The Burning House
Written by Henry Alley
She was just going to dress her daughter in her Sprockets Brand Infant and Toddler Girl’s Butterfly top. She had bought it off the Sears page on the internet, as a part of a prolonged Easter sale. $5.49 after the discount had been taken. She would also give her daughter her black and white checked cords which she, Marian, had sewn on her own machine. These were clothes they could afford. Let us believe, Marian said to herself, let us believe in our sustainability. They lived, now, in the lowest cost rental they could find in the neighborhood—not four blocks from where they used to stay. She would go out, having placed Laura her daughter in her stroller, and they could visit their refurbished, their reconstructed, home for the first time. Of course it was no longer theirs. It had taken Effort Construction nearly half a year to get things up from the ground again. The place they lived in now was affordable, but her husband Dana, working ten hour days at a caretaking unit for the head-injured, had never gotten around to mowing the lawn so far this season, and the grass was nearly waist-high now; the splashy scarlet peonies, flying up from nowhere, bobbed their heads on the green top like birds on the wave. The answer to the old burnished golden rod carpet in the living room was to pull it up and to vacuum the disintegrating rubber pad which had gone to gray powder. The ceiling was in cracks from overuse of the radiant panels up there. The renter before them had been an old woman whose bones had been easily chilled—at least that was what she had said. But she had not known how to regulate the heat.
Let’s make a clean sweep, Marian decided, as she finished helping Laura dress. Laura, appropriately, was flitting around like a pink and blue striped butterfly because she might be seeing her old playmates again. They might be out on the sidewalk on their red-enameled trikes. Breakfast was over; the yellow dog was on his leash, and the month of June had brought in sun after a soaking and debilitating spring. The roof had leaked, their Goodwill television had died, and she had gotten spyware on her computer. Besides paying to have it removed, they had had to go to Next Step Recycling to find an obsolete replacement fan for the old hard drive. February through April had been months of clumsiness. Her mother the poet had died–celebrated and remembered up in Seattle. Marian had not done a sterling job of getting everyone together. How could she? Their home had burned down last September. And there had been no money forthcoming from her mother’s estate. But now, but now, the Iceland poppies—orange, yellow, red, white—were raising their delicate, pollen-colored centers to the light, and the California poppies in their own wild backyard were forming their own arsenals of orange, as she moved out the door pushing the awkward red stroller with Laura in it. Laura had to have the “peek-a-boo window” down, regardless of whether there was a heavy wind or not.
Today it was not. The heavy sounds of the traffic near their somewhat ramshackle new home passed away. They were going down West 53rd into the well-paid-for silence of a neighborhood that was actually a different neighborhood. In it, their old street bowed toward them. It moved out into an arc of flowers and purple, lace-leaf maple. And the Iceland poppies again, more thickly gathered and more stunning against the green in other people’s yards. Their old home, for all that, was only minutes away, now newly done; the beech tree, the one that had gone into flame, had vanished. It was from the mixes of strange varnishes and colors—colors that had dripped across the canvas—that the combustion had come. It was as if her husband had had a veritable garden of carnations and lily foliage which had simply sent up smoke and then fire—fire which had caught the ceiling of the garage and then spread into the house. Perhaps some rags had been left in a corner.
She had awakened with the sound of the smoke alarm. Quick, Dana, quick, the baby! (Laura was no longer a baby then, but that had been her first thought, “baby.”) They hustled into Laura’s room and snatched her away with only one cover around her. Dana had had the presence of mind to get Luke their dog from the kitchen. All four of them were out the door before the ceiling of the living room fell in. The parched beech outside was aflame as though taken over by the colors of autumn rather than by real fire, or as if it had been lit like a candle.
The neighbors were already pressing forward. In their bare feet and hastily donned robes. The policeman who lived next door was even trying to make an extension of his garden hose when the three fire trucks arrived.
“Solomon! Solomon!” They had forgotten their cat—it came to them just as the roof went into a veil of orange sparks, followed by a huge jet from the fire truck.
But it had been too late. Now Marian pushed the stroller to the edge of the path leading up to the front door of the house that had once been theirs. A half a year later, broad daylight was gracing this “new” house. Of course she would not go any further; the door, newly hung and painted a gleaming red, reminded her she would be trespassing if she went into the property. Even for a view. The place was not their place. And the high cost of the spontaneous combustion from all the art materials had been Solomon; the price of one cat. They would never get over it. Solomon was belied by the new pale green siding. By the circle of garden, freshly dug, at center of the grass; it sported a tulip tree, one which had already gone through the shedding of its petals, making way for the healthy foliage. You could look at the roses and tell that the beds had been recently planted. Nothing looked that perfect. The buds, pink ones, were carefully sprayed and stood out on the single stems. The bushes were freshly dug and put in the evenest of rows.
She faced the music of this scene of renewal, which did not belong to her. She felt she could survive anything, and her family had rallied—that was undeniable. Marian had even gotten through the failure of her tea shop, the one that also sold spiritual statuary and “ritual objects,” as well as semi-precious stones. The magic in a garnet, brought in from Idaho! Caught in a gold-mining pan and glowing purple.
Laura, in her stroller said, “The trucks were here one time. I said, ‘Fourth of July!’ ‘Fourth of July!’”
Because, as Laura had explained the next day, the three fire trucks all flashed red, white, and blue.
“We got Luke,” Laura went on, reaching out and patting the flank of the dog, who turned and smiled at her with the full, pink tongue of a yellow lab.
“Yes, Laura,” Marian answered, patting the dog also. “We saved him.”
“But not the monkey,” Laura said.
Once they had stayed that night at the family shelter, Laura had cried the next morning because they had failed at retrieving not only the cat but also her stuffed monkey. So Laura needed reminding that Luke, who was billeted with a neighbor, had been rescued. In the next few days, while Laura had worked the tea shop, had dusted all the divine icons for sale—even a Zeus and an Athena—she had prayed there would be a way of keeping the family afloat. Dana would not paint for a while, not for a long time; no peonies, which he had planned, nothing. He was too heart-stricken over what his art had done to their home in the first place.
“It is literally a home-wrecker,” he had said.
“Come, come,” she’d answered. “Let’s not get too symbolic about this. It was just a mishap. You can’t give up your beloved art.”
Now she just stood there with Laura, staring at the freshly painted red door. “That isn’t our door,” Laura observed, and just as she spoke, one of her former neighborhood playmates, Sean, came up wheeling on his trike from behind.
“Hello”—in a slightly bored tone.
“Hello,” Sean said again. “Your house burned down.”
“I know my house burned down,” Laura said, disgusted.
“They have a new one here,” Sean said. “Are you going to live here?”
“No,” Laura answered. She looked at Marian.
“No, Sean,” Marian said, taking her cue. “We have a new home also.”
“Oh,” the red-cheeked boy answered, clasping his head, as if he had missed on a precocious math problem. He looked flushed, suddenly. “What will I tell Solomon?”
“Solomon?” Marian asked. “Solomon died in the fire.”
“Yeah,” Laura echoed. “Solomon died in the fire.” She was acquiring some of that bored tone.
“Solomon’s on this street,” Sean said with great assurance, almost arrogance.
Sometimes, during the days before the tea house and “metaphysical gift shop” had gone under, Marian would send out a prayer among the icons that Solomon would “turn up,” even when they all had known Solomon had been in the basement when the roof had gone in. Still, this marmalade cat had arisen in her dreams. His topaz eyes and very studied expression.
“I told Solomon,” Sean said. “To come back here.” And pointed to the red door. “Because I thought you would live here again.”
Solomon. If Solomon were to come back, maybe Dana would take up his art once more. There would be no loss, then, really, to haunt him. Lately, Dana, closet acrobat that he was, had been given to “wire walking” across dangerous chasms—his back muscles a roadmap of tension. Compensating for the loss by taking his life in his own hands.
So she now said in her daycare center voice (she worked at one afternoons)—a balanced voice, determined but patient, “Tell me, then, Sean, where Solomon is.”
Sean pointed to the west end of the block.
And so, as a retinue, they moved forward. Looking for the splotches of orange which were Solomon’s coat along with the white bib.
There were many splotches of orange—in the form of California poppies—in all the rockeries. And then the peonies which Dana was supposed to be painting—red and white. The zinnias—yellow and red—and then yellow again, for Solomon, or his double, came out from a clutch of them at the end of the street.
Laura let out a high-pitched yell of “Solomon,” but the cat, while first turning to give back a studied glance, went on ahead of them.
Marian hastened from the stroller—Laura was already out—to bend down and call. They were both reaching out their hands.
At last the cat made an arc and approached them. Marian picked him up. It was a male and collarless. “See,” Sean said. “See.”
The cat felt thin. And it was overpoweringly humbling not to know whether this “Solomon” was theirs or not. “We’ll have to ask around,” Marian said to the children. “We’ll have to discover whether he belongs to someone else.”
“No, no,” Sean said, getting back on to his trike and trying the pedals without moving. “Everybody feeds him.”
She stared into the cat’s face. There was no affection coming, but Solomon had always been independent, not particularly loving, except at meal time. “The mercenary feline,” Dana had called him.
But she looked into the oval pupils surrounded by topaz and said to herself, If only you could tell me. Was there a window open—did you escape?
She put him down now, and Laura stroked him—to the very end of his tail. Marian gathered up all the energy inside her. It was going to be quite a project moving from door to door and trying to make this mystery come right. But this seemed the next thing to do.
They had come to their old house again. Laura held on to Solomon, who didn’t seem pleased but still didn’t struggle. Marian went up and knocked, not expecting an answer–for who could live here except themselves? Yet an old woman opened the door and gazed out, looking surprised. Marian recognized her instantly as one of the long-term residents of the town, written up in the local paper as someone who had been a painter for decades.
“Yes, yes,” the woman said, her streaming silver hair reminding Marian of portraits of Wagner. “What may I do for you?”
“We want to know if this cat”–Marian pointed–”might be yours. Or if you might know who he might belong to.”
“He belongs to us,” Laura said, defiantly, still holding tight.
“No, no, he’s not ours, but he’s been around since we moved in. His owners I couldn’t tell you.”
“We used to live here,” Marian explained, “then we lost a cat in the fire. Now we’re not sure if he’s the one.”
The woman seemed to blossom. “Oh, you are the family. We bought this house, because they said a painter lived here.”
“Yes,” Marian said, starting to back off. She was beginning to feel envy for the woman. The news article had said that she and her husband simply sold paintings whenever they needed money. Through the door, she could see a full oil of two garish roses, red, grand, streaked. “Yes, well, I appreciate your time.”
“Wait a moment,” the woman said. “I have something for you.” And was instantly gone.
Marian stood there while she heard the high hum of a blimp overhead, shimmering, silver, when she looked.
Soon the woman reappeared, like prophetess, out of the still heat, so new to spring. “Here,” she said, and handed her the stuffed monkey, its tail burnt. Laura screamed when she saw it, and, letting go of Solomon, came up running. “And this. I found this also in the basement.”
It was the portrait of the family, taken by a friend, showing Dana, Marian, Laura, and cat and dog. Charred around the edges, in full color, with photos of ancestors on the background mantelpiece.
“Thank you,” Marian said. “We had given up on these.”
She put the picture in the storage flap of the stroller. She picked up Luke’s leash, which she had let drop. Laura came along aside, and then moved down the sidewalk. She knew if she stayed any longer she would have to yield to her infinite curiosity to see what was inside.
“Come by again,” the woman said. “We want to know about all about the burning paintings and if there are any left.”
“Yes,” Marian answered and pushed the stroller forward, leash in hand.
The cat, undecided until now, followed at last.
About Henry: Henry Alley is a Professor Emeritus of Literature in the Honors College at the University of Oregon. He has four novels, Through Glass (Iris Press, 1979), The Lattice (Ariadne Press, 1986), Umbrella of Glass (Breitenbush Books, 1988), and Precincts of Light (Inkwater Press, 2010). His Leonardo and I was winner of the Gertrude Press 2006 Fiction Chapbook Award. His stories have been published over the past forty years in such journals as Seattle Review, Outerbridge, qreview, Virginia Quarterly Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Gertrude, and Harrington Gay Men’s Quarterly Fiction.