There was no one at home when the fire broke out, in the attic, in the leather-bound trunk that held the grandfather’s clothes.
In fact, the fire was a long time beginning. Years.
The clothes were folded with extreme neatness, the shirts laid atop one another, shoulder matching shoulder, the black suit brushed, the shoes polished, the shoelaces tied. A gold pocket watch engraved with the initials E.P.M. had been tucked in one of the shoes, a pipe and leather tobacco pouch in the other. There were two hats, a Homburg and a straw boater, and a dozen large white cotton handkerchiefs. In the middle of the stack was a khaki uniform with a sachet of dried flowers in the breast pocket.
A bullet had pierced the pocket of the uniform so that the sachet lay pressed between two holes. Around the holes was a large brownish stain. Someone had tried to wash it out, but the blood had set. Earth, rain and metal was the smell of the blood, and it lingered long after the sachet’s perfume had worn out in its disguise. The grandfather was twenty-six when he died. The grandmother packed the trunk and locked it and cinched the leather straps. The key she wore on a chain around her neck. It lay against her skin between the swell of her breasts and she lived, bitterly.
The clothes lay close on one another in the dark interior of the trunk. There was no light, and so the mother-of-pearl buttons on the grey vest had no luster. The polished shoes had no shine. The medals on the uniform were cold, dull coins.
Snow fell on the roof and then the quick feet of birds overran it. Summer shade cooled the attic; in autumn, gold leaves and raindrops pattered overheard. Once, lightning sheared a heavy limb off the big oak tree and a corner of the roof was caved in. A man came up through the trapdoor with a toolbox, repaired the damaged rafters, and went away. In a room below, a child grew up, and when she cried the attic held onto the melancholy sound long after the little girl had exhausted her tears.
The scent of the sachet died. It faded helplessly and was not renewed. The air, too, surrendered, expiring in the darkness under hats and inside shoes where it had been trapped when the key turned. The fibers of the clothes lost their crispness. They forgot their connection with the plants and animals they had been. They forgot they had been worn by a human being. In the still, dry trunk all the life slipped out of them, and they took on the wanness peculiar to old clothes.
After a time, a new sound reached the attic, the steady, almost inaudible heartbeat of a metronome. Then music, faint and lovely sonatas, preludes, minuets, whose echoes ebbed in the dark spaces between the beams. While in the pocket of the khaki uniform, a warmth began.
One fraction of a degree at a time the heat rose, building patiently of itself, a secret creature generating in a dark den. The daughter left, and there was no more music, only bitter footsteps measuring the floors. But when she returned, confusing, angry sounds broke into the attic from below: the grandmother’s sharp voice, the mother’s sobbing, an infant’s wail. Seasons passed, and another child began to grow.
Deep in the leather-bound trunk, a spark came alight in the bloodstained cloth. A tiny, hot precarious spark. It touched the sachet, and the dried flowers gave one last sweet gasp and smoked away. The spark grew, searching the pocket of the uniform for a bite to eat. It finished the bloodstain and paused on the borders of the untainted fabric. Then slowly, very slowly, it crept onto the fresh cloth in a widening hole.
The smoothly woven khaki lay against five white shirts, and the spark burnt upwards into the first of them. Then there were a hundred layers for the spark to touch and touching, penetrate. A flannel nightshirt, a woolen sock, the black suit, a sheeny vest, a green silk tie. All dark and close to one another, and the spark eating its way through them like a fiery moth.
Smoke then, pleasant almost, unwound the first of its coils and like a slender, tentative snake wafted up a sleeve. It circled softly inside the trunk, exploring buttonholes and cuffs.
Soon it began to seethe out the keyhole in a thin, unhurried hiss. The smoke floated about the attic, timid and ghostly.
It was a large attic, full of regrets and the now unbearable follies of youth. There was a huge china vase with crude hand-painted rosebuds, a worm-eaten chest of drawers, a hat box containing a red velvet toque and a pair of navy blue gloves. A lace parasol hung on a nail protruding from one of the beams. Cartons of books and photographs lined the eaves, a little girl’s outgrown toys, piles of old sheet music and variety magazines. Some of the boxes were shrouded in white sheets, and the siftings of grey dust in the folds of the material were like shadings by an artist’s hand.
In the trunk, the clothes smoldered. Then quietly the fire took flame. The shoe leather smelt. The medals warmed and glowed like hot pennies while the faded ribbons from which they hung burnt away. The lovely silk tie shriveled and twisted like a tortured soul. The clothes were consumed, and for a moment the fire circled, gathering potence. Then it burned into the trunk, through the crackling animal hide, and gulped the freedom of open air.
Air! Ravenous, scarlet-tongued, the fire spilled out of the black shell of the trunk and ran in rivers over the attic floor. It streamed under the sheets and licked the shrouded boxes. Like waves, like the manes of flying horses, it flowed to the corners of the attic and ran up the rafters to the roof.
The photographs began to burn. First, the great-grandparents, photographs brown and musty, formal portraits of a farm couple posing with their son before a small, wooden house. The woman wore the same severe, high-necked black dress in every picture, and she had a long nose and dark hair pulled back tightly across her scalp. The man was tall and full-bearded. Father and son stood, dressed alike in Sunday best, and the mother sat on a chair between them. Year after year the picture was the same save that the boy grew taller. Then the mother’s hair turned white. The father disappeared. A new and larger house with a front porch swing appeared behind them. Then the mother disappeared and a slim young lady held the son’s arm. There was a wedding picture onto which colors had been painted—rose on the young lady’s cheeks and lips, blue in both their eyes, green on the leaves on the wedding cake. Then came the young couple holding a baby girl and a picture of the young man in a smart uniform with no hole in the pocket. After that there were no more photographs. The fire read through each one and burst out the top of the box.
The fire fed with many mouths now. It ate the fine lace parasol and a dozen children’s books. It surrounded a box of dolls, devoured the pathetic cloth bodies and left blackened china heads. In a drawer of the worm-eaten bureau, hairless, eyeless baby mice perished in a newspaper nest. Snowy grey ashes floated down from the burning crossbeams and were burned again as they fell into the flames below.
The smoke filled all the attic like a cloud and pressed against the roof seeking an exit. But the house had been sturdily built, the grandfather’s work, and the smoke searched in vain.
Finally, it began to leak out downwards, through the trap door into the hall.
Upstairs were four large bedrooms, and the smoke moved rapidly, enchanted at the prospect of so much space to dance in. But two of the rooms were locked, bare of furniture and paint, the rooms of children unborn. And the daughter’s room was lonely, a spare single bed, a child’s cot with a quilt; there was a chill in the room that was not relieved by the little feminine trinkets that adorned it. A perfume bottle on the dresser bore the label ‘Paris,’ but the bottle was empty. Beside it stood a framed photograph, a portrait of an unfamiliar man in a uniform.
At last, in the grandmother’s room, the smoke slowed, curious, caressing. A cloud of it massed above the vanity and settled onto tortoise-shell brushes and a cut glass dish of earrings and beads. Softly, it twined around the old-fashioned bedposts and drifted over the sea-green satin comforter. A tendril slipped between the sheets; the smoke curled and nestled there with the tenderness of a dream.
Full-grown, the fire followed. It was angry now and careless, and it had lost the sense of its own center that had been the first spark. It exploded into the hallway and ran through the bedrooms, sucking in the pale air that lived in the house. The air made pitiful gasping noises; the fire shredded it and raced past.
The paint on the doors and windows blistered. The sheer nylon curtains in the grandmother’s room ignited and vanished. The furniture groaned and a large antique mirror melted painlessly into the flames. In the daughter’s room, a small rag doll on the child’s cot burnt in a second. The fire was too big now to notice such tiny morsels.
The smoke had poured down the stairway; the fire, wild and impatient, crashed through the bedroom floors. The ceiling collapsed, and plaster hurled to the carpets below. Like some furious beast, the fire leapt full-length on the lower rooms while the terrified smoke rushed out the doors.
The roof caved in, the two chimneys toppled. Bricks rained into the kitchen and banged on the countertops and rang and clanged on the stove. Smells rose in the larder, scorching flour and roasting potatoes, brief scents of marjoram, sage, thyme. The fire joyed and feasted.
The furniture in the parlor was old, massive, slow to catch. The fire swallowed it cold and then baked it in its oven-mouth till it had burned to cinders. The beautiful rosewood piano died, faint chords trembling. Only the two wide fireplaces, one at either end of the house, did the fire not invade, whether by mockery or oversight. But soot flooded down them and puffed through the fire screens, and all the air that was not yellow and red with flames turned black with soot.
Firemen came and brandished brave streams of water at the burning house. The fire roared and taunted them and jumped about in the branches of the big oak tree. The front porch swing rocked as it flamed, till one of the chains broke and it thudded onto the ground. Explosions filled the house then, rapid fire rat-tat-tats like popcorn or machine guns, the booming of cannons, great whooshing bursts like detonations in mines.
The fire whipped out at the men with their hoses, swiping at their faces and bodies, and they backed off, helpless. The house burned all that evening and into the night, and in the black of midnight it burned like a pyre.
In the morning, the house was gone. The ground was black. Only the empty fireplaces remained. The treetop was scarred and leafless, but the fire had not spread down the trunk. For some days afterward the air smelt acrid and painful. The smoke drifted high into the sky and dissolved with the wind.
(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1986)
Amelia, Summer 1986