Fire has been a defining force in my life. There were two fires in my childhood home, both at critical times in my development. They were very different, however. The first fire at age thirteen claimed nothing that was meaningful. A simple short in a wire caused the burst of flames that sent black smoke throughout the house. Everyone escaped safely and nothing of sentimental value was lost. It caused several months of upheaval, but it was almost exciting to live out of hotels and a rental house temporarily. But the second fire, The Fire, as it came to be known in my family, enveloped my home in its flame and smoke embrace. This fire claimed irreplaceable tangible and intangible things. The Fire burned my childhood to ashes; forever dividing the lives of my mother, brother, and I into two eras: before the fire and after. Like a forest with scars of past fires etched into the bark of trees, our lives were marred with the smoke, but not snuffed out by it.
There is a certain smell to house fires that is hard to explain. It is a wet, putrid smoke that clings to everything, especially memory. Everything has a distinct smell when it is burnt. A house fire combines the smells of burnt plywood, plaster, wires, upholstery, clothes, photographs, art, books, hair and a lived in home into one unique and unforgettable smell. Most of my things weren’t burnt in the fire, but all were touched by smoke. When there is a fire in a home, the smoke fills every pore of the house, leaving it chalked with black and penetrated by the smell. I have a cupboard in my garage where I stuffed some of my things I had taken from the remains, but couldn’t rid of the smell. I forgot about them years ago. Ten years they have been there now; as the anniversary of the fire is imminent. The smell always brings me back to that night. I grab a couple of art books from the long-shut cupboard. They are both still tarnished from the smoke. I tentatively sniff them. Nothing. I open up the binding and sniff again. Only the old book smell that I find comforting. I flip the pages close to my face and breathe in again. There is something small, an apparition smell almost written on the pages. The books are forgetting.
It was the day after Valentine’s Day. I had not been living at my childhood home for a couple of months, but almost all my things were still there, sitting on shelves and in closets; awaiting my return. My mom was living there, as were four dogs and two cats. Our pets were our family and the dogs were a family in their own right. Anna the mother, Zero the father, Sage and Jadyn the sons. Anna, with her smooth, chocolate-colored fur was the matriarch and the patron saint of the family. Zero was a wild card and he showed it with his grey fur with black spots. Half of his face was black, the other grey and black speckled, but his ears were reversed, matching the opposite sides of dualistic face. Jadyn had jet black fur and a goofy nature that brought us laughter. His brother, Sage, had spots like Zero’s and a gentle affinity for his stuffed animals and the cats. Lizzie, a fluffy grey and black Himalayan cat always looked like a kitten, and had no front claws, but she ruled the house. Maddog was officially my cat, a beautiful spotted Bengal. Like Zero’s face, she had two sides: one sweet and loving, the other ready for mischief. Anna, Sage, Lizzie and Maddog never escaped that house.
The story rests like the family photographs that I found in the snow outside the house the day after the fire. They are not pictures I often choose to look at. A phone call from a long estranged uncle alerted me to the fire. It didn’t sound serious. I could never imagine how much life was about to shift. The gravity of the situation knocked the wind out of me when I saw my mother in the emergency room, unable to breathe on her own or talk, as her trachea was burned from the toxic smoke. The beads from her necklace were melted on her chest and they were cutting the rings off of her fingers with a saw. Later in the ICU, another uncle announced, matter of factly, that the cat and the chocolate lab were dead. I collapsed in tears and cried for Anna, the sweet girl who at one time saved our family’s life, and for one of our cats. I didn’t know whose name to call out.
Past the flashing lights that lined my childhood street, I walked up the yard. One of the dogs, Jadyn, had gotten out, but had run back in the house after they put the fire out. I went in. Firemen were throwing contents that once were my living room through the picture window and into the bushes. I had pruned them poorly the autumn before. It didn’t matter anymore. The living room was where the fire started, from a candle that had been knocked over when my mom had gone to the bathroom. The room was crispy, black and dripping wet from the fire hose. The smell hit me like a punch in the face. I looked down, curious about the debris on the floor in the room where all my birthday parties had been. The room where my mom used to play the piano for us while we played was not recognizable. I walked down the black hall, illuminated only by flashlights. The glass on the family pictures that lined the wall were cracked from the heat and the faces underneath bubbled and contorted. The fireman told me that they couldn’t get the dog to come out. I walked into my room and there he was, Jadyn, camouflaged in the blackness. It was a strange mix of tenderness, joy, and deep sorrow when he recognized me and crawled to me whimpering. He pressed his body deep into me and cried. I cried. I picked him up, a full grown lab now, and carried him out, so that he wouldn’t cut his paws. My shoes crunched the glass on the wood floors walking out, the pictures on the wall never to be looked at again.
Zero had survived as well. He was found curled up with my mom near the back door of the house. They had almost escaped when the electricity popped loudly, leaving everything in the blackness of smoke and night. Holding Zero and hearing the electricity pop was my mom’s last memory before she fell into unconsciousness. Zero had been taken to animal control that night. When I picked him up in the morning, he cried and seemed to tell me all about what happened to him in sounds I had never heard him make before. His bladder released all over my knees as I kneeled down to comfort him. Like Jadyn, he had such a palpable sense of relief to see me, but they both never saw their home again.
Everything that made me young disappeared in the carbon blackness of the fire. The girl I was walked into the charred remains of the house that night and never came back out. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, however, that is not the end of my story. Every book, whether they have smoke written on the pages along with the words or not, are filled with chapters. The chapter of my girlhood was officially over at twenty-one. I was two months pregnant when the fire blazed through my life. I had been forced out into the cold winter, propelled on my hero’s journey. My seemingly impossible task was surviving the heartbreak. By focusing on the new life growing within me and the love I felt for my partner, I was able to put the smoke-stained book in the cupboard so that I would not be swallowed in despair. Spring did come again, and with it, new life. My return, after years of trying to forget, is to now remember and release the animals’ ashes at the riverside of a prairie where we used to hike before everything changed. By allowing the painful memories to surface and release, I am taking the book down and can turn the page. Fire can be a destructive and disfiguring force, but it can also be cleansing. Fire-scarred prairies can be terrifying when they burn and desolate after the fire, but with time, they will grow into something different – something more whole because of what they lost.