Monday, March 1, 2010

Burning Houses

Fritz says, "Why show people where your weaknesses are? Where they can get at you?"

Because, no matter it's real root cause, my fear wears a characteristic costume.

A dear friend of mine was attacked by a rapist and fought him off. She was, in those days of my first knowing her, in the days of this outrage, of an ethereal delicacy.  She fought him past the point of pain, past the point of hope. And he gave up, snarling, "You're not worth it."

God and angels stand as witness to what she unflinching knew of what she was worth.

She has since faced other struggles - raising a handicapped child, her own cancer - with the same ferocious faithfulness. Over and over, she fights that attacker off.

I am afraid of fire. This is not my real fear, but it is close enough.  Metonymy:  a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but instead the name of an adjunct thing, intimately associated, is substituted. Fire.

When I was young I'd come up with reason after reason my parents didn't really want to build a fire inside the house.  If they gave up reasoning with me and carried on with their dangerous plan, I'd sit close beside the fireplace, watching the flames.  My eyes jumping back and forth, on guard for sparks.  Hands ready to slap out any errant firebug snapping suddenly from the logs.  I'd finger the interlocking chain mesh of the fire screen - so much more space than solid.

At night I would lie awake and go over my escape route, planning the things I must be sure to bring - my orange diary with the lock, my picture album, the doll my mother made, my beautiful Hans Christian Andersen, my cowrie shell brought back from an island I'd never seen.

Treasures all kept close at hand on a shelf by my head.  In my mind I rehearsed the sweep of arm that would scoop them up.  Could I run to the closet and grab the red velvet dress Granma made for my birthday?  No, that would have to go to the fire.  There was a limit to what could be saved.

"Where did this fear come from?"  I asked my mother once, knowing my fear was bigger than the danger.  Hating it.  I had never been in a burning house.  I had never in real life seen a house burn.

"I don't know," she said.  "Some fears are like that.  They just come.  I remember you watching a show once as a little girl.  There was a house on fire and you suddenly jumped up and turned it off.  You insisted we not turn it back on."

With her words I remembered the climbing tongues of flame, fluttering from the upper windows like curtains.  I remember it now, with a sick fear in the stomach pit.  But that is not where the fear first came from.  The fear was already waiting.

One year, my parents gave me a handmade dollhouse.  The unpainted wood smelled clean, as fresh-cut wood will.  The doors opened and closed on tiny hinges - doors for both bedrooms opening out onto a tiny upper balcony above the proper front door opening out onto the covered porch below.  A narrow stairway connected the two floors but there was, as well, a secret attic that no doll inside the house could access without my intercession, without my throwing back the roof on its own hidden hinge. 

It was too big for me to carry.

I would lie awake at night, stepping away from my dollhouse in my mind, snipping away each small thread of attachment.

By day I loved it still and fervently.  I wove little rugs for the floor.  With my father, cut small shingles for its roof.  With my mother, stained and glued them on.  We painted the smooth and perfect wood a pale stormy blue.  At my grandmother's, while she worked the wheel - wetting the ball of mud with a sponge, pulling the sides of a grand vase up into the air - I made tiny clay platters and glasses and thick forks and spoons, gouging out the bowl of each spoon with a toothpick.  She helped me choose a glaze for my tiny dinnerware - a watery blue and gray with swirls of earthy brown and black - and lowered them all into the kiln as I peeped over the edge. 

But every night I resigned myself to the utter loss of my house, imagined it burning, dreaming my way beyond its destruction. 

When I was ten, my sister was born.  More precious to me than any books or toys.  And I realized I could not carry anything but her.  Everything else would have to stay behind in the fire.  Not only the dollhouse.  But also the Hans Christian Andersen. And the photo album. Photographs of Christmases and cousins with ice cream cones and lost birthdays curling up in the heat, blackening away into the nothing that had already eaten the past.  But we would be safe, my sister and I.  I pictured us together at the end of the road, her head tucked up against mine, our faces warm with the orange light of our house going up in flames.

In this way, I lost my fear of fire.

I am left now with just fear.  Free-floating. 

It comes by seasons.  With no regular pattern.  I am not sure what invites it in. 

Or I do.  Partly.  This blank above these words is filled with many erased beginnings of sentences I will not finish.

This blank is filled with fear.


Lisa B. said...

I love this post. Exquisite.

And I believe that I had that same Hans Christian Anderson book, with those same exquisite illustrations. I also had a Grimm's Fairy Tale book that was the same publisher/illustrator, I believe. I very much wish I were in possession of that book.

I would like to hear more about that fear and how it attaches to things--circumstances, imagined scenarios.

Mrs. Organic said...

Interesting thing, fear. Sometimes you can be afraid of something that seems horrible and then life hands you a new perspective that either broadens or narrows your fear horizon.

You replay situations in your head, magnify them and let the fear grow, unchecked. Or sometimes you realize an imagined fear (by actual circumstance) and you gain power from it because the real thing is not quite so scary as the imagined thing. Clear as mud?

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