Flash Fiction: “The Fire” by Matthew Meriwether


The Fire

She sees a fire in the huge dark field to the left of the road we’re driving down. Do you see that fire? she says. I look ahead of me, I look up—all the wrong directions. I see the moon, that white fire, which is bright and full, unblinking. Why were we talking about fire? Why did it have sudden significance? I was reading Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot, the part where he writes, Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth. But were we talking about fire before that? Why did I read the poem to her? The sun looked like fire, because it is fire, when it set, sinking into the lake as if slowly extinguishing itself. We were sitting at a picnic table by the lake and trees, writing the end of a poem together.

Can we turn back? she says now in the car. It is a black night; there are no street lamps, that comforting, human yellow. But the fire: a manic flickering spot in the dark vagueness of the field. We’re driving in the other direction now, toward the fire, away from the moon. She’s hesitant to get out of the car as we park askant, half of the car on the road, the other half on the wild grass and dirt. I’ll go, I say. She puts her safety lights on, dim yellow blinking on and off like cat eyes. I step off the road, into the dark field toward the fire. I could describe the fire, which is like any fire. A kind of makeshift bonfire, no pit, just wooden things in a pile on the ground. Was something burning? There is no one around, no people in sight. We are in what is called “the country” in the Midwest. There is the sound of one dog barking over and over from somewhere not far, but no human sounds. There are two houses we can see with some lights on from the inside, but no motion to suggest anyone is inside or awake. Smoke from the fire billows into my face, the brazenly intimate smell of it, a dirty sweetness, like the memory of a person’s sweat, the surreality of their flesh. Is the smell of the smoke angry? Its fierceness seems insistent, pointed.

The poem we had just ended was about him. Him, and him, and him. She had two hims. He and he had died, a while ago. I never asked if their bodies were buried in the earth or scattered in the wind or kept in a talismanic container. My him is not dead, as far as I know. He is still with her, as far as I know, living in a new house with two cats. That was also her name, Cat. She posted a photo online a while ago, a photo of the two of them in their house: she’s sitting on his lap, one arm around his neck; they are not smiling, just staring into the camera as if to make us guess what their emotion is.

The fire does not smile. The fire does not tell me it is or isn’t angry. I can see the moon now, through a web of thin tree limbs in the sky. It does not smile or tell me anything, just stares, daring me to describe it in the wrong way, daring me to put it into a story I’ll regret writing.

We’re driving away from the fire now, toward his house, one of her hims. We just look at it through the car windows as we stop before it briefly. Where’s the lake? she says, as we drive away from the house. What did she say about the house? Other than that he used to live there? She says, I swear there used to be a lake here! I say, Maybe we just can’t see it. She says something about driving into the lake, or something driving into it. A crash, an accident. She says something about almost being flung toward a tree by the lake. Or maybe she was flung toward the tree, or maybe someone else was.

Earlier today, at the picnic table by the lake, we saw a log floating in the water that looked like a dead human body. Did I tell you about the time I thought I saw a body in the water? she said to me. And then later on the news we saw they had found a dead body in the water? Some yards away from the picnic table the ground sloped downward and I went down the slope to pee by a tree, my vulnerable body releasing itself onto its trunk. My urine smelled briny like an accident. I had a shiver of sense-memories: being young, realizing the sudden surreality of my body, its potential hopes and failures, the feeling of being outside on a summer night with a boy you have a crush on, the dirty sweet smell of sweat, the hot pavement baking, the briny accident of urine, foaming under a tree.

Our bodies still smell like smoke in the car, our clothes, our hair. Now we’re driving to the barn where I recorded this song with him, my him. We’re playing the song from my phone’s tiny speakers because her car speakers are broken. The song is called Fire. Why did I write a song called Fire? I’m singing, I’m dancing in flames, so you cover your face. There is a vacant white van parked outside the barn. There’s a stark halogen light shining from the front of it. What else happened in this barn, last summer? Did anything happen? I sang my songs in front of him, my songs that were written about another him, from another summer. Did I mention that the other him once drove me to another barn, in another town in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere? He brought up the idea suddenly, saying, Someday I want to show you The Barn. How about tonight? I said, unsure if this generosity would find its way to the surface of him again. On that drive to The Barn with him he told me stories from his childhood, stories I had never heard before. I looked at him the whole time he spoke, as his eyes stayed ahead on the dark road, which permitted him to be more effusive than he normally would, as if he was confessing to me through a partition. He told me about the wedding he and his older brother planned with some neighborhood kids, for two toads they found one summer, a wedding that soon turned into a funeral. His friends gathered at a church by their house with an organ for wedding music and candles, waiting for him and his brother to arrive with the toads. They rode over to the church on bicycles. When he crossed the street before the church, one of the toads lept out of the basket attached to the front of his brother’s bicycle and was killed by a car. Its tiny body lay flattened out on the hot street like an ending to a story too hastily written.

I go inside this barn alone, while she waits in the car, listening to another song I recorded here with him, about the other him. Like Angels Rising Above Me. Like heat, I think now. Like smoke. The barn is dark, there are new objects in new corners, a new familiarity separate from me. It smells like nothing, like dust, like time. Did the other him show me anything in that other barn? Or was it just a setting for him to reveal himself to me? Was he just returning to the beginning of himself, in hopes of finding the ending there, or instructions to write the ending?

I come back to the car, where the song is still playing, where my voice from last year sings, He lets me into his house, in the dark warmth of their love. Is the fire dead now? Are the arms of the smoke still angry? Were they ever? Then they disappear above, like angels rising above me, like the love that’s always above me. We’re gonna smell like fire tomorrow, she says happily, looking forward to the proof of an experience. Will we remember why we smell like fire? Will we remember the end of anything? In order to live, will we have to forget the end? Does an end exist if we don’t remember it? Or does it stay there, angry, unsmiling, billowing in a dark and empty field? If we write the end is it over?

We never asked whose fire it was, who it was for. The fire remains in my mind like a memory unmoored to a life, like proof of something made up, like an ending without a story. There’s another line from the T.S. Eliot poem I didn’t read in the car: What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. So we write the end in order to start. We write the ending over and over and over. We start over and over and over, smell of smoke in our hair—proof of something, the memory. It’ll be in my hair for days, I say to her, because I don’t use shampoo. I don’t either, she says, her eyes on the dark road ahead.

Matthew Meriwether is a writer and performer currently living in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He writes and performs music under the name Fresh Tar, and is recently the author of Knock Knock (The Dandelion Review, 2018), a chapbook of narrative prose.

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