You had to start with paper, leave lots of room for air, then stack the thicker things on top of it: first twigs, then sticks, then branches; then coal, then walls, then roofs, then the families inside.
She’d learned fire’s generative properties from her grandmother: soup simmering, bread browning, linens boiled clean. She taught herself the destructive ones. Closed books, she learned, tended not to burn well. You had to tear pages free one at a time. You could also simply open it so that the pages fanned freely: a Bible, say.
She taught herself to strike a match, watch it flare, touch it to an edge, tease the flames to life with a carefully aimed breath, jerk her head back so as not to be burned when the gilt edges caught in glowing orange lines, eating the words.
A Bible is fuel. A cold night, words won’t save you.
On this night it was so terribly cold.
It wasn’t a matter of whether you would die. It was a matter of when, and how.
She wonders how it will feel: a few long, horrible moments of knowing, then nothing.
Her grandmother died sitting up in a chair, Bible in her lap. She’d had no choice, no time to plan, no moments of knowing, and the girl has decided that she is not going to let that happen to her.
When she was small, all she’d known how to do with fire was warm herself briefly. She’d sit before the hearth, watching the coals breathe, teasing them with a poker into spirals of sparks. Feed them enough lengths of fabric or twists of paper and you could boil a pot of water or watch the world burn.
“We are going to have to talk about fire,” her grandmother said, cleaning up after yet another destructive act, brushing ash into a pan, drawing up her sleeve to show the girl a ruined arm like melted wax wrapped around a bone.
It was the last evening of the year, or it was the first. She walked through the streets, observed through her stiffening limbs that cold and heat were not so different. Each reddened your fingers; each stung. Each, unchecked, would bear you away.
She’d left the house in slippers. She was not stupid. They were too big, her grandmother’s left-behind slippers, so perhaps she was stupid after all. She had immediately lost them, as swiftly as she’d lost her grandmother, falling off her feet as she ran. It was said that she had slept in one of those slippers as an infant.
And so she walked in bare feet. She held matches in her hand, a wooden bouquet, unopened buds at their tips.
Shivering, she crept along, a picture of misery, poor little girl!
The snowflakes fell on her long fair hair, which hung in pretty curls. She’d cut one loose once, with kitchen shears, and fed it to the flames. It had smelled of the singed feathers of dead chickens.
She could use some chicken right about now.
In all the windows, lights were shining.
She tucked herself up in a corner formed by two houses, drew up her little feet under her. She was getting colder and colder, but would not go home. She could not go home. She had left it burning behind her, her drunken father snoring inside. There were many drunken fathers, she supposed, but hers was always at home: its thatched roof, its whistling wind, cracks stuffed with straw and rags, ashes in the stove holding only a memory of warmth.
That straw. Those rags. Paper. Twigs.
She’d light one match, just enough heat to loosen her fingers. Then she’d build the fire. Then she’d have those moments of knowing.
She drew one out.
A flame was like a pet: born, grown, dead in moments. This one, though, opened a veiled window through which she saw another life, a richly laid table from which a roast goose leaped up, a knife and fork still standing in its breast, and raced around the table. It was stuffed with apples and prunes, better fed, dead, than she, alive, had ever been.
Then the match went out, and she could see only the thick, cold wall.
She lit another match: a Christmas tree, thousands of candles burning in its branches.
Surely that isn’t wise, she thought.
Then the match went out. A star fell, forming a long line in the sky.
“Now someone is dying,” thought the little girl, for her grandmother had told her that when a star fell down a soul went up to God.
She rubbed another match against the wall, aware that she was squandering them. It became bright again, and there stood her grandmother.
“We are going to have to talk about fire,” she said.
“Oh!” cried the child. “Oh, take me with you!” She knelt and quickly struck the whole bundle of matches, for she wished to keep her grandmother with her. And the matches burned with such a glow that it became brighter than daylight. Her grandmother extended her hand.
Fan the pages open
touch the flame to the edges
“Burn it all down,” she whispered.
There was that moment of knowing, a bright star. She took her grandmother’s hand and they rose together, climbing a ladder of light.
In the place where her charred corpse might have been found the following morning while sifting through the wreckage-one house, one family, one roast goose, a Christmas tree-there was only an empty space. In the corner, where a little body ought to have been, there only a silhouette.
“She only wanted to warm herself,” the people said in sorrow, but that was not it, at all.
Melinda Rooney is a writer and teacher. Her fiction has appeared in Santa Monica Review, North American Review, Quarterly West, Washington Square, with a story forthcoming in Chicago Quarterly Review. She lives in Chicago.