The New Year begins in flame. It is cold in New England, wind bitter with crystals of ice, frigidity leaching into bone until folks become brittle. Eve shifts to day, the dark replaced with weak winter light struggling to find its way through the fog. The world is quiet, coast to coast, sleeping away merriment or misery from the previous night, the previous year. We sleep late because we want to wake to hope instead of the same arduous winter and world.
At dawn, a woman, seventy-two, enters her car with her seventy-five-year- old friend. They bundle against the cold together, turn up the heat, hoping the vehicle and their bodies will warm quickly. She turns the key; the car lurches.
In the first hours of 2019, the car drives over an embankment, through the side of an apartment building, and into the basement laundry where it severs the gas lines, flames sparking in the dark.
The room goes quickly, and the bodies, black and smoking, but the flames hunger further, slurping into the hallway, scorching the walls, licking up the ceiling. Fire drips like rain. The building is old, so the alarms delay before crying out danger to residents, many of whom have just poured themselves into bed, unwilling to accept this cruel luck, believing it instead a fire drill or a mishap like burned eggs.
Flame claims the first floor, the second. It spreads, greedy and indifferent.
When I arrive to pick up the friends I toasted with just hours before—each of us hopeful that what was ahead would be better than what we wanted to leave behind—the air is thick and noxious. I struggle to breathe and see them blinking bleary-eyed through the smoke in their pajamas, clutching their cats. They climb in the back of my car, and we drive silently through what looks like apocalypse, waiting to see what of our lives will be spared by the New Year. We count down again.
In the rearview mirror, the sky is on fire.
Lately I search for flame. When I moved to Massachusetts in 2018, I was unused to a sun that abandoned us each winter. That first season, the loss made me ache with regret, made rising from bed to make my way in the world a burden. Without the sun my new home felt friendless, and my mind began to skid and dart, so desperate it was for spark. Month after month, my mind tried to create its own heat, but the only thing that burned was me, compulsion and fear swelling in the dark. Silly girl, I did not realize the companionship I had in the sunshine of my California childhood.
When the sun returned at last in May, I was a fearful wreck, so convinced I was that the dark meant I was dying, was dead inside already. When the world began to bloom, slowly, slowly, the thaw eased from my bones, and I could breathe again.
Against advice, I looked up, straight into the heart of the sun, and tried to hold my gaze. I nearly cried, not from the hurt, but from the sure ache that it would leave again, my new home a constant cycle of retreat and decay.
Now, I encircle myself in fire. I build a shrine. Each afternoon, as the faint light fades too soon, I ignite a dozen candles, the hearth. There is never enough fire.
The flame does not keep me warm, but it does surprise me. No matter how many candles I light I cannot say which way each will go. I know that today it is dark, and tomorrow it will be dark, and that darkness is the only constant ahead. But, the flames resist prediction.
Night after night, I find fire. Inside my skull, my brain sparks.
Home is on fire, but when California blackens, I feel nothing. I do not know if this is because home is dead or because I am.
The news shows images of towns gone to rubble, eaten up by fire and spit back out. The forest is gone; smoke rises from the soil. The President says the flame came because we were careless. Fire shows no kindness. Either fear it or become it.
From across the country, friends send me photos of inferno—sky ablaze, ravaged hillsides, ash raining down. They can’t breathe, they say, are quarantined inside because the air is thick with smoke, confettied with ash like a New Year’s celebration. It is not even the end of 2018, but already we are counting down.
A friend’s grandmother—from the town Paradise—is lost. She lives alone at ninety, and no one can get to her home because the road is on fire, the hill is on fire, the town, the state is on fire. Flames jump highways, bleed to the ocean. Firefighters fly in from around the country to try to combat a world on fire. In photos, they are tiny as ants.
The family posts a photo of the frail woman on social media. “Contact if seen,” they plea to everyone, to no one. In the photo, the woman stares straight into the camera. She looks as though she is hollow. Perhaps she is peering into her future.
My friend rests her hand on her stomach, her first child inside. She pulses red. Each day she waits for her son, for news that her grandmother has been found. Each day the news reports the latest political apocalypse, reports the California fire death toll rising. The air in Paradise smells of burning foliage and flesh.
After a week, then two, Thanksgiving draws near, and my friend admits that she is just waiting for the body. She wants the closure of bone.
In the illustration, flames lick the heels of women as they run from the burning city. The women have dark hair and eyes, long white nightgowns like the childhood ones I wear to bed, my father tucking me each night, though I never stay in his careful cocoon, for I am afraid the house will catch on fire, see flames in my dreams and wake up coughing, gasping for breath in the dark, begging my parents to let me sleep in the safety of their room where I am not alone. I believe I am a girl destined to burn.
God scorches those who sin, my children’s Bible teaches. The Bible features a world on fire. We are sinners, all of us dancing, burning.
I turn to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah frequently, for it is one that features women, and I trace the figures with my fingers until I have their soft bodies memorized. At night I feel them in my hands in the dark. I do not understand what they have done to burn. Why they must flee, skirts tangling between their legs.
One woman stands tall as the others crouch, crawl away from the flame. She is important, I know, but only because she is wicked. The book does not give her a name. Still, I am drawn to her most, long to hold her, for unlike me, she is not afraid. She does not hide her face under her quilt or call to her father a dozen times a night to save her.
Instead, she turns to face the fire, turns to salt, glittering, bitter. Through my tears, I can taste her on my lips.
For months the fire alarms in my Massachusetts apartment sound without flame or smoke. Repair men cannot determine why the building is alarmed, why the machines sing warning. I think of my friends, their lost house. Over and over, 2019 is a canary’s warning chirp.
Repair men replace batteries in one smoke detector, then another. They replace one machine, then another. Still, warnings whistle in the dark. I worry it is not the machines, but the wires, that the electrical cords will snap, flames sparking in the dark. My cats do not trust even the sound of potential fire and scurry beneath the bed. If our house burns, we will not be as lucky as my friends—I would burn trying to save my animals.
One night the alarm sounds like it has for so many weeks. I turn over to sleep, because I no longer know what threat is real. I no longer know what to fear.
I believe the noise is the usual false alarm, until I realize the whole building is lighting up red and white, sirens crying out below. From my vantage on the top floor, I spy residents trickling out the door. They are tiny as ants.
My grandmother set the kitchen ablaze with a cigarette because she was careless. That’s what the family says of the fire that left the walls black and smoking, but that isn’t what stained the home where my grandmother lived with my grandfather while he drank and shouted, threw her against those same walls.
The story goes that when I was just a child, she was cooking and singing and perhaps sneaking sips of his whiskey and looking out the window to a future she would have preferred, and the cigarette fell from her fingers. Lazy, selfish, they say of women who make mistakes. Who make fire.
I prefer the version where she was tired of the “Grey” patrilineal name she married, tired of walls that looked like cinderblock. I prefer the version where she wanted color, heat, wanted her body to swell rather than shrink with touch. Where she preferred a world on fire, redemption in flame. Where she did not need alarms to tell her there was danger in the house.
After the fire, she painted the walls yellow. In the dark, they glowed.
A dozen scars line the length of one brother’s spine. They are symmetrical, stacked precise like each vertebra that shuffles beneath my brother’s gaunt frame. “Failure to thrive,” social workers said when he moved in with my family at three from foster care.
Thick keloids, they shine, even in the dark, reminders to the boy, now a man, of where his birth father used his infant son to extinguish cigarettes.
This winter, the start of this new decade, I build a shrine of fire to warm bone. There is never enough fire. I think this is because the hearth is fake, an electrical representation of the heat I seek. False god.
So, too, is the light I pray to each morning. If I am to maintain the content that allows me to rise from bed, navigate a landscape that does not serve me, cruel East Coast winters and the indifference they breed in its inhabitants, I must sit close to my lizard lamp. I must allow the light to enter my eyes, convince my mind it’s manageable.
Because I’ve walked the slick line of dread, coming threateningly close to plummet, I follow this ritual, however mundane. I sit close, closer the first two hours of each morning. In 2020, I am motionless, tethered to a machine. The only thing that feels real is the danger that comes from looking directly into the light—in this way, it is like the sun.
Each morning, I sit in front of my false sun, each night in front of my false fire, waiting for heat and happy, waiting for the indifferent numb—the same numbness I see in the dull faces of those I pass on the street, later on news reporters as they discuss the ways the world is burning—to vanish.
Before bed, I lean down to the dozen candles that encircle me. I gather the strength of my breath and blow. Just as when I was a child and leaned over the sickly sweet of a frosted birthday cake, I fail to extinguish.
In the weeks after my friends’ home burns to the ground, another friend asks her landlord if he will provide a fire ladder for the two-story home she rents. She has seen how fire can strip a home back to bone.
No, he says, simply, hanging up the phone. The line buzzes dead.
She’d lost her faith, she said, the girl I’d known since elementary school, our small California town making even casual acquaintance impossible. She’d believed, run from burning cities, never turned back like the other sinners. But now she tried to find warmth in bodies, a late-night rotation that left her feeling like a fluorescent laundromat at three a.m.
“Visit me,” she pleaded when we were girls becoming women. When I arrived, I found her crouching, grey.
That night, we went to a college party, held red cups in our hands, and snuck sips of warm whiskey. She drank too fast, laughed too loudly in the cinderblock garage. She moved from lap to lap, and when someone handed her a cigarette, she held it to her mouth like a kiss.
We did not smell flesh—she’d forgotten to turn the cigarette around—but we heard the sizzle of flame extinguished. Afterward, her lip bore the scar of what happens when you are so numb you don’t know you are burning.
He won’t say what haunts him, my other firefighter brother. When he was fifteen, the local fire station wanted to make a space for an adopted boy who had already seen too much. Perhaps they hoped he might see hope in flame extinguished.
At first he swept the station, washed the trucks. But he was desperate and needy for affection. He hungered, seethed. One afternoon they let him sound the alarm.
Soon he rode along to pull cats from trees, after a while, bodies pinned between trucks and trunks. Before he had a driver’s license, my brother talked to a man while the car trapping him down burst into flames.
He did not say so at first, but he could not keep the secret and cried out in his sleep, gasping for breath in the dark. A boy destined to burn.
I watch fire roll down the golden hills that surround my childhood home, but I am not afraid. This happens every summer, as much a part of the season as elementary summer school and popsicles. Even my skin burns in summer, and I shed like the lizards I love to catch, their tails wriggling beneath my fingers after they escape. I do not think them hurt; I believe them metamorphosized. Beneath my burn, I too am transformed, the skin shining and ready.
Under the California sun, I dart in and out of the sprinklers, stopping now and then to watch the burning hillside. The fire rolls like the syrup from my Sunday pancakes, viscous, determined. My parents murmur to themselves, my mother rushing in and out of the house to make phone calls to my grandmother who lives nearby. I sniff the air.
I love the smell of burn like I love the smell of propane. The smell means standing with my father by the heater at four a.m. before he leaves for work, his arms wrapping me in safety despite the dark. It means my mother baking cookies, licking sticky sweet from my fingertips. Our propane tank stands in the front yard, a white potbellied behemoth I pat like a cow when I walk by. My cow must be hot, I realize, lifting the sprinkler to hose her down.
I miss these California summers something terrible as an adult in Massachusetts, where even in spring it is rainy and dark and cold. Everything is burned away—my friends’ apartment, another’s grandmother, my brothers lost to trauma.
My parents and I watch the fire creep closer to our home, waiting to see when we should flee. My parents say they hope the fire does not jump the freeway.
This is the first time I realize flame is alive.
Notre Dame is burning. I watch on television—like I’ve watched much of 2019—gape-mouthed. Angels weep and gargoyles crouch as if to pounce on the citizens gathered below. The archway doors are etched with the last judgment; the inferno is in the house. One side depicts those who will ascend, rise from ash triumphant. On the other, those who will forever burn. I am afraid, as always, by the thought of damnation, by the devil, carved in cunning and charisma.
I am a professor, and as students shuffle from class to class, I wonder if they are afraid of lingering between civilization and chaos. They have grown up with apocalypse, a world obsessed with its end, one where there is no one to pull us headlong from danger, deliver us into safety.
In-between coverage, the screen goes black, and I spy my reflection in the empty screen. But I do not jump when the spire falls.
In Massachusetts the sun is retuning, and slowly, slowly the warmth. I feel, finally, as if I might thaw. My friends have found a new home, begun to replace their lives. My other friend has delivered her new son who is bright-eyed like a bird, his skin shining and ready. At last, the alarms in my building are silent, the danger gone for now.
When I invite people over for a BBQ, I breathe in the smell of propane and flame and think of California. I remember, too, how when I moved to Massachusetts, I drove past a cemetery on fire. Flames circled the tombstones like a shrine. The hillside was smoking and black. But the stones remained bright against the darkening earth.
And though I did not return to see, I believe that eventually there was growth, the sweet smell of jasmine in the sun.
SARAH FAWN MONTGOMERY is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press 2018) and three poetry chapbooks, including Regenerate: Poems of Mad Women (Dancing Girl Press 2017). Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in various magazines including Bellingham Review, Brevity, Cincinnati Review, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, LitHub, The Poetry Foundation, The Rumpus, Split Lip Magazine, and others. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery