Mary was one of the eleven “participants” at the Abroad Writer’s Conference in Hever Castle, Kent, where I did a week of lectures and workshops along with Pulitzer Prize-winning novelists Robert Olen Butler and Paul Harding. It was a really interesting experience. Each of the participants had literary chops and their own distinctive voice but very different sensibilities and backgrounds. We were all united by our devotion to the written word, to making it sing. Holly Woodward whose translations of six Mandelstam poems we have just posted was also a participant. Mary Pauer is from Delaware and this is her powerful piece of flash fiction :
Burn Baby Burn
I watched my grandfather burn to death. I stood by the side of the barn and watched him roll in a bed of leaves, the flames fueled by his jacket and his skin. I watched with kid eyes as big as they would ever get.
The flames stood tall and grandfather lay low. A sooty smolder of leaves fallen from the apple tree and the odor of scorched flesh mingled in late afternoon heat. There is no other smell like burnt flesh, and I would not smell it again until my cat jumped on an electric burner and I vomited on the way to the vet’s office, and went into shock, but the cat was fine.
On that day though, Grandpa did not have nine lives, and he rolled slower and slower and then he did not stand again. I backed up against the clapboard barn gazed with eyes which had not yet seen Fluffy’s kittens born, which had not yet noticed my mom’s pregnancy. I stood long enough. My eyes teared in the smoke.
I watched death before I understood anything of life.
I am told Grandpa, before his stroke, was a different man, a methodical and caring man, who because I cried when he carried me as a baby, shaved his mustache. Then I loved him and never cried again.
This is not that memory.
This is my own story because no one has told me what that afternoon meant or why I was chosen to witness. It is not one of those stories so rich you want to savor its aroma with the Thanksgiving coffee and dessert of pumpkin pie. This is not one of those stories told over and over, because after one telling you are stuffed and it sits unsettled on the overindulgences of the rich food.
This is a wizened story, dried and sere, but not wiser with age. I tell this to find the meaning I did not understand on that day and have not understood yet.
I was at the far corner of the chicken coop where I wasn’t supposed to be in a spot where Grandma could not see me from the house. I teased the roosters because she told me not to and because I didn’t like her as well as my other grandma, who liked me better too.
I pecked the rooster with a stick just to annoy, to agitate, and to deliberately disobey the grandma who always told me what not to do. The rooster rushed me, fierce with beady eyes, but with my weapon I was more powerful and made him back away. I did not want to hurt him, just to be the picador in his life.
This is what I tell myself in later and more mature years, although I think this is a lie, the kind you tell yourself because you are afraid if you tell the truth, no one will love you; you won’t love yourself.
Grandma clucked and fussed and adored Grandpa with a fierceness I envied.
When she put me down for a nap, I scratched her headboard with my hair clip, just below the pillow line. I want to tell you I did that on the same day, to exculpate my spite, in hopes you might gasp and say, oh, poor thing; don’t worry, no wonder; it was the grief you couldn’t express.
I want it to be that day because grandpa’s bed was empty.
If it wasn’t that day I hope to be excused as a child who did not understand but that is not sufficient for the jealousy, the spite, the disobedience. If it wasn’t that day, I have to admit bad intentions.
I hid underneath the porch that same day, or the day before. Grandma was always peering out the door, anxious to locate me. The fact that I was missing was the reason, I am certain, she looked into the back garden that late afternoon. On that day, through the glass door, I switched my eyes from the flames to my grandma. I noticed her at last, watching her husband burn. Her mouth, round and large and voiceless and her bib apron starched white against the darkness of her open lips.
That afternoon I stood at the corner of the chicken coop and did not speak. I watched Grandma’s face pressed on the door. I looked to the fire, and back, but Grandma was gone from the door. I did not know what she thought: perhaps I was responsible or, in the fire with Grandpa or, maybe she did not realize there was a body in the leafy pyre until it was too late for him. I knew only what a child could know.
The fire engine drove to the wide front of the barn. I liked the cocky fireman in rooster yellow helmets. I think one of them scooped me up but not before I saw the somber ambulance rushing across our garden, doors open wide, and the gurney with my grandfather pushed inside.
Grandpa was charred ashes, meat well done, buttons melted to bone.
I wish I loved Grandma more, not on that day, but sometime later.