteen months.
I’ve just finished with all the goddamned insurance paperwork. You think the main trauma is the house, the fear of having lost your family, but it’s all the minutiae afterward. Picking the cabinet finishes, hiring the contractors, installing the appliances, smoothing out the caulk. Every decision requires a ream of forms. Every choice holds within it several thousand dollars to be willfully gained or lost. Do we want an exact replication of the home? Do we want to spend a little extra, since we’re building it from scratch? All these questions. What’s worth spending extra on?
A black spot coughing up smoke, in the middle of the grass. Where our house was.
The worst-worst part is slogging through all this humdrum tedium and wanton financial bleeding without visiting any of its ill effects on my kids. My daughter still holds the cats close against her chest, even carries them into bed with her and lets them into the bathroom while she showers. She wants to know where they are at all times, so she can save them if necessary. My wife is frazzled but in better working order than myself.
But the boy. I don’t know how much to say or not say. “I know you didn’t mean to.”; “I’m not mad.”; “I understand.”; “It was my fault.”; “I did this to you.”
I relate these notions to other people but so far I haven’t said a thing about the whole incident to him. He sees me shaking my head and cursing quietly at the insurance papers and he asks what’s bothering me and I say nothing, just trouble with a grant at work.
You realize we can never tell anyone.
Thanks to Full of Crow for nominating this story for The Pushcart Prize!
Originally published at www.fullofcrow.com.