It hovered in the glowing tips of my unmarried uncles’ cigarettes. And in the red, rounded tops of lipstick tubes. It smelled, not sweet like lilies of the valley or hyacinths, but more like the insides of purple irises or, stranger, like azaleas or hawthorn blossoms—not bad, but definitely not all that good. It sounded like the sliding of nylon hose when high school girls crossed their legs in church and swung their high-heeled shoes not quite professionally, but in a sort of practiced way. How did it feel? It didn’t feel like the florid waving of Pentecostal preachers on Sunday, nor like the chemical jolt when a copperhead slid under a pile of warped boards near the smoke shed where hams hung. Nor did it resemble the cackling of hens, nor the barn roof peaked like a witch’s hat on Halloween. It wasn’t the way bats swerved over the catalpa branches in the evening, though once when I found one clinging to a rafter in the barn loft, I felt something human, a kind of leathery kinship born of shame and exile. But it was more than that.
It was more like the feeling of barometric pressure on the rise—how the air got crowded when a storm was coming. How it felt when you tried not to think about what you shouldn’t. It was the vast but tightly compressed distance between who you appeared to be and who you suspected you were.
Once, for instance, I lit a field on fire. It started with a haystack, and I don’t remember from where I stole the matches. I do remember the smell of striking several and watching the straw catch and then putting it out, and then again and again, and although I thought I’d doused the thing, somehow the whole stack went up, and my grandfather was jerking the garden hose toward the field, and I was watching the flames from some shadow somewhere, and simultaneously constructing an alibi, and still watching it burn, beautiful as the lie I was crafting. It was like that. For no reason at all, I’d started a series of small fires and failed to put one out, and then briefly loved the look of calamity and the force of the hay turned to fire and the race of flames through the field. Nothing terrible happened, just an acre of burned fescue and one less haystack in the world. And it wasn’t so much the lie, but sticking to the lie, as if I owed my denial some allegiance, and then discovering I could even muster indignation at my grandfather for not believing a fire could start of its own free will. It was knowing my own will was anything but free.
It was knowing who started the fire in me that struck the match. Smelling the devil’s sulfur breath, that was how it felt—like not ratting on yourself. A pure, bright, alien allegiance you’d go down for if you had to.
It was the strangeness of thinking—after years of reading the Bible, sitting in pews from which my feet couldn’t reach the floor, learning the wages and consequences—that I would never really die, not ever. Whatever dead folk I had actually encountered, fluffed up and peachy in their caskets, I promoted directly on up to heaven. Heaven was the joker in the deck. If only a second were left in an evil life, you could say you were sorry and up you would fly. So claimed Jesus on the cross to the thief.
It was knowing I was that thief. I stole some matches, and burned down most of a field, and lowered my head and lied for the sake of some strange honor that was logically bound to lead toward other varieties of burning. It was the distance between the logic and the lie, the distance between knowing and coming clean. And finally, it was the terrible forgiveness of my grandfather, who said, Well, I guess the field needed burning anyway, and then plowed the stubs and ashes under. Then came fall, and winter was sodden and brown with a few bouts of snow that raced at the windows. Then it was spring, and I remember the green of that field.
No one ever mentioned the fire. It was the green that got to me.
Start Sunday morning with a flash essay in your inbox. Enjoy short works hand-selected from the Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Diagram, River Teeth, and Sweet Literary archives, as well as the occasional original work.
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