I walked slowly back into my house, and it’s dark. All the windows are still curtained and I left all the lights off. This is no place for a cowboy. A cowboy needs to be outside. He needs to feel the breezes and the fresh air. He needs to be watchful, to read the truth of the wind and interpret the sound of an approaching horse.
I don’t want to be in here any more than I need to. I grab a flyer off the kitchen table, some scrap from Home Depot advertising DeWalt power tools, and crumple it. I claw the sports section, the financial pages from whatever newspaper Cholo reads to me. It’s all scrap, it all has a more glorious purpose. The clock says its 8:42, and I feel the morning slipping away. Yellow jackets brush my arm, agitated but still mostly spring-drunk. Zippo lighter in hand, I light a dense ball of newspaper and toss it onto the bundle of twigs. Nothing happens. A small circle of flame burrows into the paper, tiny black ash framing an orange glow. I poke a stick at it, trying to loosen the ball to let the fire to breathe. There’s a small crinkle and snap and then flame magically spreads. Pieces of paper float loosely into the air, moth-like, and the creamy smell of burning paper hovers like a dancer. And then a loud whomph, like the air has just been sucker-punched.
The birds are also startled, and suddenly the fire is all I can hear. The wet moss gives the flames a sizzling sound, like bacon. Small red dots of flame and glowering newspaper twist in the air and some of them land on my jacket. The day has become warmer, even hot, and I strip it off, and my shirt. Everything has become more primitive. I feel more Pawnee than cowboy, like something has loosened in my mind. I feel like dancing, or even whooping. Wouldn’t Cholo be in for a surprise if he were to pull in the driveway? To see his oldest friend whooping like a pagan around a fire-circle.
The flames grow bigger, fatter, and I can feel the hairs on my arms curling from the heat. I’m dancing, now, singing some idiot chant that feels like a heartbeat in my throat, and then, for a moment, perfect clarity fills me. I see an hysterical old man dancing around fire, a man lost in his primitive nature, shirtless and crazy. What am I?
The fire is spreading, spreading across the grass and toward the fence line, sizzling and squirting yellow flame. Smoke climbs in a spiral, thick and waxy, the smell of wet burning wood. I stand back from the heat, uncertain, and slap at the flames with my jacket. But there is kerosene residue on my jacket and it ignites into a dull orange curtain. I stumble backward and fall over a slick wet branch, onto my back, five feet away from the flames. Crab-craw backward, my fingers scooping soft earth. A moment, a moment of clarity. A shovel. Dig around the fire, deny it fuel. But I don’t remember where I put the shovel. I don’t remember. Was there a shovel in the storage shed?
I roll onto my knees and begin clawing at the earth. It is soft and pliant, but not very deep. But I dig around the fire, my hands yanking thick clots of dirt and grass, tossing them behind me. I feel the fire on my arms, my forehead, and for a moment I feel the flames brush my scalp and smell the sizzle of hair. I pull back convulsively, still pulling up large handfuls of dirt, now tossing them onto the fire. Because the branches are still wet and the kerosene is mostly used up, the fire starts to weaken. Thick black curlicues of smoke reach up and up. I collapse, exhausted, filthy and scared, the hairs on my arms scorched, leaving red welts and black ash. The fire is not spreading. I sit back, my legs trembling, my hands matted with mud and soot, and cry. Stupid, stupid man. I don’t remember why I wanted to start a fire. It seemed important at the time. It mattered to me.
I was once more than I am. I am more than just a sick old man. I stare into the flames, hypnotized by the dance. An unimaginative old man would not see the bones beneath the fire, greasy from bubbling fat and tendon. There, the finger bones of a small child, denuded and splintered from the explosive pops of fire. And there, the femur, small and misshaped, scorched black. Arm bones, ankles and toes, caked with white-gray soot.
Steven, you like fire! Very graphic: grease, fat bubbling yuckiness. But good writing.
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Thank you, I didn’t realize that until you mentioned it. That piece is from an older book I wrote six or seven years ago and never got around to editing. And it’s long! I’m toying with the idea of working on it again, since I don’t have any projects in the works.
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Very nice. The end really is haunting. Wonderfully gory imagery!
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Thank you. 🙂
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