When the Fire Falls

The fire falls when the night is bright. Lightning paints the sky with angry orange and the air starts to hiss. Our nights are usually quiet enough to hear the neighbors snoring. The sky is always kind of purple whether it’s night or day. We don’t get sunshine; things just get a little less indigo. Indigo is my favorite word on the spelling homework sheet. Our sky is a grumpy one, hidden by big ugly clouds that have always been there. Momma says we’re the ones who put them there. Maybe that’s why the sky spits brimstone at us. We shut it out so very long ago.

The fire falls when the night turns orange and hisses like a cornered cat. We crouch and hide so we don’t get burned.

Keep your head down, and don’t touch the door. Those are old words for nights of fire. It wasn’t just the doors, but whole houses made of wood. There’s not a scrap of wood in my house. We learned to make homes of stone. It’s that same chalkboard-gray rock that we sit on and eat on, and even sleep on if our mattresses don’t finish airing. I don’t like it very much, but it’s better than wood. Teachers still make us learn the old words, though. Mommas and poppas are always saying it, too. Don’t touch the door. Then they make us say it back…when we’re in school at least. I had to write lines of it once because I bent Timothy Low’s last reed pen in half.

I’m so sick of the old words, I almost want to touch our door when the fire comes. Yes, I want to just reach out and touch that stupid, craggy door. Especially tonight, with the sky hissing and growling so loudly. I wonder if I can feel the fire through our big stone door.  

My fingers skitter across the frame and I sigh. Cold, cold, cold. I guess it hasn’t started firing yet. I stretch my feet out until my toes complain. Then I stand and pull grandpop’s old slate cover from the window.

The sky looks like lava. Lightning splits the night all over, and the clouds swirl in purple darkness like they want to suck the world up into their bellies. The cloud edges are starting to glow. That means the fire’s coming. I should really put the slate back and get away from the door. But the sky is so beautiful. My breath is stuck somewhere between my ribs and my heart won’t stop shivering. I think I’m falling in love with the fire-night sky.

Then the first sparks begin to fall, and I realize I’m just scared.

The first firedrops could be a stamped-out cigarette. Our neighbor smokes, and I’ve seen the butt of his nasty -stick skip and spark across the ground just like that. The first drop I see smacks against the dirt ground with a chuff and a sigh. It pops into a thousand littler sparks. They dance and die just as fast, leaving dots behind my eyelids. The fire is falling faster now. Hissing and snapping, they eat the air and burst into flames. Those flames roar hungry and snap up anything they can touch. The Carlsie’s mattress is the first to go. I guess they didn’t take it in quick enough. When I see how ferociously fire can snap soft things up and spit them out black, my brain turns traitor with the awful what ifs.

What if fire learns to eat our homes of stone? What if it never stops falling this time? Will the air get too hot to breathe? What if the sky doesn’t forgive us this time? What if my friends didn’t make it inside? Nothing looks pretty burned black, and I’d miss them so much.

A clothing line shrieks as the bigger brimstones melt through its metal. I duck my head between my elbows and knees. My eyes and ears are squeezed shut, as tight as tight can be…but I don’t know how to shut my mind’s eye. It keeps going, showing the black and fire-bitten leftovers of the people and the things that I want to keep, want to keep, keep! Because—because I love them. I love them, and it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous to love with a sky like ours.

Warm arms cover and squeeze me. Momma’s here, holding me tight. I guess the storm finally woke her up; she and Poppa sure know how to sleep through a firefall. I guess they’ve just had a longer time to get used to it.

“Baby,” Momma’s saying as she rocks me. “Baby, it’s okay. It’s just a firestorm. It won’t hurt you.”

But it can hurt me. Nobody’s stupid enough to stick around outside at night when the sky turns orange, but I’ve seen what a firefall did to Mary-Maree’s dog last year. It was horrible, and I couldn’t eat for the rest of the day because I felt so sick. Maybe I’m safe inside our house, but it’s just a wall and a bit of stupid rock that keep me that way. Right outside that, the sky is hissing and spitting; it wants to eat me. It just can’t right now. I turn my face into Momma’s robe. She smells like lavender.

Momma says, “Do you want to sleep with me and Poppa tonight?”

I nod.

Poppa hasn’t woken up at all. He stays asleep even when I crawl shakily over his legs to nestle between him and Momma. His rib bones poke against my back as he snores, and I grab one of Momma’s spare pillows to protect myself. Momma’s hair makes my nose itch, but I don’t mind too much. The tickly warmth and quiet start to settle into my mind’s eye, drowning out those pictures with a lack of loneliness. There’s no way I can sleep, but at least I feel better. I spend the night awake. Sometimes, I drift between a doze and a dream. When I drift, I see pictures of sunlight and mellow, blue sky with fat white clouds that look like rabbit tails. It’s all so beautiful that I cry myself awake.

Rain patters on our slate roof. That means the firefall is over.

It feels like morning, but probably not morning enough to be awake. I don’t care. Wriggling away from Momma and Poppa, I slip onto the floor. The dreams I saw dozing stick in my heart. I almost feel like if I go outside in the rain, I could see a bit of blue.

Mist and smoke burn my eyes as I step out the door. Mist because cold rain is hitting hot rock. Smoke because the fire is a sore loser and it doesn’t die easy. My throat is starting to hurt. I wrap my scarf three times around my chin and nose…not too tight, just right. That’s something else they taught us in school. It’s more useful than the old words about wooden doors.

The sky isn’t indigo now. It looks more like mauve. That’s another new word for purple that I learned; someday I’ll know them all. Mauve means morning, and the sky is growing softer with it. Sometimes the clouds glow with a bit of leftover lightning. This lightning is quiet and pale, like worm ghosts in the sky. The rain is falling slower. That’s a shame; fresh water isn’t something we get a lot of.

The falling water makes the air sweeter each minute. I lift my face and let it splash on my skin. Rainfall is the treasure chest that we get after surviving the dragon of firefall. It always feels like the sky decided to forgive us for clogging it up with clouds. Or maybe we made the fire, just like we made the grumpy, swollen clouds. Maybe the sky hurts even worse than we do.

I wish the fire would talk. If it could tell us where it came from, maybe we could fix things. The clouds have covered our sky for so long, and firefall is such a lasting part of our lives. We’re supposed to learn about what caused the clouds next year in school. Maybe I’ll steal my cousin’s book and read ahead. All I know is that the last blue sky disappeared when Grandpop’s poppa was my age. That’s like forever ago. How do you fix forever?

My brain is going in circles. I pick up my feet and run, pretending I’m a knight chasing firefall away. I run and run to the top of the hill standing over our town. The ground is still hot against my bare feet, but I can feel it getting cooler. If my toes start to burn, I can jump in a puddle. They’re not too deep and still make steam where the ground is rocky. My feet got tough enough to run barefoot when I was small. I had to run on them every day. Maybe I’ll toughen up too every time the fire falls.

At the top of the hill, I pull to a stop. There’s more rock than mud up here; it holds onto the heat of fire too well. I have to dance, one foot to the other, as I stare up at the sky. I’m looking for blue.

A blackened branch scrapes against my toes. I can feel myself smiling as I lift it up, up, up. “I’ll be less scared next time,” I whisper, but to me it’s a shout. I know the clouds can hear me because they rumble. I shake my ashy stick. “One day, I won’t be scared at all!” Then, I stick my tongue out, just in time to catch a raindrop on it. It’s so, so sweet. Sweeter than ice cream.

And that’s when I see it—just for a moment, quicker than the first sparks that dance and die on our broken, raw roads at night—I see a bit of blue. It’s the bluest blue I’ve seen, bluer than Timothy Low’s eyes when I make him cry. The clouds around it are puffy, rimming white.

I’m definitely falling in love with the sky. I cry and laugh at the same time until my cheeks and belly ache. But it’s the good kind of ache. I lift my stupid, wooden stick again and realize how small I am. I am small, but I want that blue sky.

Keep your head down, and don’t touch the door. I think the adults say that because they don’t know what else to do. Maybe they’re just as scared as I am when the fire falls. But there’s rain after a firefall, right? Every single time. Maybe there’s always this tiny patch of blue above us and we’ve just never seen it. We never will if we always keep our heads down.

“I’m going to find you!” This time, I really do shout. From now on, I’ll raise my head and lift my voice. I’ll look up, not down. When I grow up enough, I’ll look for the blue sky with more than just my bare feet and a burnt stick. Maybe the fire always falls because the sky can’t do anything to change it. Maybe it’s always been up to us. If we were the ones who put the clouds in the sky and brought the fire raining down, shouldn’t we be the ones who make things right?

“I’m going to fix you,” I say, whispering again. The blue sky is gone, fading back into a mix of indigo and mauve. So much purple and so many words for it. Are there just as many words for blue?

Not even adults know why the fire falls. I guess that means I’ll never learn the answer in school. Momma says we live in the end of everything, that this is just our world taking one last breath. Poppa tells her not to scare me. He says life has always been like this, that we made up blue skies and storms with just rain to give ourselves something to dream about.

Adults should learn to agree on things like this.       

I am Dusty Liesl Strathmore. I’m not an adult, not yet. But when you’re little, you know things adults have forgotten. I know it doesn’t really matter why the fire falls; what matters is when it does. When the fire falls, we need to watch the sky.

When the fire falls, we need to find out how to put it out. We need to learn how to live again.   

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