The Tower Journal

Beth O'Sullivan


Fire

          Cally lay on her stomach on the living room rug, a threadbare excuse for an oriental revealing that someone in the line of ancestry had seen better times. To Cally, the rug marked her empire. One half- completed cardboard model of the UN stood on the east edge of her empire, one vase of daffodils, the first spring crop, that Cally wouldn’t be caught dead smelling as the daffodils grew beyond her empire and entirely too close to Seamus O’Leary’s outhouse, stood on a table in the Northeast corner, and one older sister, Grace, age eight, the dying monarch, sat primly at the empire’s west edge, on a sofa reserved exclusively for company.  Grace unfolded her hands for nothing save periodically checking in with her skirt to make sure that it was fanned out properly against the striped silk upholstery.  Cally’s curls stuck out all over her head like cowlicks but Grace’s hair was neatly plaited.  The skirt had been a gift from the same Aunt Evelyn who’d given Cally the model UN kit sent all the way from Manhattan, a city, so far as Cally was concerned, inhabited exclusively by men in hats, all trailing after her gorgeous Aunt Evelyn.  

            All through dinner Grace had bombarded their poor mother, begging her to please let her wear the skirt.  She promised she would do absolutely nothing while wearing it, until their mother, exhausted, said, (because Easter was after all, just around the corner)  yes, she might wear it, from six to seven that night, while they listened to Saturday Night Story Hour on the radio.

            Their mother, Hazel, was, at that very moment, eight months pregnant in the kitchen putting away dinner and, by the sounds of her footsteps and the utterance to herself, lordy be, was discovering little pieces of cut- up liver under Grace’s placemat.  Cally heard her mother’s footsteps cross the kitchen floor, and, by her own account, Cally had about three more seconds of blissful life as she knew it before her mother would come into the living room with the assumption that it was in fact Cally who had stuffed the liver morsels under Grace’s placemat and her mother would assume this because Grace was perfect, as perfect as Miss Lameley in the children’s room at the library who was always directing Grace away from the Enid Blyton adventure stories in favor of some boring monstrosity appropriate  to her age level, according to the pristine Lameley who would probably faint dead away should Cally walk up to her at the front desk and say, I saw Dr.Black kiss Delight Aeresy behind the VFW, a fact Cally thought it her duty to inform Miss Lameley of because Miss Lameley blushed every time the Widower Black brushed past her desk on his way to the reading room, some book more appropriate to her age level called How Mary Saves Sunday  and Felicity Changes Her Ways .

            On the radio Captain Northrop was steering a ship through the Straights of Magellan unaware of the brother and sister stowaways, Bingo and Bella, on board narrating the stormy passage while Cally’s father, Colm O’Mahoney, sang at the top of his lungs in the bathtub upstairs over the din of the radio story, with no pause between songs,

When will we roam the plain

Joyous and free

Never to part again

Sweet Laura Lee

Irene good night

Irene good night

which he did every Saturday night so that Cally thought that Some Enchanted Evening had everything to do with our good times are all gone and I’m bound for movin’ on.  Every Saturday night Cally and Grace ate early while their father bathed and dressed and their mother wore her best dress for their date in the kitchen, later, where they dined alone by candlelight. Cally and Grace would sneak out of bed and watch through the balusters as their parents danced and their father’s Irish tenor voice crooned,

Don't anyone wake me,
if it's just a dream
'Cause she's the best thing,
that's ever happened to me…

What did I say,

To turn your angel eyes my way?

And their mother’s head rested on his shoulder.

            Cally propped her chin on two fists. In the indigo, yellow and burnt ocher   patterns in the rug, Cally saw the waves and Patagonian fish that Bingo and Bella saw through their porthole as The Saturday Night Story Hour unfolded on the battlegrounds of her empire.  Hearing her mother’s footsteps approach the living room, Cally concentrated more resolutely on the indigo swirls, but as soon as she saw her mother in the doorway looking so beautiful, as the slant of evening light caught the red glint in her mother’s hair and cast her mother’s face in shadow, deepening the green of her eyes, Cally was full of regret at her own callous storage of the liver, at the conniving and deceptive use of her sister’s placemat, and she longed to throw her arms around her mother and weep in penitence, announcing how sorry she was, that she would henceforth be perfect, she would be everything her dear mother wanted her to be, when the phone rang, both saving her from and burdening herself with her confession. 

            “Hello,” came Hazel’s voice from the kitchen, full of the pathological optimism her voice revealed whenever she was faced with external intrusions to her revered family privacy, in a phone call or the postman’s rap on the door delivering a rare package, as if the voice on the other end of the line or the package was about to bear news of some great fortune, perhaps diamonds from her uncle Thaddeus who’d disappeared in South Africa with no word or trace when Hazel was a child.

            The gasp that followed from their mother in the kitchen brought Cally and Grace to the doorway where they saw her tethered by the phone cord to the end of the counter. The girls were the same height, despite the year’s difference between them.  Their mother’s left hand covered her mouth as she listened while her face transformed from its usual cheerful repose to one of vexation and fear, her eyebrows vying for space in the middle of her forehead above her straight nose.

            “Oh dear!”  She exclaimed.  “Yes of course… Mmhmm…I’ll tell him.”  Just as she hung up the receiver, the horn alarm at the fire station down the road in the center of town blared as loudly as if it had been coming from their own barn. They heard a thud on the kitchen ceiling as their father, like a whale ascending, leapt out of the tub upstairs, followed by waves splashing on the floor.  Often, when the station alarm blew, their father, a volunteer fireman, would jump into his fire pants that hung from their suspenders on a hook by the front door, large enough to fit over any clothes, their father could don every shred of clothing he owned and the fire pants would still fit over them.  He’d pull on his protective coat and his fire helmet and jump out the window for effect, leaving the sisters in peels of laughter rather than worry about what dangers he might encounter.  As often as not, it was a false alarm, pulled by Wellington Harris Haverford Wellingford, a boy shorter than his name, who lived with his grandmother in the grand pillared house in town, neglected while his parents traipsed around Europe. This time their father bounded down the stairs dripping wet with a towel wrapped around his waist yelling, “Hazel get my fire pants!” and was saved from colliding with the baby inside Hazel’s big belly, by her quick sidestep at the bottom of the stairs.

            “You can’t run out like that!” she said. “There’s been an explosion at the plant.”  She whispered, though the girls had followed their mother to the landing and heard every word. “Two men… it’s bad. Run up and dry, I’ll get the clothes ready.”

            “Call the Webb sisters!” Colm said, taking the stairs three at a time. “See if they can come up. I don’t want you girls alone tonight, not in your condition, Hazel.” 

            Even though everyone in the town depended on the Webb sisters whenever there was a crisis, so far as Cally was concerned there was not a single more dreaded incident in the whole history of her empire than the mention of the Webb sisters. Brittle, pious and judgmental, they walked daily, arm in arm, past the front gate, dressed in matching navy blue skirts and sweaters, felt hats with the veils pulled up, looking for all the world like they were in mourning for their sense of humor, into town and back. Brimstones flew out of their eyes and fire from their mouths when, in unison, they proclaimed, “Don’t!”

            While their father was stepping into his massive protective pants and pulling the suspenders up, they heard a fire truck pass on the old logging road below their hay field, making its way down the short cut to the bucket factory along the river just beyond their property.  He kissed Hazel.  “Don’t worry,” he said.  “We’ll dig a ditch down below the woods to keep the fire from spreading up this way if need be.” He left quickly by the front door. Cally pressed her face in the window to see him off. Instead of taking his truck, he flagged down the second fire truck as it passed by the front.  The truck slowed down, Colm jumped on and the fire engine sped off leaving in its wake the Webb sisters, Zacilia and Thushara, as they crossed the road arm in arm each carrying the handles of a large sack.  Cally ran back to the living room and dove under the precious sofa, the perfect vantage point from which to see the thick heeled black witch shoes the sisters wore while they entered the kitchen, which they did moments later while Cally held her breath. 

            “Now dear,” Thushara said, “you set yourself down and put up your feet,” and when Zacilia emptied the contents of her bag onto the kitchen table, Cally felt like her whole body might explode from holding her breath and she let it out with an explosive poof that left her with an exhausting terror of discovery.

            “Do you hear that wind in the living room?” Thushara asked. “I’ll go secure the door.” And as Cally watched the soles of the thick black shoes heel toe heel toe pass her hiding place, Thushara dropped a little shiny silver ball just out of reach, beckoning Cally back to her empire. The silver bullet caught the last evening rays of sun that filtered through the translucent white curtains so that it looked to be filled with light from within, just like brother Pileas said we all were filled with the light of God, as if a miniature sun lay beneath the perfect eggshell sphere of silver so that if Cally wanted to touch it, how she longed to touch it, she’d have to crawl out from under the couch and possibly be stomped under the heel of Thushara’s black shoe. For the first time in her life Cally resisted temptation.  Proud, she watched Thushara’s shoes make their way past Cally’s empire and out to the foyer and the front door.  The door was made of hand-hewn wood, so thick and heavy Cally thought it must have come from the Roman Empire. The only time it was ever used rather than the kitchen door, was the day before Christmas when the fire truck went down Main Street with Santa Claus sitting atop, dashing Cally’s hopes of ever seeing a reindeer, and when the truck got to their house, Santa Claus hopped down and entered through the gargantuan front door and brought presents, always the most useless hand- knit nose warmers that Grace made Cally wear with her on Christmas eve when they climbed into bed.  They tied each others warmer in place because, Grace said, it scared away the tigers that rode in Santa’s sleigh and if they didn’t wear them, she said, securing Cally’s itchy red and white striped warmer over her nose so that Cally worried she wouldn’t get enough oxygen to her brain leaving her unable to appreciate Christmas morning, the tigers would leap out of Santa’s sleigh and eat all of their presents.

            Thushara heaved her body against the door, secured it tightly, bolted it and then slowly crossed back through the living room, past the sofa under which Cally was still resisting temptation, and back to the kitchen.  Cally began counting to one hundred, gave up at seventeen, and slid out from under the sofa to scoop up the silver ball. So taken by the ball’s perfection was she that she forgot all about the threat of being stampeded by black heels and sat cross-legged in the middle of her empire, holding the silver in her palm and tilting it in the fading light. There was a tiny hole in the surface and inside was another ball that made the most beautiful pure sound, ping ping, as she rolled it across the rug.  She crawled after the ball, over to the kitchen doorway and saw Zacilia cutting away at purple and yellow and blue folded paper with impressive stately scissors that flashed this way and that, a mime’s sword fight with itself, as snippets of paper rained down on the kitchen table like confetti. 

            Grace, who sat in close proximity to both Thushara and Zacilia and didn’t spontaneously combust, was smiling with delight while Thushara carefully guided Grace’s fingers through the grip holes and helped her cut the shape of half a snowflake.

            Cally eased over to the table and climbed up on a stool and watched in fascination as Zacilia, with a flick of her wrist, opened a line of multi-colored paper-dolls holding hands across the full length of the table. Her mother crossed the room and turned on the radio.  Boredom in all its infinite capacity filled the room in the voice of the newscaster who broadcast the most useless aspects of the weather, the temperature, the precipitation on and on without a single mention of how the wind had ripped a section of the giant spider web that covered the unused portal to the hen house.  The weather was followed by arcane details about president after president after president whose spheres of governance seemed to arch across the whole globe with as tenuous a hold on each other as the hands of the paper dolls that lay strewn in front of her. The broadcaster was not interested in the stories of true import, that Isaiah Horn had mushed gum in Clarissa’s hair while Miss Truman was writing sums on the board and later, after Clarissa went to the infirmary to get a note excusing her for the rest of the day because of a feigned headache, not wanting the consequences to fall on her older brother at the hands of Isaiah’s cousin if she squealed to Miss Truman, got her cousin to deck Isaiah’s cousin in the yard after school, a trail of revenge more devious than war.  Nor did the newscaster mention that Madison had stolen a square of bazooka gum that she used to lure Riley into the bull pasture where she kissed him and ran away. 

            It was past their bedtime. Grace was playing cat’s cradle with Thushara.  Zacilia opened The Mountain of Adventure and began to read. “It was settled. The Mannerings would have their holiday in the Welsh mountains in a town called Doth-goth-oo-elli-othel-in.”    Cally lay the side of her face on the wood plank of the table and listened as the voices of Grace, the Webb sisters and the radio announcer all got mixed up together.  “One more cat’s cradle… Jack and Lucy-Ann were to have donkeys… we interrupt this broadcast to bring you this important news flash. There has been an explosion at the Smythe and Kooper Bucket Factory. The explosion seems to have been in the foundry. Several men are confirmed dead. Dispatches from the scene indicate that the fire remains uncontrolled. Let’s all wish the firemen good luck, good luck boys, and we’ll keep you updated as the news arrives.  Now back to you, Aloysius, with some music to soothe your ears….”   A melodious voice began to hum and Cally couldn’t figure out if it was the radio or a small voice from far away, and with her face still on the table, she closed her eyes and prayed that the fire would go back in time, that the flames would shrink and the bodies of the dead would fly back from wherever they landed and, like a jigsaw puzzle, fit back together with only a few spaces between the pieces and she heard the small far away voice continue to hum.

            She awoke in her bed still clothed. She could hear a commotion downstairs. Grace was lying on the outside of the bed so Cally climbed down at the bottom of the bed and descended the stairs just like Romulus, who lived above the country store, showed her, a mode of walking she spent hours perfecting out beyond the berry patch on the edge of the woods, trying not to disturb the spiders and ants and beetles she so loved to observe.  Lying on the pine bed earth where beetles hid from her  behind a trunk and spiders made their way past on their long fine legs, both the iridescent beetles’ wings and the spiders’ soft miniscule bodies were so vulnerable that she wanted to stay there forever to protect them.   Romulus had taught her to walk with her foot perfectly flat as did the tribes who used to inhabit the whole landscape around her and whose artifacts she searched for, digging in the dirt, arrowheads and tools amongst the stone walls and below the barn.  She slowly descended, taking care that there were no creeks and that her heel and the ball of her foot made simultaneous contact with the wooden stairs.

            It sounded like elephants were dancing in the kitchen and then sliding into home base. She heard her father’s voice yell, “Clear the table!” and then heard scuffling.  At the bottom landing, Cally smelled an acrid, revolting smell. Taking deliberate flat footed steps across the expanse of the living room, past her empire where, earlier, she had temporarily overcome temptation, she arrived in the kitchen doorway. Her father and Mr.Seeley, the postmaster, and Liam who brought them milk in tall tins from his dairy farm, were carrying a man inside.  They laid him on the kitchen table.  “I’ll need some wet rags,” Liam said.  “Clean ones.”

            Her father added, “Thushara, they’re in the pantry. Zacilia, call the ambulance and Hazel, go on out and sit in the parlor.  I don’t want you seeing this, we don’t need any babies born tonight.”

            The men laid the body on the table. Mr.Seeley looked at Thashara, “Do you know where some sheers are?” and Zacillia, having hung up the phone, brought him the sheers from her bag and Mr.Seeley started to cut away the shirt form the body on the table. “He caught fire in the first explosion,” he explained.  All the men were covered in soot and still had their suspendered pants and helmets on.

            “We thought maybe he’d jumped in the river but Manley saw him run to the woods.”  Liam said.

            Cally saw that the man they’d brought in was Mr.Darwich, the father of Grace’s friend Jean.

            Her father was helping Mr.Seeley get Mr.Darwich’s shirt off.  “We found him in the woods.  Ours was the closest house,” he said to Thushara.  “No one knew what’d happened and if he might not already be at the hospital.  It turns out he was missing so we went searching for him.  Damn if he wasn’t trying to run home.”

            Mr. Darwich lay on his back across their table. His eyes were open and as Liam started to put cold water on his wounds, he’d let out a long slow moan. His pitch black eyes met Cally’s and he gave her a faint smile.  The flesh all down his right arm, the one closest to Cally, was burnt and his shirt seemed to melt into it. 

            Cally walked right up to him. The acrid smell was strong.  Their eyes stayed fixed on each other, less than Cally’s arm length distance apart.  Cally knew she was looking at a dead man who was still alive.  “Mr. Darwich,” she said. “Don’t worry, you’re going to be alright.  I’ll tell Jean you said hey.”

            Mr. Darwich’s mouth and jaw quivered while his eyes stayed fixed on Cally’s.  Then his eyes froze.  Cally heard the ambulance coming up the front drive and Zacilia placed her hands on Cally’s shoulders and led her into the parlor. 

            Into the night she lay on the couch covered with a quilt next to her mother.  She heard the brief commotion in the kitchen while they loaded Mr. Darwich into the ambulance. It didn’t take much time, and then the ambulance sped away, the Webb sisters left and the men still in the kitchen sat down and drank beer.

            Cally overheard Mr.Seeley talking. “I wish I’d gone looking for him sooner,” he said.

            “There was nothing we could do,” said Liam.  “We couldn’t a left the fire raging like that.  Many more might have died.”

            “Still, I wish I’d known he was missing,” her father said.

            “Well, the fire’s good as out now,” Liam said.

            She heard one of the men stand and cross the kitchen and open the refrigerator and walk back. “What’s the count?” asked Mr.Seeley.

            “Five, I think,” her father said, “including Mr.Darwich. It could go up.”

            “It could’ve been a lot worse is what it could’ve been,” Liam added.

            Cally looked around the dark room and listened to the sounds as they talked and opened the beers, but the words stopped making their way into meaning for her.  In the darkened parlor some light came in from the gibbous moon.  For several hours she lay next to her mother looking at the objects in the room, the lamp on its stand, the old armchair, the table, familiar objects that gave her comfort. 

            Everyone was already up the next morning when she woke in her bed.  She dressed and went down for the breakfast of fresh eggs and rolls hot from the oven. 

            “Mr.Darwich died last night,” their father said.  “I want you girls to be especially kind to Jean. Mama will take them some food and I want you two to invite her over.  Give her a lot of attention.  I know it’s hard but you have to stand by her.  There’s no excuse not to. You’ll be glad you did.”

*          *          *

            It was a week before Jean returned to school. When Grace and Cally saw her in the school yard before classes, Cally turned away and started to walk in the opposite direction but Grace went and grabbed her hand and hauled her across the school yard to where Jean stood alone under the beech tree.

            “We’re sorry about your Dad,” Grace said. 

            Cally didn’t want to look at her and stood behind Grace and looked away. Grace poked her in the ribs with her elbow until Cally came out from behind Grace and faced Jean. Jean wore her dark purple dress with blue smocking and purple ribbons in her long black braids that fell over the front of her dress.   Her clothes were the same as always.  Grace elbowed Cally again.  “I’m awfully sorry, Jean,” Cally said.

            Jean stood under the tree and looked at both of them. “They told me he died in your house,” she said.  “Did you see him? I mean before he died?”

            Cally again shrunk behind Grace.  “Cally did,” Grace said. She yanked Cally back to her side and stepped on her left foot so she couldn’t shrink back again.

            Jean took a step forward. Her eyes looked just like her father’s, were as close to her as when Mr.Darwich had last stared at her, and revealed how irretrievably her life had been altered. “Did he say anything?”  Jean asked.  “Did he say anything about me?”

            “He sure did,” Grace said.  “He went on and on about how much he loved you and your mother. He said there was nothing in the whole world more important to him than his wife and daughter.  He said you’d both always be with him in his heart and him in yours.  Then the angels came and took him to heaven and on his way up he said you’d all be together in heaven before you know it.”

            Jean’s expression didn’t change at all. She looked down at her shoes.  “I thought so,” she said.  “I was just checking.”

            Later, when they walked home from school, Cally was silent for a long time. They’d invited Jean over and she said she had to go home to her mama but that she’d come play on Saturday. When they passed Seamus O’Leary’s house, Cally blurted out, “You lied.”

            Grace kept on walking a little in front of Cally and spoke to the air straight ahead.  “You’ll understand when you’re older.”

            “You shouldn’t have told Jean those things.”

            Grace stopped, heaved a sigh and turned to face Cally.  “When you’re much older you’ll understand.  Sometimes making a person feel better is more important than the truth.”

            Cally shook her head.  “You’re only a year older,” she said. They continued their walk home. 

            “I just wager it’ll take you a little longer than me to understand these things. After all, I actually study my catechism.  How would you feel, Cally, if papa went running through the woods on fire and died on someone else’s kitchen table? I know the kids are making up all kinds of stories but its an important responsibility that God has given to us.  Wouldn’t you want to know that papa’s very last words were all about how he loved you and me and mama and the baby?”

            Cally looked at Grace with the expression that always seemed to push Grace around the bend, sometimes quite literally, a look that gave the impression that Cally would always hold onto her own ideas like a simpleton and never understand any of the things that came easily to the rest of the world. Grace took hold of Cally and dragged her home quickly so she could get away from that look.  At the end of their drive, Cally yanked her hand away from her sister’s and said, “I’d want to know the truth.”

            Grace went on ahead.  When Cally eventually entered the kitchen, Hazel and Thushara and Zacilia were cooking pots of stew and soups. The room was filled with the smell of simmering meats and vegetables and sage and garlic.  “We’re freezing dinners for poor Molly,” Zacilia said. 

            “Do you want to help?” her mother asked, handing Cally a pink flowered apron that was Cally’s favorite.  Grace was already cutting up celery.

            “No thanks,” Cally said.  She went to her room and sat below the east window and wrapped her arms around her folded legs and rested her chin on her knees.  Then she slipped out the kitchen door and went down to the edge of the forest.  She sat on her favorite rock. She knew this entrance to the forest well, both its underworld which provided habitat for the myriad of insects that she observed and the large trees and sky and birds above. She looked around for some sign of where Mr. Darwich was taken out of the woods.  She saw some broken berry bushes and figured they must have come out there.  She jumped down from the rock and followed the swath in the woods they must have made as her father helped carry him back.  She followed it towards the river and came to an area where something had recently lain; it was a little bigger than Mr. Darwich. He must have collapsed here, Cally thought.  She lay down in the slight indentation left and looked up through the branches at bits of sky visible.  Had Mr.Darwich looked around and seen the same things she saw as he lay there? For a long time she lay looking up and around as the breeze changed the patterns of light on the pine bed and birds alit, then flew off and gradually evening arrived, leaving a purple hue where splotches of light had lain.  She heard her mother calling to her, “Cally!  Cally!” and as she emerged from the wood and saw the sunset spread out over the garden and her mother standing on the stone slab outside the kitchen door with one hand over her belly that bulged under her apron, and her other hand waving at her in the air, “Cally!”  and saw her sister’s face through the window where Grace stood on a stepping stool at the sink looking across the garden, and her father’s truck turning into their drive, she wanted everything to stay just as it was and she asked God to grant her one request: that nothing ever again change in her life.



Copyright © 2014 Beth O'Sullivan

Beth O'SullivanBeth O’Sullivan is an MIT educated mathematics educator. She is co-founder of Science Club for Girls www.scienceclubforgirls.org which insures success in science for girls who will be the first in their family to attend college and founder of The Mathemagics Workshop www.mathemagicsworkshop.com

She studied writing with a fellowship at the Boston University Creative Writing Program with Leslie Epstein. She has published book reviews in The Boston Herald and stories in Free Parking, Sidelines and the 236 Journal.

The support of two patrons enables her to write fiction part of the year. She advocates for others to similarly support individual artists. It was just such patronship that enabled To Kill A Mockingbird to be written.

The Tower Journal
Spring/Summer 2014