Emily was woken by the sound of chopping wood. Jimmy was swinging his axe early that morning. Thick logs cracked, split in two and fell with a dull thud. It was a familiar and comforting sound.
She didn’t have the energy to move around much anymore, even the slightest movement left her gasping with pain. Emily gazed at the large glass of water on the bedside table, wishing she could reach for it. Her throat was scorched and her mouth was sour. She coughed and her chest felt like a rattling heap of bones. Her breath was a loud, tender wheeze.
Jimmy would be in soon. He would stroke her hair and smile down at her. She closed her eyes and pictured him out there in the cold, preparing for their evening fire. She began to recall all the fires they had shared together. It was an exercise she liked to do often. It comforted her and kept her mind occupied, which helped to alleviate the pain. She wondered how long before the fire would be hers alone. Flames flickered in her vision, in shades of orange and yellow, stretching into long, howling faces that mocked her. She didn’t open her eyes again.
The first time Jimmy and Emily started a fire they were fifteen years old. They lived in the outer suburbs, a sprawl of dilapidated houses, trashy chain stores and franchise family restaurants, cut through the centre by a highway.
Surrounded as they were by drugs, alcohol and violence, fire became the one vice they couldn’t resist. Fire opened up a secret space, theirs alone, to reside in for a while, as the cold brutal world faded from view. Fire was the secret they protected and which, in turn, protected them.
One day they had climbed a high wire fence into an abandoned car yard. The yard was scattered with the hulls of stripped cars and an assortment of discarded junk. They rummaged through the remains. They sat on a red vinyl back seat perched on top of a pile of old tyres. Jimmy pulled out a couple of bent cigarettes he had stolen from his father.
Jimmy played with the lighter as they smoked, flicking the flame repeatedly. He was feeling agitated and restless. That morning his father, already drunk for the day, had flown into a rage over the electricity bill. Jimmy and his brothers had scattered from the house like insects.
He touched the flame to the seat and the vinyl began to melt instantly, oozing like an open wound, the smell of burning plastic a toxic high. Emily stared at the tiny flame licking the plastic seat.
Jimmy’s face changed as he watched, becoming thoughtful and calm.
“Wanna start a fire with me?” he asked suddenly.
Emily exhaled a grey plume; she shrugged and nodded casually but she was excited by the idea. They jumped down from the seat and searched the car yard for things to burn. There were scraps of foam and rubber around and lots of scattered rubbish. They shredded old newspapers into a big empty drum.
“Do the honours?” said Jimmy and handed Emily the lighter. She lit a wad of paper then tossed it in.
They stood back and stared at the flames that flashed and grew quickly; a stream of black smoke began to curl skywards.
Jimmy reached for Emily’s hand and she took it without glancing at him. A sense of wonder enfolded them, a strange relief and elation.
They both felt it. They knew they both felt it because they squeezed hands, communicating something that couldn’t be spoken.
They were jostled out of their thoughts when someone began shouting.
An elderly man dressed in overalls had appeared and was shuffling towards them from across the yard.
“Hey you kids, what the hell are you doing?”
Jimmy yanked Emily by the arm and they bolted. They easily scrambled over the fence and ran. A few streets away they stopped, out of breath, and doubled up with laughter.
They looked at each other in amazement. They kissed then dissolved into giggles again. That was the beginning of a lifelong love affair between the three of them, Jimmy, Emily and fire.
Jimmy swung his axe slowly to the ground. He looked up at the bedroom window and an acute fear swept over him. He rubbed his tired eyes. He couldn’t bare this anymore. It happened often now. He would find himself running to the house and up the stairs in a panic, rushing into the bedroom, to find Emily sitting in bed reading.
“Do you need anything?” he’d say, relieved and embarrassed, and she would shake her head no.
It had been a year since Emily was diagnosed. Jimmy watched her whittle away; the disease ate her from the inside out. He watched her endure hostile treatment and medication until there remained nothing left to resort.
During their life together fire had come and gone. There were years when they didn’t light fires at all. And there were times when everything caved in, like when Jimmy’s dad died or when Emily suffered a miscarriage, and their need for fire returned. They would find a good location, start a small fire and watch as it burnt away their pain, consuming the anger and despair until they could take a deep breath again. They were careful and they were never caught.
Years ago, they had moved to a property in the country. When they saw the large fireplace in the house, they grinned at each other.
As Emily’s condition deteriorated, they lit fires every night. It was the only thing that made Emily feel better for a while. The fire cast a glow of life back onto her face; she nestled in comfortable silence to watch it and a soft rising euphoria dulled the pain.
When Emily was still able to, they went for walks together in the surrounding bushland, collecting kindling and large branches.
It was on one of these walks that Emily told Jimmy what she wanted to do. He hated the idea; it scared him, and he didn’t know how to respond. They had walked home in silence.
Jimmy looked up at the bedroom window and fear gave way to something far more bottomless and dreadful.
He climbed the stairs slowly. The door of the bedroom seemed to swing open by itself as he touched it. From where he stood in the doorway, he could see that Emily was gone.
He smoothed out the wisps of hair that framed her face. Tears swelled in his eyes and a painful lump lodged in his throat. He sat beside her for a long time in disbelief, holding her lifeless hand. Pale and frail, it was impossible to tell whether it was life or death that had eaten her away. He could feel every bone and joint in her fingers; he squeezed her forearms and the bones were sharp and thin. Useless bones that no longer animated her. She began to appear like a macabre puppet – a revolting thought – and he had to pull away.
After a while, he walked over to the window and threw it open. A cold gust of winter air rushed in. He looked down at the pile of wood gathered in the yard. He needed to get started as soon as possible.
He began to pace the room, staring at Emily’s body. Panic set in. Suddenly it all seemed like such a bad idea. How could he possibly go through with it? What kind of person would do such a thing? His mind scrambled desperately with thoughts. He didn’t want to do it. It was cruel of her to have asked him. They had talked about the plan a lot and she had made it sound so natural. It was her dying wish.
“I can’t do it!” he shouted then burst into tears, but it was too late. He had to keep his promise.
He scooped her up, gathering her carefully. She was like a bag of sand slipping from his grasp as he walked. He had to stop several times to heave her back up. Slowly he carried her down the stairs, through the house and out into the yard.
The staggered walk to the pyre was a ludicrous funeral march. His heart was thumping and his mind was numb. He had been building the pyre for days now, arranging the logs just right. He had a feeling the time was near.
Relieved to relinquish her body to the pyre, he placed her upon it as gracefully as possible. The body flopped over the logs, the head rolling back at an awkward angle, the limbs sprawled indecently. He rearranged the body until it looked right.
He tried not to look at her as he picked up the heavy jerry can and began to splash kerosene over the wood and body.
Finally the can was empty. He stood there for a while, lost in thought. His eyes and nose were streaming with silent tears.
He wiped his nose on his sleeve then fumbled in his pockets for the matches. He struck one and held it until it burnt out. He did this many times, burnt matches collected at his feet.
Her voice echoed in his head: “I want to burn, Jimmy.”
A flash of anger arose. She was always the more reckless between them. Many times Jimmy had to persuade her against lighting a fire that was too dangerous, too public. He felt cheated and manipulated now by her final act of defiance.
Then the anger disappeared as quickly as it had come and he took a deep breath. With trembling lips, he struck another match. He closed his eyes as he threw it at the pyre and then it was done. It was done and it couldn’t be undone. He stepped back in surprise as instantly the wood went up in huge, crackling flames. The box of matches dropped from his hands.
Flames engulfed and rolled around the body, quickly beginning to scorch the skin. He stared at the horrific vision unfolding before him, unable to move. The flames were mesmerising and in the centre of them was Emily, like a broken discarded doll.
The heat assaulted him in nauseating waves. A terrible thought occurred to him; he should walk into the fire and join her, if only he had the courage.
Before long, the smell began to assault him, a stench of cooking meat, sweet and peculiar. He had not considered what his wife would smell like as she burnt. He covered his mouth, tears streaming down his cheeks.
The smell became a gut retching stink. He ran inside and slammed the door. He leaned against it, sliding to the floor. He held himself tightly and began to weep.
The fire burnt all day. He was furious he had agreed to do this and incoherent with grief. He paced and stormed inside the house, on the brink of madness, unable to escape the smell that hung in the air.
And the ordeal was far from over. There was one more thing he had to do.
All through the night, the fire continued to smoke while he sat awake in the dark. He was thankful when the morning came, hoping the fire had done its job. It took him a while to gather the courage to go outside. He carried with him a small wooden chest.
Emily’s remains were at the bottom of the burnt out pyre. A piled of charred bones, cracked and crumbling. Her skull and hips were still intact; her skeletal form visible. Jimmy wore heavy plastic gloves. He couldn’t bear the thought of her dust on his hands.
Trembling, he picked her up piece by piece and put her into the chest. There was so much ash and there was no way to tell what was Emily and what was not.
He scooped up most of the ashes, added them to the chest and slammed it shut.
The wooden chest sits in Emily’s armchair by the fireplace. It makes Jimmy uncomfortable but he can’t decide what else to do with it. It feels like she is still there beside him, watching the fire every evening. The fire throws dancing shadows over the chest. Its brass rim and fittings shine brightly, as if there is a treasure inside waiting to be released.
~ Magenta Nero
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