I’ve always heard that life slows down during a tragedy, enabling you to catalogue the minutest details. In these cruelly stretched moments, colors are sharper and whispers are louder as disaster inscribes its indelible mark on your memory. We were watching the Swansea vs. Everton match, and through the window we saw people run past our backyard, into the open field. Everyone was pointing.
In idle conversation, people ask, “What would you save, if your house were on fire?” Have you ever noticed how brooding intellectuals always ask that question in quasi-deep indie movies? It’s like a litmus test for character, as though it’s gauche or shallow to value your belongings. My books are my most prized possessions—they’re memories and friends. The Harry Potter books I waited for in midnight lines; the expensive art and architecture tomes with their bright, glossy pages; the carefully preserved single issue comics, nestled in their sheer plastic wrappers; dog-eared, USED-stickered college textbooks; English, Spanish, and German dictionaries; shelves upon shelves of packed and stacked novels and anthologies; and my mother’s college poetry books. If catastrophe struck, I assumed I would protect my collection, but they flitted through my mind quickly, no more than an errant thought.
My mom opened the backdoor to see what the strangers were pointing at and immediately ran back in, the letter F caught between teeth and lip. I remember thinking, Fox? Did the fox come back? In a flash, I saw him trotting away with a stray kitten caught between his firm jaws. I had enough time to wonder, Is F a labiodental fricative? I never considered a fire, and it still didn’t resonate even after she sputtered the rest of the word. I stepped out onto the back patio, concerned that I was wearing my Strictly Indoors Only slippers, and saw a plume of white smoke struggling against a nascent red-orange fireball as though each were vying to escape the house first. I ran back inside, screaming, “FIRE! WAKE UP!” Everything was quiet outside. Nobody yelled—they just pointed.
During the ungodly early Chelsea vs. Arsenal match, my phone died and I couldn’t think of a good enough reason to bother getting up to charge it. I stood there, with the useless phone in my hand, stunned. When I found the landline to call 911, my voice was trembling and I remember wanting to shake the dispatcher for being so calm. She kept repeating that units were on their way, and suddenly everything was loud, like life’s volume had been turned up by hidden remote. I peered out the front window and I saw the first red engine, surrounded by gawking neighbors. It was a scene ripped from the initial stanza of Sylvia Plath’s Aftermath:
Compelled by calamity’s magnet
They loiter and stare as if the house
Burnt-out were theirs, or as if they thought
Some scandal might any moment ooze
From a smoke-choked closet into light;
No deaths, no prodigious injuries
Glut these hunters after an old meat,
Blood-spoor of the austere tragedies.
Scattered across yards and driveways, I saw neighbors who otherwise did not exist. Strangers who come and go at different times, passing unknown. I saw them and I thought, I have to wash my face. Normally I wouldn’t consider myself a vain person, so I’m not sure why in the throes of disaster my first thought was the sheen of oil on my forehead. Two minutes later, I walked out, and I felt the fire before I saw it. Thick with black smoke, the air was, paradoxically, too thin. I pulled my hood over my nose and watched angry flames lash back at the firefighters’ aggressive jet of water. My sister, stock-still in the middle of the road, wearing her pajamas, turned to me, shaking. “It’s gone,” she said, beginning to cry. As I was consoling her, it suddenly hit me that there was only one house between disaster and my home. Their roof had completely collapsed, and the firefighters were rushing into the attic of my next-door neighbor, hoping to quell any flames that might have spread. We saw smoke pouring through their attic vent, and it occurred to me that the situation was actually happening and that I was in very real danger of being in the same boat as my wailing neighbor.
She stood, barred from entering her home, in anguish. A call from their security system brought them home just in time to watch a lifetime of memories instantly consumed by flames. Her daughter cried in a neighbor’s garage as we all watched the house. It felt wrong to witness such a personal moment thrust into the public sphere. They were dressed for an event, and I remember thinking that those were now their only possessions, those single fancy outfits. My sister and I ran back into our house, concerned that our four cats could potentially be trapped and consigned to the inferno. I caught one and we crammed her, against her will (and her splayed legs), into a pet carrier. The others refused to come out, but I knew they were under my bed, and I was reassured by the fact that the situation was still somewhat contained.
I was finally faced with the reality of having to choose the things I could not lose to a fire. After scanning my room, I settled on a few small items. I slid my grandmother’s ring onto one finger and the Claddagh ring my mother bought for me in Galway onto another. My rose-gold-plated Fossil watch made the cut because it could easily be worn. I threw three flash drives into my purse, along with my most compact camera, before grabbing the green Moleskine I bought in Rome. My sister clutched my laptop, and we stared around the room briefly, gazing at all the things that might be lost, yet not really seeing them. If I were forced to go back in, it wouldn’t be for anything other than the cats cowering under my bed.
In all, there were six fire trucks lined up down the street and around the corners—five red, and one a grotesque chartreuse. The foul yellow smoke billowing out of the dilapidated shell of a home reached such great heights I was compelled to think, The sky is the limit. And yet, we were helpless; unable to accomplish or say anything meaningful. We watched ash flutter across our driveway, reminding me of death though no one had been home to be injured. The house itself was dying, and its scattered remains were seeking their final refuge on our lawn. Smoke clawed at my throat as it blanketed the neighborhood. Above the haze, two hawks circled the house like vultures orbiting carrion. Later, struck by that image, I researched hawks’ predilection for fire and learned that the comparison was apparently apt. Hawks are drawn to smoke, not for the spectacle but for the opportunity to snatch small creatures as they scurry to safety.
Now, hours after the fact, I’m amazed by how quiet the crowd was. People murmured, voices low as funeral-goers’. There were no sirens; only the sound of water gushing from one fire truck to the next, propelled through the conduit of golden daisy-chained hoses, before bursting through the house’s broken windows. Beneath that, the engines thrummed a constant tattoo, like jackhammers attempting to whisper outside a construction site.
The story of what happened spread like gossip. “How sad,” someone would say, catching another’s eye. From one person to the next, the events came together like patchwork. No one was home. Two people outside for a yard sale saw the smoke and came to bang on the doors, but as soon as they considered breaking a window, the homeowners’ car pulled up. Concerned that the car in the garage could explode, they had just enough time to grab the keys inside and move it. No one knows how the fire started; everyone assumes it was electrical. The house was completely gutted. High-pressured hoses ultimately drowned anything that may have been spared by the blaze. Someone pointed out the daughter, standing behind the house, evaluating the warped and scorched panels around the kitchen window. To our eyes, the house was a shambles, but through her eyes, she must have seen the appliances that hummed happily an hour ago and the once stable stairs that led to the now charred second floor. Where we saw destruction, she saw her home.
Mother Medea in a green smock
Moves humbly as any housewife through
Her ruined apartments, taking stock
Of charred shoes, the sodden upholstery:
Cheated of the pyre and the rack,
The crowd sucks her last tear and turns away.
– Sylvia Plath, Aftermath
We were lucky. The flames melted the siding off my next-door neighbor’s house, but they never jumped farther. Slowly, everyone retreated to their own homes, but through my window, I’ve seen those who missed the conflagration come to gape at the ruins. It’s human nature to be curious about morbid events. In J-school, a photojournalist came to speak to one of my classes on the subject of photography and tragedy. She discussed the ethics of publicly documenting people’s most private misfortune. During the conversation, she recalled a house fire where she captured a shot of a woman bawling, convinced her elderly father had perished inside. Almost every working journalist has a similar story. One of the most memorable customers from my time as an electronics saleswoman was a journalist looking to upgrade his camera. I was still in school, so I picked his mind about the profession I was currently studying, while he picked my mind about cameras. Before he left, he turned to me and said, “I don’t know why I’m buying this camera—I think I’m going to quit soon. I can’t handle the house fires.”
2 thoughts on “Saturday Morning House Fire”
Thank goodness I have yet to personally witness a house fire, but I know what you mean about seeing neighbors outside during an emergency — even people I’ve never seen before even though we live on the same street — especially during earthquakes and power outages.
It was surreal, watching the house go up in flames, and realizing I didn’t even know their names. I’m glad you and your neighbors are safe; earthquakes sound terrifying. We’re fortunate not to have to deal with them around here.
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