Monthly Archives: August 2016
Three sentences jiggled my brain-wires in just the right way:
— Sometimes, the only thing left to build is a fire. (Rich Hayden)
— Shrouded in white, garlanded with marigolds, she lies on brushwood waiting for the cleansing flames. (Debb Bouch)
— Flicker, fade, expand again, and the flame burns steady, a tiny light against descending dark. (Beth)
The story comes in around 870 words.
Sometimes, the only thing left to build is a fire.
We didn’t know what else to do. Even if we’d been able to sell the house and everything in it, we wouldn’t have had enough for a proper funeral. This was the easy way out, really, and in this backwoods cabin in the middle of nowhere, no one would notice or care. She’d outlived everyone she’d ever known except for her children and grandchildren, and we were just happy to be rid of her.
To hear my mother tell it, she was a miserable, hateful old woman who was never satisfied, never happy. “Nothing was ever good enough for her,” my mother said. “Not even me, her only daughter.” She was bitter and angry to have to deal with all of it. When I’d offered to come sit the deathwatch, my mother had said, “No, don’t bother.” And after my grandmother’s passing, when I’d offered to come take care of things so my mother wouldn’t have to, she’d said, “It’s not your obligation. It’s mine.” Still, she hadn’t refused our help, so here we were.
Shrouded in white, garlanded with marigolds, she lay on brushwood waiting for the cleansing flames. We’d built the pyre in the middle of her living room, knowing the fire would claim all of it and finally rid us of her, for good. The shroud and the marigolds were my idea. My mother just wanted to douse the whole thing in gasoline and walk away.
My mother kept the $20 gold piece my grandfather had had mounted in a gaudy pendant, hoping to please her. “She never wore this and always hated it, but he insisted that I keep it,” my mother said. “I don’t know what I’ll do with it. It isn’t my style either.”
My sister kept the silver tea service. “It’s a family heirloom,” she said. “We can’t just destroy it.” To be honest, I’d never seen my grandmother use it, so I’m not sure if it was an heirloom so much as a thing she’d owned that now had to be disposed of, like everything else in her house, like the woman herself.
My niece had wanted the gigantic mirror over the living room couch, but when she realized that the gilded frame was only plastic, she’d changed her mind. “It’s kind of tacky,” she said, and I had to agree.
My nephew found my grandfather’s old Stetson and a pair of like-new Tony Llama boots. They suited him and fit him perfectly, like they were made for him. “These remind me of Granddad,” he said. I insisted that he keep them. He’d been closer to my grandfather than any of us, and I was frankly surprised that my grandmother had kept them around after he’d died. She was never one to be sentimental and she loathed clutter. We used to joke that if you set your coffee cup down for a minute, she would wash it and put it back in the cupboard. Maybe she had been a little sentimental after all, or maybe she just hadn’t gotten around to cleaning out Granddad’s closet.
My mother tried to give me her old mink stole. “She would’ve wanted you to have it,” she said, almost convincingly, and I admit, I did consider keeping it for a moment.
“No,” I told her, “I think she should wear it one last time. It’s the only thing I can think of that she truly loved.” I unwrapped the shroud just enough to drape it around her thin, cold shoulders while the rest of the family watched, unwilling to touch her.
When we’d finished, we all stood there, her only remaining relatives. “Someone should say something,” I said, with a pointed glance at my mother, “before we do this.”
“What do you want me to say,” she said. “She had no accomplishments. She didn’t do anything with her life. I’m not sorry she’s gone and I’m not going to miss her.” Her voice cracked at the last bit, and she turned away so we wouldn’t see her pursed lips trying to hold back tears. My sister put her hand on her shoulder as she began to cry, and my niece and nephew shifted uncomfortably, staring at the ground.
“You all go back to town. I’ll take care of this last bit.” I said the words before I could change my mind, and the relief on my sister’s face convinced me I’d made the right decision. They all shuffled back to their cars without a backward glance, and soon I was alone with my grandmother and my thoughts.
I walked through the house one last time, using the fireplace lighter to ignite bedding, curtains, wallpaper, anything that would burn. As smoke began to fill the house, I pulled my kerchief up over my nose and mouth, returning to the shrouded figure in the living room and kneeling to light the pyre.
“Goodbye, Nana,” I murmured. “I hope you end up somewhere that makes you happy.”
I shut the door behind me and walked to my car, backing it to the end of the driveway, far away from the growing fire. Flickering, fading, expanding again, the flames burned steady, a tiny light against descending dark.