Every Friday night we feature a short story, essay, personal narrative,
poem, spoken word, or short film for your enjoyment.
Helen Presents: a short story from Khristian Mecom
When the House Burns Down
In the beginning, there was only Cecily standing in the wilderness, a catch in her breathing.
She wore no shoes, having only one good pair that her father had saved for months to buy. He told her she wasn’t a child anymore and needed some good shoes. Cecily swore to wear them on special occasions, trips into town, but nowhere else. She refused to wear them out into this wilderness to become spoiled with mud and earth. And that was how he first saw her– a girl with no shoes in the hills of a wild land. He had stumbled loudly through the undergrowth. Cecily froze at the sound, thinking that it was a bear. Even when she knew it was not a bear, her breath would still not return to her.
As the young man did not speak at first, Cecily finally asked, “Are you lost?”
And he did not know until then, as he would one day tell her, that yes, he was indeed lost until he met her, yet he answered, “No, I’m heading to the river. It’s this way, isn’t?”
Cecily could not understand him through his, at least to her, thick accent. “Are you a foreigner?”
“No, I’m from New York,” he answered in his Northeast accent that she had not heard before.
They had been getting a lot of strangers around there lately, all of them searching for their own fortune in gold. Cecily marveled at him as the leaves shifted above them, letting in and taking away light from his face. He had a nice face, she thought, honest and brave.
Months later when he found his first, and only, small piece of gold, he had it set as a necklace and bought a small delicate chain for it to hang on. He offered it to Cecily, his girl in the wilderness as he called her. When he dropped it into her open palm, the sun caught a glint of it, and to Cecily it felt like she held a small piece of fire in her hand. But she also knew what it meant. He had come all the way across the country for this, the piece of gold she held; it had been his dream, his future, and his fortune. And he was offering it to her. That piece of gold and her had switched places.
She married him the following summer.
At the end, Emily circles the house like a bird of prey searching for a place to land.
Unable to stay stationary for long, from room to room she wanders, rolling up the blinds, opening windows. This house is her only inheritance. It is the house her father had inherited from his father, the house her great-grandfather had built, the house Emily grew up in, the house she returned to with her husband, as she couldn’t bear to sell it to strangers when her father died.
It is a good sturdy house with two bedrooms, one of which she has no use for anymore, a rather small kitchen that she always wished was bigger, and high windows with beautiful views of a northern California landscape filled with valleys and rising mountains. The house fills with a musky scent that reminds her of a time she went camping in the mountains with her father. She had sat in front of the campfire as the wind blew smoke into her lungs, and for days after her hair smelled wonderfully like burning wood and mountain air.
Emily emerges from the house, leaving the back door open behind her; it matters little now if the smoke from the wildfire billows in. She stands out on the deck in the backyard, built by her husband and son over one summer. It’s the only time they ever got along. Her view of the canyon is lost in what could be mistaken for morning fog. But the haze in the air intensifies, becomes more solid, and transforms the sun into a sharply defined red outline. The sky has changed from its normal deep blue to a pale orange that reminds her of the color of icy sherbet.
For a moment, she imagines that she has traveled back to the beginning of time itself. A newly created earth is splayed before her feet. This smoke is not the smoke of wildfires, but is the gray mists of new beginnings that cover the earth as it slowly shifts and violently collides and forms the very hill that she will one day live on. The fire, now steadily moving toward her, is not one of destruction, but one of creation, shaping a new landscape. She is the first and last to set eyes on the primordial world stretching out over the railing of her balcony and down the canyon.
Emily is descended from the gold miners. Her great-grandfather traveled from New York when he was only twenty. He didn’t find his fortune in gold, but he found a rough, wild California girl called Cecily instead. She has only one memory of her great-grandmother from when she about five. Her great-grandmother was so ancient, a frail looking woman; almost bird like in her fluttery movements. Emily’s mother had pushed her close and held her tight by the shoulder, and as she looked up to that face, there was a fierceness in her great-grandmother’s eyes that both awed and frightened her. Now, it is those eyes that seem to be watching her. It is what has kept her here. A vague belief that it would somehow be an insult to leave, when her ancestors had persevered, carved a life out of these hills. What are some wildfires to shove her out now?
She has already resolved to stay where she is.
Everyday felt like the day after a fire had burned through.
Maria in the wasteland, in the desert, longed for water. Any kind of water would do: rain, lakes, dew, rivers, snows, oceans, or maybe a nice ice-cold glass of water. The landscape of her home was nothing but sand and cacti and dried up plants and dried up people to match. It was if a fire had crawled through the land a million years ago, destroying every living thing in sight, and nothing, Maria thought, nothing ever could be bothered to grow back. A longing for something different, something lush filled every day of her youth.
Maria fell in love with the first horse she ever saw. It terrified her and thrilled her. Her father had taken to her a friend’s dude ranch. The smell of the place hit her suddenly as she got out of the truck. She wore a pair of cowboy boots her mother had bought for her; they hurt her feet, squeezing her small toes together, rubbing a blister on her heel. She kicked the dirt with her new boots, watched it rise up and fall in the windless air. After walking though the ranch, past the buildings set up to look like an old west town, they approached an old circular fence. Maria couldn’t see over the top of the rail, so her father picked her up under the arms, lifting her onto the top bar.
And there it was: a horse as light and bright as the sun, a horse golden and gleaming.
Her father’s friend brought it over to her, she shielded away from it, leaning against her father’s chest.
“You can pet him if you want,” the man said.
“Go ahead, Maria,” her father told her.
She reached out; her small, trembling hand touched the neck of the golden horse. His muscles tensed and flexed under his shining coat. Maria felt his strength right there under the surface, under her hand. She did not understand how this horse could feel so smooth to the touch; yet conceal so much hidden power. From that moment on, horses were all she could talk about, think about, dream about. Her mother lamented the mistake of bringing her to the ranch that day. Her father took her riding every weekend until he died when she was fifteen. The day she met her husband he was riding a horse the color of burnished copper, the same exact color, Maria marveled, as that horse from her childhood she could never forget, could never find the likes of since.
For long after, she could never be sure which she fell in love with first; her husband or the horse he was riding.
Before the fire burns down from the hills, the horses, sensing its approach, are agitated.
Anna watches them from behind the fence, one knee propped up on a wooden beam, her arms folded over the top post, chin resting on them. Her favorite palomino American Quarter Horse, called Abacus, keeps pawing the ground, circling the pen. He doesn’t come when she calls like he normally would. A dark brown yearling trots up to her; she lays a hand gently on his head, hoping to infuse him with a steadiness she does not feel herself. She reaches in her pocket, lays sugar cubes in the palm of her hand to give to him. They are right to be restless, anxious like they are, she thinks. She can already feel the heat from the fire on her skin. Although she cannot see it yet, she knows that it is out there, building beyond the ridge, still miles off, but crawling closer.
Four days ago while she was sweeping the horse stalls in the barn, her father had come out to help, something he hadn’t done for a long time. Anna, out of the corner of her eye, had watched him expertly sweep out a stall. They worked in silence. Anna pulled out the hose to wash the floor; the water sprayed out over the ground, over her boots, carrying dirt and horse manure and old straw away.
“It’s not looking too good, Anna,” her father had said. It was a vague comment, but she knew what he meant.
She asked, not stopping with her task, “What are we going to do?”
Her father again went quiet, tilting his hat back on his head; wiping the sweat from his brow with a worn handkerchief her mother had given him for his birthday one year. His voice was barely audibly over the sound of the water rushing from the hose as he said, “I don’t know, Anna. Your mother would stay and put up a fight that I know for sure. There wasn’t anything on God’s green earth that would get Maria to leave this place.” And his voice trailed off.
Anna’s family had owned the ranch for generations, given to her father by his father, the inheritance she always believed would be hers one day. The life on this ranch, raising and caring for horses, was all she could once imagine for herself. When she was ten she was tasked with getting up at five in the morning, before the sun was even up, to start cleaning the stables, shoveling horse manure and dirty straw, hosing the floor down, feeding and grooming horses. Living on a ranch is a privilege, her father had explained to her. If you enjoy riding horses, if you love them, you are responsible for them. It is a privilege to be able to saddle up a stallion because you feel like riding out into the wilderness. Anna’s mother had come to work at the ranch after she married Anna’s father. And as her father told Anna, Maria had worked hard for the ranch, too, out of both love and duty.
Now at fifteen years old, Anna had accepted the life she was given, the honor of breeding horses as if she had chosen it for herself, but for the first time in her life, prompted by the wildfire, she wondered what else was out there.
Cecily called frantically, almost shouting as a flame grew steadily in the darkness.
Tendrils of red reached up from the floor, searching up the wall, engulfing the small wooden table as it turned it to cinders and ash. A candle must have burned too low, Cecily thought. And then she remembered that her husband was not home yet, calling for him was useless. But Cecily stood mesmerized; she could not will herself to look away, to move, to run. She felt the heat on her face, brushing over her cheekbones. She imagined it was singeing the hair off her face, her eyelashes, her eyebrows, and her dark hair. The light of the small fire seared itself into the back of her eyes. After the fire was done feeding on the table, she still saw what she thought was the outline of the table. A sound of splintering and cracking reached her and it felt as if the fire was trying to impart some meaning to her.
“Tell me, please,” Cecily said.
Smoke was filling her lungs, making them ache and smolder in her chest. She choked suddenly, she had to clear her throat, clear her eyes, and clear her mind. Cecily first moved her right foot, and then the left, and the rest of her body followed.
Her husband found her standing outside as the house burned. The calmness in her frightened him at first. He held her shoulders, searching her face, yet his words were muffled in her ears.
“Are you okay? What happened? Are you okay? Okay?” He kept on repeating those words as if all other words had left him.
She heard her own voice tell him she was fine.
But then he understood the need for panic had passed. There was nothing to be done, by the time they could have made it to the city to get the fire department, to have them travel up to them, and then work at bringing water, it would be too late. Cecily took his hand, the other grasped at the gold necklace around her neck. As long as she had him and her necklace, she felt as if nothing else mattered. Cecily looked up at him, she could see the fire reflecting in his eyes and thought it beautiful, thought him beautiful.
“What is a house compared to that?” Cecily asked her husband as they stood watching the house slowly disintegrate into charred blackness.
Emily’s son calls almost every half-hour, warning her, urging her to leave.
He follows the news from further down south, updating her on the fire’s progress. His last phone call was rushed; by way of greeting he said, “Mom, I’m driving up to get you.”
She answered, trying to reassure him, “That’s not really necessary, sweetheart. But thank you.”
“I’m almost there,” he said, and in the background she could hear the wind rushing through his open car window and the sound of the engine. “You have certainly proved your point by staying this long. We get that you don’t want to leave, but it’s getting dangerous now, and I’m not going to abandon you up there or let you foolishly fight off this fire yourself.”
At those words she had quietly laughed, holding her hand over the receiver, so he couldn’t hear. She could just see herself singlehandedly holding back the wall of fire, sweat dripping down her face, and smoke furling around her with her green garden hose in her hands emitting a gentle stream of water.
He’s a sweet boy. She wouldn’t trade him for anything in the world. But he is a different kind than her, more like his father, always ready to get up and move, restlessness in his very bones. He moved out at eighteen with a thank you for all she had done for him and a promise to visit soon. Even as a child, he was full of movement, more than any other child she ever knew. Always off exploring in the hills, climbing trees, building hideouts, coming home after dark with bruises on his legs, tree sap on his hands, and twigs in his hair.
She always wanted him to need her more, to cry out for her when he was hurt or simply reach out for her hand as they walked down the street. He has always tried to look after her instead, especially after her husband left them. She believes him to be a good son, she knows he tries, that’s why she can’t fault him for his lack of respect for history, especially his own. To him, this house is just walls and a floor, a place where he had too many memories of a long gone father he resents and a place he stopped calling home a very long time ago. More than anything he doesn’t understand that this house means everything to her.
There is a commotion coming from the street. The sudden rise of sirens from police cars and fire engines breaks into the quiet of the house, invading her thoughts, recalling her to the threat of the fire. Someone is banging, hammering on her front door in urgency, maybe her son or a fireman. On her way to answer the door, she pauses at the sight of herself in the hallway mirror. She looks old, she muses, older than she imagines herself to be. The face before her does not match her own. She tries to fix her hair, smoothing the fine, fragile strands down, although it doesn’t do much good.
But thankfully, she recognizes her own dark eyes, the ones her father would stare into and say, my word you look just like your great-grandmother, and in them she believes there is a trace of something like fierceness.
The one thing that Maria wished for was a daughter of her own.
She just knew that if she ever had a child it would be a girl, just knew it. But they had been married for seven years and still they had no children. Her husband told her that it might not be in the cards for them, besides they had the ranch to tend to, the horses to tend to, each other to tend to. They would be alright if they never had a child. Maria would agree with her silence only while she held onto her own hope for a child. And life played out the everyday for them. Maria took care of the horses, and she took care of the house; she cooked dinner and rode out as far as could in the wilderness; she loved her husband, and was happy, if not content.
And then there was Anna.
It took Maria some time to even suspect that she was pregnant. She dismissed the tiredness as she slept in later than usual, the lack of appetite, and her heightened emotions brought on by small things of no importance like a horse having a loose shoe.
Her husband said one night, as they were getting ready for bed, “Have you been feeling alright, Maria?”
And that was when she finally realized that she had not, in fact, been feeling alright lately. The shadowy belief that she could be pregnant began to grow in her then. But they had tried so many times only to be disappointed time and time again that she now refused to let the hope grow any larger. She drove into town the next day and bought a pregnancy test at the local drug store.
After the test, she found her husband outside the barn. And when she told him that she was pregnant, he asked her in happiness and concern, “Why are you crying then, darling?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know why,” she answered. Maria could not explain to him that her tears were a mixture of happiness and shock at finally receiving something so long waited for, so long hoped for. She held on to her husband as the tears in her eyes blurred the light of the setting sun. A brilliant display of dying light reflected off the clouds. The world was awash for her in watercolors of oranges and reds and golds as she blinked away the tears.
She was going to have a child, a girl, she was sure of it, as she was sure of her own name. She was going to have a child to pass things on to; her love of horses, the love her father gave her, the new love she already had for the child inside her.
A child, Maria understood, was something that survives after you; it was a passing on of self.
Anna knows that it is of no use, but she wishes for her mother like she did when she was smaller.
It is now after sunset, but there is still an eerie glow in the sky, an orange haze of smoke or ash that is still reflecting the last light of the now sunken sun. Her father does not want to leave, abandon this place. He is on the phone with the neighbors in the south, the fire department, the city, and the police. He tells her that leaving will be the last option, but most of the horses have already been moved and only the ones they own themselves are left. Abacus cautiously approaches her, perhaps lured by the promise of sugar cubes, tossing his head back and forth. Anna reaches a palm toward him, and he takes the offering in her hand. Even his dark eyes reflect a strange orange color as if the fire has invaded him. He turns in an instant and trots swiftly away from her, back to his pacings around the pen.
Through her mother, Anna has learned the subtle ways in which people change once they die. Her mother changes, even now when she’s been gone for so long, changes slowly, almost painfully slow like a dull ache in the bones that spreads through her body. Her mother grows smaller somehow, distant. Mostly Anna can only clearly remember her hands, the feel of her fingers rubbing her back before she fell asleep, her painted nails, the curve of her open palm. Behind her eyes, Anna still sees her mother’s slender, quick moving hands brushing down the coat of a golden colored horse, and she sees her hands gripping the reins of a horse with confidence and skill. Only in pictures is she reminded of what her face looked like.
Anna tries, yet keeps failing, to imagine what her mother was. Her father tells her stories. How her mother cried for hours out of unfathomable happiness after finding out she was pregnant. How he first saw her leading a beautiful black filly toward him and that her hair was the exact same color as the horse’s mane. But they are just stories to her– intangible things that do not anchor her to anyone or anything.
Anna finally turns to leave the horses. On the porch, her father meets her coming out, the phone still in his grip. His face is gaunt, the hollows in his cheeks more pronounced, his skinny shoulders slumped. His tallness seems exaggerated somehow. Her father once told her how her mother would tease him, you are all skin and bone, she would say, how is it that you can even hold the reins, let alone ride, no muscle at all, Anna can’t recall her laugh, oh, she had said, how many horses have thrown you off? Anna does not need to ask her father as he limbers past her, calling loudly for George, the last ranch hand left. The words carry to her on the air; the wind has increased since the night has come. He is calling for the truck and last horse trailer. Sirens drown out the rest of his words. So be it, she thinks.
They will surrender to the will of the wildfire.
Cecily was not old enough to be a widow yet, she told herself in a whisper.
But what were her wants and desires compared to whatever grand scheme of things that God had laid down for her? Right after his death her own smallness was never more evident to her. And she cursed everything and everyone that ever made her believe that she was ever important to anything or anyone. All she had ever wanted was a life with him from the moment she first saw him in that wilderness and that had been taken away.
The thing she found most difficult about her husband’s death was the process of detangling her life from his. Even though he was no longer there, she could not stop herself from doing things the way she had always done them; she cooked dinners that were too big for just her and her son, woke at the early hour when he was supposed to leave for work, sat up late in the kitchen as she did when she waited for him to return, and she could not sleep in her silent room without the sound of his deep breathing that she had known since she was merely a girl.
Her son went about it all in a quiet reverie as if nothing had happened. He was determined that nothing else in life should change any. He did not mention his father, did not name him, did not mourn him, and did not cry for him. Cecily imagined that he believed that if he could only maneuver around the hole his father left without looking at it, and then everything in his life would be perfectly fine. He was old enough to understand what death was, but young enough to not understand what it meant.
In a way, they were both mourning in similar fashion and that was what made Cecily decide that they needed something to change. They could continue on in silence and sadness or they could try to move themselves forward. He had been gone a year and she figured it was as good a time as any. They needed to take what little control they had over the directions of their lives. Her husband had built this house, built it on the ashes of the first, built it for her. Cecily once imagined her and husband growing old there, taking their last breaths here, she just did not know that would happen so soon for him.
Cecily told her son, “I want to sell the house.”
The reaction from him was not one that she was expecting. His face, almost the face of a man, a copy of his father’s, broke in an instant and tears came. “You can’t, we can’t. We can’t. He built it. It’s ours,” he sputtered out.
Cecily’s heart broke for him as grief finally took hold of him. “Okay, okay,” she told him as she herself took hold of him. “We won’t leave then. Okay? Okay?”
And Cecily did not leave, even when her son eventually out grew her and the house. And she grew old there herself until her son returned to take her from there when she could no longer care for herself.
But the house remained for her grandson to raise a family in, for her great-granddaughter to protect from fire, and Cecily was amazed at how some things can remain, while others pass so easily.
Emily is old enough, she tells her son, to remember a different wildfire.
Emily doesn’t know how this memory comes to her right now; she hasn’t thought about it in years. So she says, “My goodness, it must have been twenty or thirty years ago at least. Your father and I were driving somewhere down south near Antelope Valley. I can’t recall why we were there. I remember that to the relief of everybody, the rain had come after a long dry spell. There is nothing better than a thunderstorm after a long, dry, life-taking drought to return the life that was taken.”
Emily relives the story for her son, sees anew for him: They were young, his father and her, so it had to have been before he was born or he would have been there with them. It was late afternoon; it was spring. They had pulled over to the side of the road to stretch their legs. The motion of the old car had made her slightly carsick. They walked and reached the crest of a hill. Below them two horses were grazing on a field of newly sprung up wildflowers and small yellow poppies.
Her husband had taken her hand and, without looking at her, said how all those sunshine colored flowers made it look like a piece of the sky during dusk had fallen into the field. It was the most poetic she had ever heard him, and would ever hear him, and she couldn’t help but laugh, which he took great offense to, but secretly she couldn’t have agreed more. She tells her son that she had never been, and never would be, so in love with him than in that moment.
On their way down the hill, Emily had tripped over something on the ground. There was a flash of white in the green grass. Her husband parted the flowers with both hands and the skull of a horse, bleached by the sun, was laid bare. Emily had stumbled over its dried rib cage. It was a startling discovery. During the whole trip back, she could not stop thinking about that horse and how it had died and how beautiful that valley was and how two things like that could exist together. Emily stops speaking. She sees in his face that her son does not understand her.
How can she make him understand that flowers would grow over the bones of this house, too, if she let it be, that flowers can grow over the bones of almost anything?
In the barn, Maria stopped at the door to watch Anna.
The little girl gingerly, on tiptoes, tried to look over a door to a horse stall. The horse inside neighed loudly, causing Anna to lose her balance as she jumped back in fright. So far Anna had refused to get close to a horse. When Maria had mounted her on a small pony for the first time, the pony had reared and Anna had slipped off the side before Maria could catch her. Anna hadn’t cried a single tear, just stood up and backed away slowly before running for her father, who was standing by the fence post. Since then Anna had developed a fear of the horses that she had been around her entire life. Maria would catch her there in the barn, studying the horses and jumping at any sounds they made.
“We have to get her back on,” Maria said to her husband.
He replied, “She just needs some time. She’ll have forgotten all about it in no time at all.”
Maria could not stand by and do nothing. She could not bear it if Anna’s small fear of horses grew into something bigger, like a lifelong phobia of all things on four legs. Maria wanted Anna to love horses the way she did, wanted her to know what it felt like to ride a horse at full gallop and feel the rush of wind and the fear and the joy. It was like no other feeling in the world, and she wanted Anna to know that feeling.
Early one morning Maria woke Anna from her slumber, dressed her, and sat her at the kitchen table. She poured her a glass of juice, made her waffles, and did not say a word about what they were going to do that day. As she cut up the waffles into pieces, Anna reached for her hands and covered them with her own small ones as Maria brought the knife down and up over the waffles. Anna was always a calm, quiet child. Maria always imagined that her daughter was pondering the great mysteries of the world, as Anna’s eyes would stare off, a crease forming between her eyes in the deepest of thoughts.
Maria led Anna out into one of the paddocks. The same small pony was waiting for them. Anna cowered as the pony trotted up to them.
“Here, Anna, give him some sugar,” Maria said, opening Anna’s small fist to drop a couple of cubes of sugar into it.
Anna took the offered sugar, yet tried to conceal herself behind her mother. Maria held Anna’s arm gently, guiding it away from her body and around her own legs. Slowly Anna’s fingers uncurled, revealing the sugar that the pony, smelling immediately, scooped out of her hand with his tongue and hairy lips. Anna let out a noise that sounded like a cross between a giggle and a breathless sigh of relief.
“You want to try and ride him again?” Maria asked and Anna did not answer with a definite yes or no, so in a swift instance Maria captured her under her arms and swung her on the pony. Anna was up and on before she knew it.
Slowly Anna relaxed as nothing bad happened and as she looked into Maria’s eye, she smiled a smile of discovery and awe as her hands weaved into the pony’s mane.
In her room, Anna goes no farther than the doorway.
What to take with her? Police lights flash around the room, highlighting objects first blue, and then red, stealing their real colors and shapes, casting shadows over the walls, making her room look strange and unfamiliar to her. She feels cold all over as adrenaline rushes through her, making her hands shake. Every part of her feels keenly alive and throbbing. Her senses are strangely heightened as if her body fears that the fire will spring up at any moment in a quick burst of flames. It doesn’t feel like anything belongs to her anymore. She is detached and floating. Nothing in this room she has always lived in belongs to her. From a distance, she hears her father call her name and even that sounds not quite right, foreign to her as the room she stands in now.
She says to make herself move, “Take what you need, leave the rest.”
Anna moves into this unremarkable room, leaves the lights off, sits on the bed as if her legs have just given out on her. She knows the history of every object in here, where they came from, what they were used for, how she loved them. She could recite the story of that darkened lamp, or the blue rug, or the buttoned plaid shirt hanging off the chair, and the person that owned them. But they would not be her things. It would be like telling a fairy tale: Once upon a time, there was a girl named Anna, who loved horses, whose mother was stolen by an evil witch. She does not want any claim to them, to her own story as she knows that it will be easier to leave it that way. Anna stands up abruptly, pulls a suitcase from under her bed. She goes to the closet, pulls things off hangers with no regard to what she grabs, opens her dresser, takes an armful of clothes, and finally shoves it all into the suitcase, closes it, and walks out of the room with her suitcase. It is that simple.
But in the hallway, she catches a glimpse of herself passing in a framed mirror on the wall. She pauses and fights the urge to turn and look at herself. Breathing deeply, she turns with eyes closed. She lets the breath go, opening her eyes. And what she sees staring back at her is herself, Anna. Somehow that is not what she expected; she expected to look different, to be distorted, to be a stranger. But it is just Anna. Dark hair like her mother, eyes like her father, chin like her grandfather, a nose that nobody could ever decide where it came from. It’s a comforting sight, she thinks, that after all this she has still remained Anna.
In the kitchen, her father sits like a defeated king at the table. “I’m only resting for a moment,” he says, his voice sounding rough. “You go out and help George, he’s having trouble with Abacus, and you know how temperamental that horse is.”
Anna makes a move for the door but stops herself, her suitcase held tightly in both hands. She steps up to her father and can only see his profile. She knows that he does not want her to see him crying.
“It’s just a house,” Anna says. “Walls, a floor, a ceiling. It’s okay to leave it behind.”
Anna, standing on the porch, breathed deeply, inhaling the faintness of smoke, and felt content at last.
Cecily could not see, for the most part, the faces that approached her.
The faces were all blurred darkness and light. But she did not mind her poor eyesight much anymore as there was nothing in the world she cared about seeing more of. Cecily lived in a small room at a nursing home and there was nothing in that room that meant much to her, so it meant very little to her that she could not see it. Her son, at first, had insisted that she move in with him. He was divorced, with a grown son of his own. But she had resolutely told him no over and over again. She did not want to be a burden to him, and she knew, something inside her told her as clear as sunlight through glass that she would not be here for much longer. Cecily could not recall how long she had been there in the nursing home. Sometimes it felt like only a few days, at other times it startled her to think that maybe it may have been years. And sometimes she felt as if a permanent kind of fire was burning before her eyes, not one made of flame and ash and white-hot embers, but one made of select memories. Everything that mattered, everyone that mattered was alight with scorching firelight in her mind. She still saw a small piece of gold swinging from the fingers of a young man from New York, her sleeping son cradled in her arms, her husband carrying planks of wood that would become their home with sweat slowly tracing down his arms. She did not need her eyes to see these things.
Her son was visiting, she knew; his voice was a familiar tone to her ears, it changed so very little as he grew up, and she asked after their house.
“Ma, you know I don’t live there anymore. Emily lives there now, remember?”
A little girl with blonde hair and round eyes was pushed close to her; the face came into a hazy focus for Cecily. The child struggled to be released from her mother’s grip and succeeded in squirming off into a corner of the room. Cecily listened to the talk around her, heeding only half of the words; the voice of her son, her grandson and his wife, the little girl remained silent. A crash interrupted the adults and all turned toward Emily as she jumped away from a dresser, a broken porcelain statue of a horse rearing on its hind legs scattered on the ground. Emily’s mother immediately began to scold her, telling her that she was a bad girl for touching things that didn’t belong to her.
Cecily only shook her head, waving away the concern with her hands as if swatting away flies. Her voice reedy and fragile said, “No need, no need for harsh words. Emily, come here, dear, come here.” Cecily opened her arms for the child, feeling her as she slipped cautiously into them, shaking with compressed sobs and tears. “No need to get so upset, now. That statue was of little worth to me. No need to cry over such things, they’re not important at all. ”
Cecily looked down at the child in her arms and saw in a moment of bright clarity, dark eyes that she recognized as her own. She then reached up to the necklace hanging from her neck to remove it at last. She asked for help with the clasp. And Cecily felt hands at the back of her neck, brushing her thin hair back. As the necklace left her, she could still feel the gentle weight of it on her neck and against her chest. It flashed before her and she reached for it.
“Emily, you wear this for me now, will you? It needs someone who will take care of it.” Cecily then held it out, let the gold piece swing on the chain. A small hand reached for it and it was gone.
That night Cecily dreamed she was back in the wilderness. She was walking in the shade as trees were swaying above her, letting in patches of light. And then he was there, suddenly illuminated.
Cecily, although she did not know it until then, was holding in a breath that she finally, upon seeing him again, was able to let out.
Emily can now see the fire, a golden contrast to the black hills, from the balcony.
The flames are visible on the horizon; they glow red and orange, outlining the curves and ridges, the rise and fall of the hills that stand in their way. The city lights, normally beginning to dim by this time at night, are fully ablaze below her. Despite the destruction of the fire, the land it is scorching, the trees being turned to ash, the homes burning, she cannot help thinking that the rising smoke, the fire’s red burn, and the glimmering city are so beautiful.
She wants to share this with her son, but he is packing things haphazardly into his truck as if her house is already on fire. Papers from her desk, shirts from her closet leave the house; he stops to ask where the deed, her will, and important papers are; he takes some pots and pans from the kitchen, he pulls pictures right off the wall, the television and furniture are too heavy; he skips the things that are replaceable. She is the last thing ushered into the vehicle as he hooks a hand around her elbow and tries to guide her out of the door.
“I am not going,” she tells him, standing in her living room that looks as if a thief has ransacked it. Emily tries to make an imposing figure, she squares her shoulders, lifts her chin high, but she finds that her voice is wavering despite her will to make it steady. “I will not leave, I won’t,” she says, but she feels like a child, like she is a small girl again standing up against her father, not her son, the boy she raised. “I can’t leave here, son.”
“I’m sorry, Mom,” he says, shaking his head at her, but he doesn’t sound like he means it at all. He grips her by the upper arm again and she tries to resist, but her body betrays her and she has but the strength to weakly lean her weight away from him, to try and pry her arm out of his hand.
She finally shakes him free, yet she is already outside the house, and she is afraid to turn and look at it, imagining it already as burned timbers of wood and charred walls, a caved in roof.
As the truck pulls away from the driveway, she almost stops him, she imagines grabbing the wheel or throwing open the door, jumping out. From there she would carry all the things back into the house, where they belong. It feels dreadfully wrong that some things are being left behind, while others are being saved.
“Are they not just as important?” she asks out loud. Surely the picture of wild birds her mother painted tucked away in a closet is worth as much as the tax forms now sitting beside her in the cab of the truck? And the quilt her great-grandmother made for her has just as much worth as the few shirts in her lap? If her house should burn, it seems only right that everything that resided there should burn together.
Emily’s hand reaches for the small piece of gold hanging around her neck, she can only say to her son, “You don’t understand what it means,” but they are already pulling off the road that leads away from the house and onto the highway. There is traffic and they pull up behind a large horse trailer.
It is irrational, she knows, but she is an old woman, set in her ways, too attached to a single spot of the earth that she has lived on her entire life, and she wants nothing more than to turn around, run back along the asphalt, back to her home, and burn with it, if that what is to come, how that house that stood for generations should be brought down at last.
Maria held on tight as the horse below her reared in a splendid, fearful, graceful arc.
When Maria hit the ground, the only thing she knew was that a hot white fire had somehow been set ablaze inside her skull. That was all her eyes could see: fire. There was nothing else. If she was still breathing she could not tell; her lungs had stopped expanding inside her. And she was not sure if she was still on the horse as everything around her felt like it was flying past her. Her whole body felt like it contained a great force of momentum that had not yet been extinguished.
Her thoughts began to catch up with her like a torrent of water released downhill. She had fallen, she was on the ground now, and she needed to make herself take a breath again. Around her she heard the heavy footfalls of horses and people.
A voice from far away was saying, “Maria! Maria! Are you okay? Open your eyes? Can you talk? You’re bleeding, oh my God, Maria.”
Maria was still seeing white, but other colors were beginning to bleed in around the edges of her vision.
Then a different voice, which she dimly recognized as her husband’s, said, “Someone get Anna out of here, she doesn’t need to see this.”
At her daughter’s name, Maria forced herself to speak, relieved to hear her own voice issue from between her lips: “Oh, okay, I’m okay.”
Her vision returned, and what she saw was the tear streaked face of Anna being carried away in someone’s arms, her small face poised with feared, appearing over the man’s shoulder. She was helped up into a sitting position, the world continued to spin, but it subsided gradually, and her husband was there to help her stand back up.
His voice was shaking as he said, “Quite a fall there, Maria, quite a fall. I told you that horse was too wild, even for you. Thank God you’re okay, thank God.”
“I thought I had him there for a second,” she said with a soft laugh with no humor in it. Her husband then braced her back as he walked her back to the house where she was told to lie down. Her husband cleaned the cut on the side of her head and bandaged it up. He kissed her in a desperate way after and she told him, “Don’t worry, I’m fine.”
Later that night, Maria woke aching with waves of nausea flitting through her. On her way downstairs to get an aspirin, she stopped in the doorway of her daughter’s room. Anna was fast asleep, her even breathing filling the room, her face relaxed and calm. Maria could not rid herself of the image of Anna’s face as she was taken away. What a thing for a child to see: Their mother knocked to the ground, bleeding, not getting back up after falling. Behind her eyes, a pressure was growing to an intense pain. What a thing to do: To make a child believe that they could lose a mother.
Something was wrong, Maria knew, something in her head was about to burst so she made her way downstairs, stumbling down the steps. That was not how Maria wanted Anna to remember her; as a sprawled figure thrown from a horse. She did not want Anna to think badly of horses now. It was her own fault, she had pulled the reins too sharply, kicked him too hard, startled him.
Maria could only hope that Anna would remember the good things about her; the times it was just the two of them in the morning when Maria made her breakfast, the times that they rode together in the wilderness, the way she was there every night to soothe her to sleep, and the way she was so loved by her mother.
Anna watches the beauty of Abacus as he rears wildly, in panic, in splendor, on his hind legs.
George, the ranch hand, is cussing loudly, something he would not normally do in front of her. His hat is askew on his head, tipping back so far that it is in danger of flying off his head. His face is taut and stretched, and he says, “Damn horse, do you want to burn?”
Abacus rears again, neighing loudly, kicking his front legs uncontrollably, and nearly grazing George’s head. Anna sees the reins suddenly flare up in the air like two whips. And then Abacus is free and galloping away.
Anna sprints after the horse, which is trying to get back to the barn, back home. He reaches the barn far ahead of her and the doors are eerily thrown open in abandonment, like no horse has resided there for years. Anna follows Abacus inside, the only sound is that of his metal shoes echoing around the empty space that was once full of the sound of horses neighing and clomping and huffing and clacking. Abacus has returned to his own stall. Anna is reminded of the day he was born in that stall, how she held her breath as his shaky legs brought him up off the ground. He turns himself around in the stall and eyes her with fear, making a move to come at her or rear up again.
“Whoa, Abacus,” Anna says, holding up her arms. “Whoa, there boy, it’s just me.”
Anna slowly reaches for her pocket and pulls out sugar cubes. She walks in measured steps towards him. Her hand is outstretched, palm up while she speaks to him in a calm steady flow of words: “Hey there, Abacus, boy, you’re alright, you want some sugar, you’re alright, now, don’t be scared now.”
The horse tosses his head, neighs loudly, but he can’t resist the cubes in her hand. As he scoops up the lumps of sugar, she cautiously reaches her other hand down, letting the reins gently swing into her grip. She runs a hand over the flat front of his head repeatedly in a calming fashion, the way she did when he was still young and he still let her. Anna takes his reins tight in her hands, ready to pull him out of the barn. But when she looks at him steadily in his dark eyes, she can clearly trace the fear in them. And it is a fear that she understands as it is a familiar fear for any creature, she knows; the thought of leaving loved things behind.
“I understand,” she tells him softly.
As she leads Abacus out of the barn, her father and George are securing the other horses. The last trailer is empty, waiting for Abacus. Anna leverages her weight against the weight of the horse, pulling Abacus as hard as she can until finally his head is pulled forward, his neck and the rest of his body following as she walks him into the trailer at last. She does not bother to look back at the house as she secures herself in the cab of the truck, waiting for her father. When he gets in, he starts the truck, puts it into drive, but he pauses for a moment as if there is something he has forgotten.
Driving down the road leading to their ranch, for perhaps the last time, Anna imagines what will happen when the house burns down. Imagines how it’ll start from the outside, scorching the grass in the paddocks, devouring the stables before reaching the main house. The outside walls will feel it first, the kitchen window will break from the heat, glass shards flying onto the floor, the curtains will catch fire, and the gas stove will explode. Further into the living room it’ll travel and the old couch her mother picked out, the picture of wild stallions over the fireplace that her mother hung, and the photo of her mother holding a newborn Anna will all be no more, all turning to ash.
Maybe the fire will pause for a moment before entering that room that is no longer Anna’s, wonder who left all this behind. But Anna knows that fire doesn’t care at all about those things that people leave behind; it can’t tell who that person was or what they loved or why they’re no longer there. In the truck, Anna rolls the window down, sticks her arm out, and catches the fast moving air in her palm.
Anna glances back at the horse trailer, sees the outline of Abacus’ neck through the slats of the trailer; smoke is choking the air, and in the rearview mirror she thinks she can see a golden glow spreading in the sky.
Khristian Mecom was born in Oklahoma but grew up and still lives in South Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida Atlantic University. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Passages North, Slice Magazine, Zone 3, Iron Horse Literary Review, Yemassee, and elsewhere.