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Conflagration by Suzanne Barefoot

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Suzanne Barefoot earned her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.  Originally from Western New York, she now lives in Lancaster, PA. This is her first publication.

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Last summer, my mother began the burning right after my father choked to death on a chicken thigh. Not a shock. He’d often scarf down his food in great gulps, not bothering to chew, not caring that he sounded like a horse. His slurping and smacking before he swallowed made me gag. I’d stare at my plate and push my fork around, never lifting a bite to my mouth, and wait for him to finish and walk out. Then I could eat. With my mother. She never said a word about it, but I knew she was just as grossed out as I was. 

Two days after the funeral, before the sun came up, I woke up to the sound of crackling and popping coming from our backyard. Down below my bedroom window my mother stood, still in her black nightgown, her face glowing in the light from a roaring fire. Piles of clothes, books, pillows, blankets, shoes, and boxes of papers were scattered around her. At first, I thought they were my father’s things—good riddance. But as she scooped up piles of clothes, I could see the dangling sleeve of her cornflower-blue Sunday dress, the bright red of her favorite Christmas sweater, and the clear shape of her knee-high boots. It was like she was feeding a hungry monster, and the more it swallowed, the more she fed it. She threw everything she’d ever worn into the fire, setting it ablaze until the flames reached way over her head. And as I watched my mother heave in more and more, I hoped the fingers of the fire would reach up high enough to tap on my window like a secret friend. 

On the second night of the burning, the wind picked up, gathering the ashes from the smoldering fire and setting them like snow on our window panes. As I laid in my bed, I tried to recreate in my mind the final moments of my father’s life. I hadn’t been home the night he died, but I thought about it so often, I almost believed I’d seen it with my own eyes. I pictured him lifting his hand to his throat and making a strange coughing sound like someone sanding rough edges or chipping paint, his eyes bulging in fear, his face red and tightened in panic. I imagined him grasping at the kitchen table, the back of one of our mismatched chairs, the edge of the sink, the handle of the oven. Around the kitchen he staggered, making little to no noise, only pointing at his throat like a crazy man, as if the pointing alone would free the meat, the pain would stop, and his breath would come. 

I did some research and learned that when you’re really choking, you can’t even get enough air in your lungs to cough. The world falls still, you become a mime, a silent movie actor—the drama showing only in your face and hands and gestures. In my recreations, I paid close attention to those final moments of quiet and even took to physically acting it out in my bedroom. Positioning myself into my father’s stooped posture, I’d lunge for a phone on the wall but fall before I could reach it. Sometimes I stood with both hands wrapped around my throat, fingers scratching at an imagined Adam’s apple. I scraped at my neck and let my eyes grow as wide as possible before finally succumbing and crumbling to the floor, letting my legs twitch in a few exaggerated spasms. 

On the third night of the burning, the fire looked tired—its flames barely reaching my mother’s waist. She had torched the last of her belongings and worried the fire would die out. She said she wasn’t ready to let it go, so I offered her everything I had. Gathering clothes off the floor of my bedroom, I made piles outside the door on the hallway landing. My mother joined me, and a surprising power washed over both of us as we emptied my drawers and closet and dug out the dusty bits from under my twin bed, filling laundry baskets and boxes with all my things. In went my hand-carved nameplate, my collection of stickers, my box of pressed flowers, my Judy Blume books, my boy band posters, and every untouched doll my father had ever given me for being “Daddy’s good girl.” 

My mother and I moved from the bedroom, down the stairs, past the rusty lawn chairs and the broken-down mower, out to the blaze, and back up again. Like ants, we touched one another as we passed. And as the last of my belongings shriveled and disappeared inside the orange and blue flames, my mom and I held hands and danced around the fire, chanting made-up words and tipping our heads back to face the sky, and let out a cleansing howl. Invigorated, we turned to the furniture. Dragging all we could lift out onto the lawn, we circled it around the fire, and after we found an axe hanging behind a beat-up tarp in the shed, we took turns hacking away. My muscles ached and my mother’s face turned red, but even as we sweated and our hands blistered and broke open, we leveled heavy blows on that furniture until every last piece was broken and sizzled in the flames. My mother put her arm around me, and quiet and strong, we stood together in the light of our fire.  

We spent three nights burning all that we had ever owned, worn, enjoyed, despised, and used in our house with my father. Like our bruises, the colors in the flames changed until the fire had completely burned itself out and there was no color left. We destroyed nothing of my father’s, instead leaving all of his things to slowly deteriorate inside the family farmhouse. See how he likes it, my mother said, before we climbed into her car, wearing the only clothes we had left, and drove down the long gravel driveway and onto the road. 

On that ride away from our house, when I secretly wanted to creep back and sleep there one more night, or sit on the swing hanging from the sycamore, or walk through the back field to the mouth of the brook to hunt for pollywogs, I forced my thoughts to my father’s final moments. I zoomed in on his face, waiting for the exact moment when he realized there was no use fighting, when his hands held no more power, when his shouting was muted forever, when he finally knew he was a dead man. In the instant his eyes stopped darting to and fro, his mouth lost its grimace, and his face softened in resignation, I felt my own breath, which I had been holding for years, return to me.  •