Short: “You Were My Sky”
You met her in the field the day after the fire shrank to embers.
The whole town had kicked their way out of bed and gathered across the street to watch everything she ever knew disappear into the night. Plumes of black smoke sucked the stars from the sky. The hot kiss of ash snowed down on the crowd, smearing bedclothes with the dust of her life. For a surreal moment, even the firemen stopped their scrambling and seemed hypnotized by the red fingers dancing against the midnight. At that moment, everyone knew it was hopeless, but like a nest of moths they remained gathered around the light until the first floor gave way and the ancient farmhouse collapsed on its own withered bones. After that, they drifted off family by family, scratching their watery eyes and reeking of campfires. The firefighters surrounded the pyre and kept it from spreading, but no longer did they try to save what might have survived. The ol’ girl couldn’t fight anymore, one of them said as he passed a cooler of beers around.
Of course, she had stayed.
In the shadow of her blazing life, it was hard to wrench any sense from her; she just stared at that damn fire while you shook her and yelled and asked if she was hurt. At her breast she clutched Ziggy, a skinny gray kitten with claws like needles, and he’d left his complaint about the fire bleeding across her arms. You didn’t have the balls to ask what happened to Zora, the old bitch who hissed every time you walked too close to her napping place.
She was wearing that white, thin nightgown with the pink flowers that had only two thin straps around her shoulders. She must have jumped right out of bed, reached for the closest hellcat , and run for the street. You shrugged your jacket off and wrapped it over her shoulders, but she told you she wasn’t cold. You left it on her anyway and told her you had to get her to a paramedic. She wouldn’t go. Her grandfather had built that house, she said; she wasn’t about to let it die alone.
Hardly any words flowed between you as you stood next to her and watched the house burn. The heat wrung sweat from your face, it was so intense. But after a moment, you had fallen under the same spell as her, and you couldn’t look away. Thoughts of her feather pillows, the pictures of her great-great-great-grandfather from the Civil War, those red shoes she only wore when she felt pretty, that knife her father gave her that had twice saved her life; in your mind, you saw them in vivid detail, swallowed by the white-hot flames that neither judged nor spared. It felt like the very appendages of her soul were decaying and falling off of her.
Mrs. Clarkson waddled over as the firemen gave up and ushered her to the Cadillac with promises of a clean spare room and a hot bath. You didn’t even get to tell her goodbye; by the time you turned from the fire, she was staring at you from the backseat of the car as it rolled down Willow Street.
But she called you not long after you got home to ask you to meet her in the field next to the house. Or, rather, the debris pile.
Sun poured from the sky as if nature were trying to atone for her cruelty the night before. The air flowed around you warm and sweet, and the wheat reflected the light and turned a deep gold. It was so bright, you felt like you’d walked onto some dreamscape. Like the fire had ripped a hole in the universe.
She was clean and smiling and wearing a white sundress. Floating through the field, you could see the bounce to her stride. You approached with soft steps, running your hands over the soft tickling tips of the field, and when you got close she jumped into your arms. You both laughed as you nearly didn’t catch her.
This wasn’t the girl you were expecting to find in this graveyard.
She wrapped her hands around your neck and leaned back to look at you. She stared a long time without saying anything before lifting on tip-toes to kiss you, pulling you tight into her. Had you time to think, you would have surely thought of a train wreck.
But the kiss was firm and sweet, nothing timid. Fully certain.
“What the hell are you doing?” you asked when she pulled away, but the cotton candy in your voice only made the demand a dreamy question.
“Would you like me to stop?” That wasn’t the voice you remembered, either. This was a woman speaking to you.
“No,” you answered without pausing. “I just…this all feels so unreal.”
“It is all unreal.” She ran her fingers with the lightest of scratches at the nape of your neck. You almost moaned aloud.
“It’s real. I can see the house from here, all black piles of lumber still smoking and stinking. It’s real. It’s gone. You know that, right?” You leaned forward to drink her eyes in.
“Of course it’s gone, love, but it’s all unreal. So it doesn’t matter.” Her smile had never been so bright.
“No!” She laughed loud, and a flock of birds hiding in the field took to flight. “The fire told me last night, told me as it ate my whole life: you can’t lose this, because you never had it. You never had these things. But what you do own can never be taken from you.” Her tiny hands grasped for one of yours, and she laid it where her neck met her chest. Under your fingers, her skin felt hot and liquid as a burning star. “This is what I own. My heart, my soul, my thoughts, my blood. We all bend, don’t you get it? We all demean this,” she tapped your hand on her chest, “and we worship that!” Now she swept a hand towards the charred ruins. “But we can never own that! And it will always be taken from us. The more we sacrifice, the harder those moments are when the gossamer falls and life’s dirty fangs come smiling out at you from the blackness.”
All you could do was stare at her. Her face was alive with light and brilliance, and she floated like a feather among the grass.
“Well, I’m done. Too long I’ve buried myself alive. I’m done being scared. Aren’t you tired of being scared?”
At that moment, you would have burned the whole world down for her. “Yeah. I’m tired of being scared too.”
She had never stopped smiling, not once the whole time. She lifted a delicate hand up to the rim of your baseball cap and gently pulled it from your dirty blonde hair. The sun wrapped its comforting arms around you then, and blinded your eyes from anything dark or ugly. You wanted to cry.
“Then let’s not be scared anymore. Let’s stop pushing away from those things that make life bright. There are so many joys I’ve starved myself of, thinking I was doing the right thing. But I was doing the right thing for a lie. I shouldn’t be serving an illusion, and neither should you! There is no right, don’t you see? There’s just this, us, inside.” She put her hand on your chest, above your heart. She’d never touched you like that and you felt weakness clamoring up your legs. You raised a hand to clutch at hers on your chest, tight, like the summer wind would blow her away and back to the rubble that almost destroyed her.
“Don’t you see?” she whispered.
You closed your eyes. The wash of the sun painted your mind white, sparking nerves in your thoughts you never knew existed. A gentle warmth cradled your soul, warm like the fire, but without the promise of pain. No, this moment was free. Death could not linger in a place like this, a place with no shadows. You saw no shadows here. Only you and this beautiful phoenix, swimming in the summer’s love, swallowed by the golden wheat that bent and swayed like a welcoming sea. Everything else dropped away like the farmhouse into the fire’s insistent arms the night before, and you realized it was the very last night of your life.
Now you were nothing but daylight.
“Yes,” you said, your face beaming. Tears dripped from your closed eyes. “I see.”
copyright Megan Kennedy 2009-2012