by Ellis Sandry
Sunset surprises me at half past four. I run out of my workshop and into the bathroom. I buzz off nearly all my hair, only leaving a centimeter, and shower. It’s strange to be so eager to see someone, but not to dress up: no nail varnish, no cologne, no fancy underwear. No underwear at all. Just boots and canvas overalls.
In my garden, I splash water over the grass all round the sunken fire pit. A lot of my workmates at the station have pits, it’s like a professional fascination. We know how to do it safely.
I’ve been gathering treats for weeks, and now I build them into a pyramid in the pit. At its centre, the russet heap of dried ferns. They’ll be the first to catch. I squat down and wait in the cold.
Maybe she won’t come back.
Distant cracks ring out, and I look up to see red sparks bloom across the stars. Fireworks for Guy Fawkes’ night, a couple of miles away, in town. Why do you live out in the back end of beyond? my crewmates ask me. I tell them I need space for a proper workshop, because I’ll be a carpenter when I get too old for firefighting, and that makes sense to them.
I don’t tell them why I need my privacy.
A rustle from the fire pit, the ferns curling on themselves. Cold tingles sweep up the skin of my back. She’s here. She doesn’t tell time or keep a calendar, but she knows when the sun sets, and she knows Samhain.
I hug my ribs. Next she finds the pinecones, with a terrific crackle. Then offcuts from my workshop: long curls of wood from my plane, little cubes of pear and mahogany that I could have thrown in a stove, but I’ve kept for her. I hear her eat them up.
But these are all just gift-wrapping. The logs are the real treasure, applewood for her first night back. Two months ago I went to a local orchard and offered to saw down dead branches, and yesterday I sweated to chop them into logs.
I smell the sweet smoke when they catch, and my insides scramble like water. I have to shift off my haunches, kneel and lean in closer. The first real flame, my first sight of her, dances gold along the ridge of an apple log. I slide my hand, gently, into her path.
Her finger of flame meets my finger of flesh. The tiny hairs on the back of my hand blitz into nothing. She flickers over me. My skin aches, the flames flare up with a pop, and I truly know she’s come back for me.
I wouldn’t dream of using bellows, for her. No matter how it singes my eyebrows, I use my own mouth. I blow into the pyramid of logs, making the embers roar, and she grows. I breathe in smoky air to do it again, force my funneled breath into her absolute heart, making myself dizzy to rouse her higher and higher. Until I stand up, and we’re face to face. I feel her, hot all down my body through my overalls.
“Where have you been, all summer?” I ask softly.
A spatter of sparks against my cheek. She means: Don’t check on me.
That’s fair. It’s a sore point because three years ago, she had spent the summer as a wildfire. She raged through ancient woods. Part of the cycle, she said, popping the hard cases of seeds, clearing dead growth. But I could only think of people’s homes turned into silhouettes. When she came to me she was exhilarated, gigantic, but I couldn’t bear it. We didn’t spend that winter together. Since then, we’ve both mellowed. She forgives my job at the station, and I forgive her wandering.
“Have you been visiting barbecues?” I joke, to hear her hiss. She wouldn’t lower herself to searing steak. She shows me bright signs in my mind: she was a furnace, in the spring.
“Wow. What were you making?”
Steel. She blazes at the memory. Then she remembers incinerating rubbish, a kind of public service, and I swear she pulls a face. Finally, I see her as a fine golden line, dancing across great lawns. Burning the poplar pollen from the grass, in Spain.
“I saw that, online,” I say. “I wondered if it was you.” I had imagined her sweeping across my skin just as lightly and precisely.
I hold my arms out to her and into her.
A tongue of flame gives a strange caress. Nothing at first, then a dull throb, until the heat comes and the edge of pain. I strip off my overalls and stand in my work boots alone, endure the bite of the cold night air, to let her play over more of my skin. I step closer to the pit.
The carnelian tips of the fire touch my breasts. She can’t pinch or scratch, but she can singe me. When I think I can’t bear it, the flame has already moved on.
“I missed you,” I gasp. She snaps out a shower of sparks, and I feel them bite in a trail from my nipples up to my neck. I’ll find the tiny red dots tomorrow, and stroke them in the mirror. “Do that again?”. Across my stomach, this time, little stings from exploding cinders.
She beckons me closer.
I cover my eyelashes with my fingers, lower my head, see red through my eyelids anyway. I can hear her, now. Oh, oh… she sighs and hisses. You left me some, to play with.
I let her take the last centimetre of my hair. The sizzle zips across my scalp, like the stroke of sandpaper. It smells terrible, but she’s chuckling with joy. What else? Where else? She loves that I come to her with nothing to protect me: no crew, no hoses, no breathing apparatus. I step into the flames. She roars up around me.
I left some hair between my legs for her, and she takes that, too. My wetness is a challenge, but she finds ways to scorch my skin so sweetly. She dances under and around me, and she is much too much for me.
She mirrors me, in sudden upjets of sparks which float off to adorn the night. I feel in my guts each juddering collapse of the white-hot logs, undermined by fire.
When I can’t bear any more, I roll on the cold wet grass and laugh, and listen to her crackle. I sniff the skin of my arms. I’ll scrub myself but keep finding that smell in the creases of my skin. My crewmates will say: You’ve been cooking bacon. I won’t remind them that I’m vegetarian. I’ll hug my overalls in bed to savour it. I’ll touch myself and breathe her in, the burned hair between my legs our collaboration.
“Tomorrow?” I ask, lying on my back, gazing at the stars.
Tomorrow, she agrees, when the sun goes down.
I pile up more wood so she can consume it slowly, sleep in the embers. “And no houses,” I warn her.
But if I’d never burned houses… She’s amused. I met her when an empty farm caught fire, ten miles from here. I saw her swaying in the ruins of a barn. I fought her, and I got too close, and my crewmates dragged me out, telling me, you were lucky. As soon as I was well enough to, I lit a fire in my garden and waited for her. I was lucky.
“If you don’t touch any houses, we can go to the bonfires together,” I offer. She loves the big public pyres, and I love to watch her dance in front of a cheering crowd. I don’t mind the spectators, I’m only envious of the stuffed guy: the dummy who rests on the top, and is eaten up by the flames.
“And no trees,” I add.
But a dead tree longs to burn, she tells me.
I think further ahead, to the treats I have planned for the next few weeks. I have slow-burning oak logs for her, seasoned for years. Beech that will spark all over me. Elder, just for the smoke it produces, to make me helpless and dizzy. Resinous pine, smelling of Northern forests.
My hair will grow back as stubble and she’ll take it again. All winter, I’ll be covered in smuts and cinders, and the pinprick marks of her tender sparks.
I’ll leave a hundred candles for her, all round my garden.
I’ll light fireworks from her heart and we’ll watch them soar and shatter.
I will wet my bare feet and walk across her coals.
She’ll never come indoors, but I’ll hang a lantern outside my bedroom window, where she can rest and I can see her burn, all through the long winter nights.
Ellis Sandry is based in London, UK, and looking forward to some outdoor socialising this winter. Ellis has been previously published in the Circlet Press collection Like a Spell: Fire and microfictions “Black-Hole Bookshop Boy” and “The Change”.