The light was so bright that the birds thought it was sunrise and began to sing. There was ash in the air and a small girl called Kristie stood on the grass and watched as the house burned.
Neighbours had run from their front doors and watched. Two men held the small girl’s mother. One stood behind her holding her hips, the other to her side, pulling her arms as she tried to twist away and run towards the house. After a few minutes she began to scream and her legs bent beneath her as she fell to the floor. Both men thought of just-born baby cows stumbling on shaking legs and for a second they looked away as she lay on the grass. The flames were high above the house now and the sky was orange. The birds were right, it looked like sunrise.
‘Gabriel!’ the girl’s mother screamed. But they all knew Gabriel wasn’t coming out. The fire engine arrived seven minutes after the call, and firefighters in dark overalls pushed people away from the house.
‘Get back!’ they shouted and held their arms high above their heads. The crowd could feel the heat from the fire on their faces and they stepped back to the pavement across the street. Red sparks fluttered through the air. They caught in Kristie’s hair.
‘Hold on,’ said a man called Leon who lived across the road. He looked at Kristie and she stayed where she was. She knew he meant ‘wait here’ because there was nothing for her to hold on to and so she stopped where she was. The sleeve of his shirt felt soft as he pulled it across her mouth; she hadn’t noticed that her nose was bleeding until then. The man held his cuff under her nose and they waited for the blood to stop coming.
Soon there were paramedics. People in green carried Kristie’s mother to the back of an ambulance and said her name over and over again.
‘Bethan, can you hear me? Bethan?’ Kristie thought the name sounded strange repeated again and again; it lost more of its meaning each time the strangers said it out loud.
There was almost nothing left by the time it was light. Just black bricks and cinders that stayed hot for days. They found Gabriel in the early hours: the fire crew said he’d crawled beneath his bed and hidden there. They put the burned body into a tiny box and carried him to a dark car. The box was grey like ash and somehow that hadn’t seemed right at all. It was raining by then and the street was silver and wet. The neighbours had waited all night for the flames to die and they shivered. They began to wonder if anybody had thought to call Alex. He was Gabriel’s father, after all, and someone should tell him the news; someone should tell him to come home.
Five weeks later they buried Gabriel in a service where there was no God. They played two sad songs and talked of injustice and how time heals all things. He had a coffin lined with velvet and a black stone that said his name in gold leaf. The day smelt of damp soil and lilies and Bethan’s mouth was cracked and white.
Alex didn’t know Gabriel was dead until he got home. It was late evening and he found his house empty and dark: a shell of black gaps and missing windows. Nobody had called him because nobody knew where he was. He could still smell the smoke as he walked towards the house and for a few minutes thought the taxi had dropped him on the wrong street.
His trips away stopped after that, and Kristie noticed how her father didn’t smell of women’s perfume anymore. Now there was silence where before there had always been fighting and tears.
‘Does she fuck you better than I do?’ Bethan would ask when he got home after a few days away. Alex always noticed the dark shades inside her mouth when she shouted, and how her shoulders were hard and tense. ‘You fuck strangers in expensive hotels while I’m up all night wondering who you’re with and if she looks like me. What kind of welcome home do you expect?’
‘What do you want me to say, Bethan? They never last. It’s only a game, just something fun.’ He was always calm when he spoke, as if he was right. She didn’t need to worry. He wasn’t the type of man to run out on his family because he’d chosen his wife on a whim and sometimes regretted it. He always came home in the end and didn’t that mean he was a good man really? If there was a thing called love, then this was the closest thing to it.
It was a year after the fire when they woke up and found Bethan gone. She hadn’t packed a bag and there was no note. When Alex came downstairs he noticed how the hallway looked strange because the sun streamed in through the open front door. Leon from across the road had watched as she’d left the house and walked down the street. It was early in the morning and the birds had just begun to sing. Leon realised when she turned the corner that she wasn’t wearing any shoes but it was too late to call her by then. She was too far away.
It was a day in November when she finally phoned. She’d called from a hospital in a city they’d never visited. She told them she’d thrown herself from a building and smashed her face but just couldn’t die. She blamed Alex for being a man who wasn’t there and for destroying her in ways he couldn’t begin to imagine. And then, she didn’t call them again.
Every year Kristie visits Gabriel’s grave and wonders if she should miss someone she never really knew. She places flowers on top of soil that’s full of weeds and they reflect in the marble: a halo of colour across the black headstone. Kristie thinks of the flames as they burned across the night sky and made the birds sing: sometimes it’s as though she’s been staring at the burning house all her life.
About the Contributor
Hannah is a queer writer of short stories and flash fiction. She is currently in the final stages of a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. When not writing she delivers freelance creative writing workshops and also works for a grant giving charity. In 2012, her debut Pamphlet, Without Makeup and other Stories was published by Crystal Clear Creators. Her short stories have featured in various anthologies, magazines and websites. She lives in Leicester with her house-rabbit Agatha.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers - Max Porter
This is a beautifully written story of a grieving writer and father of two who is coming to terms with the death of his wife. It is novella and poetry, heart-breaking and redemptive. It is a haunting read.
More from Issue Nine:
- The Place That He Can Never Return To
- The Cyclops
- The Girl with Many Names by Kristin LaFollette
- Three by Deb Scudder
- The Mourner by Louise Burgess
- Margot by Marni Appleton
- Pebbles on a Shore by Lynne E Blackwood
- blindfolded minds by Rachel Hawkins
- Phantom habits by Blakeley Bartee
- Dementia’s Mantra by Mike Ferguson
- Pack Animals