Father was a fire-eater. He kept the secret all his life; it only emerged after his death, as the coffin slid behind the shabby yellow velvet curtain in the crematorium. Everyone was standing to leave, patting mother on the shoulder, when a whoof of flame shot out, setting the curtains ablaze and scorching off eyebrows, Mother’s, and ours.
When it was eventually declared an accident, and newspapers no longer printed their articles, we got back to our life, our home, our school. The dark clothes we wore marked us out among our peers, and everywhere we sensed a whispering around us; a cloud of words we couldn’t hear and wouldn’t understand. Our mourning clothes and our pale skin; our scars standing out. We knew not to mention that there had always been fire at home, but somehow, people knew.
Our eyebrows grew back, but as we waited for the sharp hairs to prick their way through, we felt a change, and at first put it down to shock, to grief. Words sliced into us like knives: money and work and need and fault. Our flesh opened and healed, opened and healed, over and over. The fire grew, roaring and flaring at us as we passed Mother’s couch.
Time passed. We did nothing right. Dark puffs of smoke billowed from Mother’s mouth, and increasingly, the house began to smell of sulphur, though we swept the floors and washed the walls.
We found it hard to make the call, the day it happened, sure that it would look suspicious. When they asked us if we wanted the police, the fire brigade or an ambulance, we could only answer yes. They came, but there was nothing they could do. We stood there, covered in smuts, smelling like struck matches. They may not have believed us, but what we said was true; without Father to help, Mother had spontaneously combusted, the fire inside her – eating her up – had finally consumed her.
And now we are gathered here together, tending the embers. Some of us, smothering them with anything to hand. Some of us, fanning them to a flame.