The little girl, hardly in her teens, reached inside her petticoat out of habit to reassure herself that she had not lost it. Her fingers brushed against the soft and warm feel of the wood and she smiled. Good, she thought to herself, it’s still there. That little box, and the contents inside it, was all she had left from the fire. Without it she felt she would no longer feel she has a purpose in her now solitary life. Reaching again into her pocket she made sure the box was pressed all the way down as far as it could go before she made her way over the ashen remain of what was once her home.
The scent of burning wood and the sweetness of hay left over from harvest time are still in the air. The screams of the horses were still echoing painfully in her head. She tried to think of other things like how the sun shone down on her and made her feel warm all over, but the memories from that night wormed their way into her every thought and being. For a few seconds that was all her life seemed to be about; burning flesh, death, and the loss of everything she knew.
Finding the remains of a wooden beam which used to hold up the roof of the barn she cleaned off a spot in the ashes covering it and sat down and watched a family of ducks swim in a lazy weaving pattern in the nearby fountain. As she watched her mind involuntarily drifted back to that night, back to just before the fire had even started.
She had just come back from the market with a basket full of fresh fruit and vegetables, some eggs and bread she had gotten from trading the family pig. Her hands tightly gripped the top of the basket so she wouldn’t drop the precious food which would sadly only last the family for a few nights. With five children, her parents had found it hard to feed all five mouths at one time, so usually each child had to take turns eating meals. A few would eat breakfast, there was usually no lunch to be had, and supper was reserved for the youngest child, whom was barely three years, and for the parents, for whom this was their first meal all day.
She had just reached the front door when she heard shouts from inside. Oh no, she had thought, mom and dad were fighting again. She had shaken her head in disgust. No matter how hard she had tried to understand she could not understand the reasons her parents gave her for why they were constantly fighting. “It’s part of being married” they had said, or “we do it because we love each other”. The excuses they had given became less and less understandable. They were just making everyone, especially each other, miserable!
Sighing with frustration, she had pushed open the door and walked inside. Light filled the empty alley way behind her and she had closed and locked the door before any ‘wanderers’ had happened to find their way inside. Turning around she was immediately faced with a view of her parents who were standing almost nose to nose screaming at the top of their lungs.
“You don’t care about the welfare of this family at all,” had yelled her mother, her tiny frame shaking with anger and her tiny feet stamping the floor every time she finished a sentence. “You only care about having enough money to buy yourself a drink!”
Purple with rage, and too flustered to retaliate, her father had rushed past her without as much as a greeting and stormed out of the house. Sighing again, she had locked the door behind her father, knowing that he was going to the barn to drink and would not be back until at least tomorrow afternoon with a half-baked apology and guilt written all over his face. The barn was his favourite place to cool off with a whisky bottle in one hand and a cigar in the other.
She went to the window to see that her father had made it there safely and, seeing that he had, turned to her mother and had given her a hug as if to apologize for her father’s behaviour, yet again. Seeing that the hug had given her mother a little comfort she released herself gently from her mother’s arms and had taken the basket to the kitchen table. Someone had to remain calm enough to feed this family, she had thought.
Her mother, after regaining some composure, had walked over to her and took the few groceries to put away.
“Go get your brother ready for supper,” was all she had said.
“But what about Daddy, he’s had nothing all day.”
“Your father isn’t going to eat with us tonight.”
“Yes. Now, go do what I said.”
Finishing putting away the precious food, she had complied with her mother’s wishes and fetched her three year old brother from his crib for supper. She had found him playing with his toy soldiers, hand-me-downs from his older siblings, and had told him that he could play with them after supper.
She had watched her mother feed her brother and then herself, in absolute quiet. No one spoke, not even her younger brother who had known something was wrong, in fear of saying the wrong thing. Her mother had cleaned up then had prepared all her children for bed. There was no bed time story that night; she was too in her own thoughts to remember her night time promise. She was too tired to change out of her day clothes, and after her mother had left the room and had closed the door she just crawled underneath the covers and had drifted off to sleep.
The screams were what had waked her up from her deep slumber. Rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, she had crawled out of bed and went to check on her siblings to see what the matter was. The matter, however, was not in the room with her siblings all tucked safely in their beds as she had soon figured out. The screams were coming from outside, from the direction of the barn. Only half awake she had smelled smoke and there seemed to be a filmy haze filling the room, but she had immediately dismissed it as part of a dream. If only she had paid greater detail to that ‘dream’. She had made her way to the front door and as soon as she had unlocked the door and stepped outside she had known at once what the cause of all the screaming was. The barn, her barn, was on fire, and the screaming she had heard was coming from inside the barn. The horses were being burned alive! Belatedly she had thought of her father who might still be inside.
Running back into the house she had yelled for her mother. But when she got to her mother’s room no one was there. The bed had not even looked like it had been slept in. Hurriedly she had checked on her other siblings to make sure they were safe, because their room was connected to the barn by a supporting wall, but her way was barred by the fire that was fast consuming the entire room. Distantly she heard her little brother screaming in pain. A sob had burst from her chest. Her entire family and home were being consumed in flames and she could do nothing!
Panicked she had run outside again to see if any neighbours could help her. Seeing no one, she had fallen to the ground and screamed until the whole neighbourhood was in the street. At first they only noticed her on the ground crying and pointing, yet as they followed her finger they saw the burning barn. Quickly they had formed a line from the barn to the village well which was, ironically, right in front of her house. That was the last thing she saw. She fainted.
When she had finally come to the first thing she noticed was that she was lying on someone’s front porch with a blanket over body. Confused as to why she was not in her own bed she stood up and had looked around. As she beheld the ashen remain of what was once her home the events of last night returned to her a hundred fold. A fresh round of tears burst forth.
The barn had been completely destroyed by the fire. Hypnotized she had wandered through the ashes to find what she knew as no longer there. In her hypnotic state she recalled her neighbours giving her comfort and explanations as to what had happened but their voices had only come through as broken and incomplete sentences. Only afterwards she had put the pieces together and had learned that her father had passed out and his still lit cigar had started the fire. Her mother, she had guessed, had gone out to the barn to talk with her father but had somehow been trapped in the barn and had been burned alive.
Among the rubble she had noticed a few things which had not been damaged by the fire. A gold necklace that had been passed on from mother to daughter in her family for generations, a tiny toy soldier, which would never be touched by a child’s fingers again, and an empty bottle of whisky.
As she gazed into the pond with the ducks still lazily bathing themselves in it, she recalled how she had carefully cleaned the first two items from any ash and had placed them carefully inside her pocket. Fingering, again, the smooth wood of the box, she shook herself out of her reverie and gathered up the few things her neighbours had given her so she could take care of herself. Making sure she did not forget anything she headed south. She has never looked back since.