Girl in the Fire
At night she dreamed of fires, of red-orange flames
rising from a small hill of dead leaves
like the one her father gathered in their back yard
and set a match to before the rain came.
She'd played a game of catch-me when the wind heaved
the smoke curl on its side—she laughed as charred
leaves stirred and brilliant embers rose to leave
her clothes marked with pinprick black stars.
Her father lit his pipe and the smoke scents
mixed, woody-sweet and green, then hunkered down
in wool and hair and skin with incense stain
to stay until her mother's well-meant
scrubbing. Once the leaves burned down her father drowned
the ash and nothing of the fire remained
but an acrid stench on sodden, blackened ground
and the spot brought grief the girl could not explain.
And frightening dreams she couldn't sleep away.
Dreams of leaf-games, of hiding in the heap,
waiting for her father's voice to call her out
before he set to burning. But in her dream-game
he forgot. Gas from the red can trickled deep
down around her, but she couldn't stir or shout
for help or stay the match's rasp or keep
his hand away or stop the fire from bursting out.
She woke in screams as flames began to eat
her face. Her mother hurried in and swept
in coolness from the hall, cool night air
that wrapped unsullied sleep. Her mother's neat
white fingers rubbed her shoulders and the young girl crept
against the billow of her mother's hair,
and her mother pledged that even while she slept
God's angels kept her safe with holy prayer.
But the girl had learned the history of the world—
of times and places fires had raged. There was Anne
whose Jewish body fueled a nation's hate.
Without Shadrach's angel she lay dead, curled
inside the furnace. The girl recalled a pan
of meat forgotten in her mother's oven, its great
stench covering the kitchen, blackened fat
and bone shrunken to a cast of charcoal waste.
And Hiroshima, a city fire destroyed—
she saw a girl in silk with ivory hands
kneeling at her household shrine, Buddha's eyes
impassive as the great grenade deployed
and dried reed floors and paper walls and lacquered stands
flashed white, then roiled in flames and Buddha's eyes
watched pearl flesh blister, boil, expand,
explode, then crisp to ash and rise in black, black skies.
And even Joan, who heard divine decrees
and kept a sainted faith, still burned alive.
In May in France, while living elms and oaks
unraveled green, the wood of dead and broken trees
spat scarlet. Bound in chains, her body writhing
in the summit of the fire, Joan choked
out again, again, her Savior's name, her scorched eyes
seeking out Christ's face inside the smoke.
These were the images that kindled fear—
history's brutal murders carried out
against all sense, against all godly thought.
In the dark, her mother's goodness near,
the girl pronounced aloud her soul-dealt doubt—
Why do some prayers work, but some do not?
Her mother tried to reason out
unfathomable theology. But she could not.
Her father never knew the weight he bore
each time he brought a match to flame and lit
the fireplace tinder or the heater's spire
of gas. He never knew about the war
she carried on inside, the wanting to commit
belief in mercy far beyond each young girl's pyre
while fearing God stood derelict.
Father, father—he was striking faith, not fire.