Darkness in Flames

June 10, 2010
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The pine trees rustled, the biting cold mountain wind weaved through the nettles like thread. The air, touched with the cool breath that promised another night of snow, carried their stark, sweet smell. Birds’ songs filled the air, and other mountain-bound animals crunched through the forest, their mutters barely audible.

I smiled as I heard a cougar complain to her mate about some skiers that had come close to where their cubs lived. The talk of the animals never changed, even after ten years.

Without warning, though, the songs died, and the female cougar said, “Oh dear, the ruins… They say the entire Elzier line died in the fire. One was even a NexElzier… Poor things.”

“I wouldn’t say that’s true,” I said aloud. The cougars cried out in surprise, and I continued before they could flee. “I’m an Elzier. I’m the only Elzier.” A lump was in my throat. I was so close to what was left of my old life. “I just want to see my old home one more time. Or, see in whatever way I can.”

I could not tell where the cougars were, but I heard a stammered “yes, sir” and the quick paw steps of the retreating cats. I inhaled the thin air, and ventured forward, until the tip of my walking cane no longer brushed the tree trunks.

I have never seen my house before, even before it was burned down. But I had lived in this cottage and its clearing for nine of my nineteen years. I walked the perimeter, reaching my free hand out to run my fingers through the soft, snow-brushed nettles. The trees had grown in the last decade, I thought, but some of them were missing. I wove between the shafts of wood that smelled like old, wet ashes, the unfortunate trees that had caught fire all those years ago.

I paused at a break in the trees, where the hard ground turned to flat rock. I reached down and brushed the snow off the stone, feeling the smooth, milky texture of worn limestone. This path was the one that led to the small well, the one I was never allowed to venture to alone because I could not see it and my grandmother was afraid I would fall in.

Thoughts of my grandmother sprang to mind, and I stood, turning to face what I knew to be the cottage itself.

The wind died down, and I could smell the charcoal, the rotting wood, the moldy foundation. I could taste the stale air as I approached it slowly, like fire and death, even after so many years. There was no smell of animals, and I figured, out of fear, they had not turned it into a mass of dens to raise their own children. I followed the limestone path to where the backdoor had been. I raised my hand, and felt broken when the tips of my fingers touched air, instead of bone-chilling glass. With a sudden desperation, I broke into a run, dashing around the house, trying frantically to find the painted cedar and pine walls. Nothing.

I came to a stop when my feet touched granite. The path to the front door.
I turned slowly, and a gust of wind slapped me in the face, confirming what my heart already knew: It was all gone. There was nothing.

I almost turned to leave, but stopped myself. Remember why you are here, I thought. I shook my snow-damp hair away, and stepped over what was left of the threshold and into my old home.

The floor had been burned to the concrete, which was slick with ice and wet with water. I moved forward carefully, wincing inwardly every time I stepped on a pile of charred wood. It smelled horribly of ash, and I found myself sick for the old fumes: baking bread and cookies, perfume and soap, flowers and honey and berries and cooked meat.

I reached up, pausing when my fingers came to where I knew had once been the wall of the hallway. I imagined the coarse wallpaper, the occasional bumps when I hit a picture frame, the edge of doors and the trinkets and talismans my grandmother kept to ward away evil.

I walked the dead halls until I came to what had been the last door on my right; the room that had once been my bedroom. It was the same as everything else: burned, dead, soggy with snow and barren of everything that had once been mine.

Dazed, I traced my way through the room, imagining where my bed and dresser had been, smelling heavily of the wood it had been made of, the carpet once as soft as wool, the walls rough so I could feel every ridge and dip when I had nothing else to do. The shelf with the books of Braille, the chest with the toys, the hanging mobile with all the odd shapes I traced with my fingers until the paper edges cut my skin. It had all gone up in smoke.

I stabbed my cane into the wet ground and used it to lower myself to my knees, so I could mourn in peace. I let the stick fall away, and froze when it hit something that did not sound like wood or rock. Maybe an animal had come in here? No, I thought, tasting the air again. I could not smell any animals. And I would know; I spent all my time with a big, smelly wolf.

Slowly, carefully, I crept across the cold floor, shivering as my bare palms touched the icy ground. I found my cane, traced the thin shaft of wood up to its beaten tip, and then clasped my fingers around whatever it had hit.

A scream found its way out of my throat and I just about crushed the brittle and concave sphere. My ring and index fingers had easily slid into two holes on one side of the object, and the texture was unmistakable. Bone!

I dropped the skull back to the ground, throwing myself away, and heard it clack against others. I could feel the rot and soot on my hand, and it took every ounce of energy I had to not be sick.

I didn’t need to see to know what I had found.

When the house had been burned down, my grandmother had been left to burn inside it. I could still remember her screams of horror, the scent of burning wood, my sheltered life falling apart around me in less than half an hour as they stole me away from the only place I’d ever known.

She’d been left to die in my bedroom, where she’d been knocked aside after fighting to protect the only kin she had left.

I should’ve never come back, I thought, burying my face in my hands and crying for the loss of the world that had once been mine.

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