Lick of Fire
My mother died beneath the ice on Red Leaf Lake on my sixteenth birthday. I watched from the cellar, where my mother kept me if I was unruly. It wasn’t like the scary Carrie movie (though it was the seventies): the fanatical mother locks her daughter in a closet to pray for forgiveness. My mother wasn’t religious. If she was fanatical about suppressing my manic-depressive symptoms, she executed her home remedies with calm and steady rational explanations: manic-depressive episodes had been my father’s undoing; it would not be the undoing of me; I would go to the cellar, where there were no distractions or stimulations to ignite my brain; I would sew because the steady rhythm of the needle would soothe me while providing a skill for a humble, but dependable vocation.
Decades later, while I step through the burnt debris of my childhood home, I know she fed me half-truths. That day, on my birthday, I was intuitively aware that the other half contained a lot of lies to protect her more than me. On that particular day, I didn’t want to be fixed. I wanted to be me completely. I refused to touch the cold, industrial sewing machine. Instead, I stared out the window in stunned amazement at the fire licking its way up my mother’s pants legs while she ran toward the lake.
When my daughter, Vegas, returned to the burnt carcass of our home, I took form of a very red cardinal and flapped myself around her, an erratic heart, singing sheer happiness that she had come back after all these years. But my daughter was not conversant with the language of spirits.
Dead, I could not sustain form in the bird for very long. Within seconds, my spirit fell away from the red bird. I dissolved back into my invisible death, where I could not chirp nor speak nor request her forgiveness. I could only watch her from the mangled, tangled caves of upturned trees, where I existed forever within the foundation of everything: nestled in the softness of the lakeshore, hidden amongst the worms and centipedes, asleep in the deep veins of the earth's crevices. I became the entangled roots of the eldest trees. I touched her feet with my ancient fingers. I shadowed her with my new born leaves.
It was an awful name to give a child. My mother realized this almost immediately once the euphoria of a newborn baby gave way to diapers, feedings and lack of sleep. But it was too late. The papers had already been sent, and my impulsive, large, outlandish father genuinely loved the name.
In Spanish countries, where most words sound warm, spicy and floral, Vegas means fertile meadow. For astronomy buffs, it is the fifth brightest star in the night sky. But we were not Spanish. In our tired, working class neighborhood, we did not know anyone Spanish either. During the shadowy eclipse of my early childhood, I did not once meet a kind-hearted astronomer who patted my head and said, “Oh, how lovely!” after asking, “What is your name, little girl?”
In the tiny, square, war-time bungalow world where I lived, “Vegas” meant neon lights, slot machines and scantily-clad women wearing brassieres with beads twirling from the ends of their nipples. It meant somewhere far away and sinful. It meant sex for the taking. People looked away in disgust when I told them my name as if I, a small child, was sinful. My mother tried to convince me that it was disgust for my father, not for me. But I knew, even then, that I was just like him, that we had the same unyielding rise of energy that could ignite a room while burn others out completely. Even as a child, I understood the exasperation and exhaustion in my mother’s eyes. I knew it was there because of him and me.
It was not until after my father’s death, when my mother moved us to a town surrounded, fittingly enough, by endless meadow did she try to change my name to Vee. I refused it. If you look it up in a baby-name dictionary, it means absolutely nothing.
He named me. She tried to erase me.
She kept me hidden among the flattest, most fertile farms in the province, where at night, the stars shone bright with undiluted irony over my complete invisibility.
The man I had loved the most loved had nicks in his fingers, chunks missing at the joints. Oil and blood had sunk permanently down to the moon of his nails. All day he stuck his hands into the jagged mouths of automobiles, and would take them out in the evening, eaten alive by the engines. When he closed the shop, his energy would eat the streets looking for excitement. He’d arrive at the factory where I was a seamstress, knock his scabbed fist on the window by my station, then shadow box, his broad shoulders shifting to the left, to the right before he curled one in to a sudden hook at the window, “Punch the clock, pretty lady!” he’d say. “The Legion awaits us!”
At the Legion, with the other returned soldiers, he was the largest in stature and in personality. All eyes were on his swing dance moves, his beers and cheers and jokes, and then a rapid delivery of knuckle sandwiches to anyone who was mouthy enough to give him lip. He loved to fight. While my new husband bloodied other men’s faces, broadcast of the night’s hockey game would sound from the radio behind the bar. I was his war bride, new to this country. I was accustomed to unexpected explosions and the deadly silence after a blitz. In Canada, I thought Saturday night fistfights were just the hurly burly Canadian way. Because he always won his battles, it made me feel safe.
When I found myself responsible for the sweet little life of a baby, the doctor who delivered her instructed me that my husband was none of the things I admired. He was manic-depressive, he said, and potentially dangerous. He made my husband seem obscene.
“It was reprehensible to allow that man’s illness to name that baby,” he chided before he sent me on my way.
I tried to stay true to what I originally believed to be my husband, but the doctor’s tongue stung. Steadily, my perception of him changed. Steadily, my love turned to shame.
The last time I was with my father, we had roamed the streets while my mother worked at the sewing factory. He had nicked some paint from the shop he told me with a wink.
“How would you like to paint the town, little lady? It’s lookin’ a little ugly to me.”
He took me to the buildings he thought were the worst, placed me on his shoulders, then handed me a brush dripping with fumes and colors and told me to go crazy.
“Look at that!” he said. “You’re a regular Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse.”
I thought he was reciting beautiful ice cream flavors like pistachio, spumoni, vanilla bean.
Then we went home. It wasn’t until my mother returned from her shift did the house utter a hush so profound it entered the small open pores of my skin. Worn wood released small moans and the sound of cracked bones as my mother mounted the stairs.
She stood in the doorway. My father, I thought, was asleep in my bed, the scent of dry tobacco (he rolled his own cigarettes) mingled with my stuffed animals. She looked at him and then locked eyes with me. It was the first time I remember being truly afraid. She took me by the hand and led me to the kitchen, where she washed my hands spotless before she sat me snugly on a cushioned chair. She set out four chocolate digestive cookies with a cool mug of milk, and told me to wait there.
When she returned, she crouched down so she had to look up at me to speak, “I am so sorry, my sweetness. But it seems your daddy has passed away.”
I didn’t know what those words meant either, but I pictured him floating, like a leaf of white tobacco paper, out the bedroom window, onto the wind, away from me.
There had been heavy winds. The large walnut tree on our front lawn had shook and swayed. A dead branch the size of a large, thick walking stick had landed on our doorstep. It was raw from the harsh weather, clean of bark so it looked almost pink. I was very tired. I was always tired. My fingers were numb with pain. I left the stick where it was while I entered my house.
There was blood everywhere. The walls were covered in it. My breath stopped as if caught on a fishhook in my chest. His violence had turned against our baby girl. He had ripped her apart.
But when I got closer, I saw that it was really red paint and glue sparkles that glistened like wet blood. She must have sat on his shoulders to reach. The realization should have relieved me. Instead, it released an unexpected viciousness in me. I would have none of this. I did not work all day to come home to the horror of red paint.
Standing in the doorway of my daughter’s bedroom, I found my husband asleep in her bed. A stench hovered around her small body and bed. I looked into her eyes, and I decided that she would not grow up to be like him: battling anyone who got in her way, impulsively painting perfectly good walls with bloody red paint, drinking and dancing and smoking hand rolled cigarettes, and saying whatever she pleased, so the neighbors would cross the street to avoid us. I was exhausted. I could no longer take it.
I made sure she was safe before I returned in my stocking feet to the front porch, where I retrieved the branch. As I climbed the stairs, my arms were hard with muscle. My chest heaved and expanded. My plan made me feel both frightened and strong as I stood over him. Since the war, I had clung to him like a confused child. I had loved him for the extremity of all his moods and adventures. Now my feelings turned into something else, something calm and ugly. He slept, unaware, so I woke him. He opened his bloodshot eyes. And then I pulled the large, knotted branch from behind my back and beat him until I thought he was dead.
As a child, grief for my father sat in my chest like a wounded bird. Stunned. Staring. Breathing, but just barely. Wings held tight to the body without flight. It remained silent, suppressing a call for help that would shatter glass if it ever opened its beak.
But his death gave my mother relief. She gained weight and strength. Fat and muscle moved fluidly under her skin as she chopped wood, hauled hay for the goats, scattered scratch grain for the chickens, and planted seeds that magically metamorphosized into thick, plump vegetables or beans that she would stew in gigantic steaming pots. Her favorite dish was black-eyed peas with bacon. As I grew older, I found all those eyes unsettling. I refused to eat.
I wanted to plant a forest around the house to keep my daughter a secret. A kitchen would be in the center of the house. My daughter would be in the center of the kitchen. A heart would be in the center of my daughter, and I would be in the center of that heart. I tried to feed that heart until it was stuffed blind.
I see now that I made a mistake that many parents make: believe that children's minds are much too small to retain the disagreeable details from their childhood, that we can make death and even disorder go away with enough good intentions and delicious baking. That now seems very silly.
By fifteen years old, I had the skill of a professional seamstress. After my farm duties, my mother taught me to work with cotton candy organza, shimmery chiffon, and silk so soft, it would slide off the sewing machine’s bed as if fainting from the sight of the needle. They were fabrics made for fairy tales and happy endings. But at night everything changed. My bedroom was a bloody chamber. That is an exaggeration, but at night things seemed darker, bloodier, more awful than they really are, and the dreams that woke me seemed real. I rarely slept.
The numbness from my sleepless nights gave me an edge of energy that made me feel spiritual, magical—not really part of this world. On this plain, I was invincible. Time dissolved. My mind was wide open and alive. Awake, I could dream good dreams. I became a creature scratching at the sky. Stars shone under my fingernails. The blackness of night sky sunk like happy bruises to the moons of my nails. I was my father’s daughter again.
One morning, my mother opened my bedroom door to find I had I pulled down the ceiling of my room while she was asleep. The mold and decay of old dry wall, insulation and mouse shit was scattered around my feet, but the high roof with its bare naked rafters gave me relief. During the night, fireflies had snuck into the roof’s holes to keep me company. I was Vegas. I was a human star living among my fellow firelight beings. I was free.
But she learned to read the level of electricity in me that might lead to these inspired frenzies. When she suspected sparks, she would hide me in her small, square, box of a sewing room in the cellar, where she made me sit at that machine for hours. I made nothing. No pretty dress nor pantsuit nor curtains for the kitchen. Just stitch after stitch on a wave of fabric as if sewing bridges. It would make me seasick. The wave would enter my head. It thrashed onto the shores of my skull and back out again. When the waves created tremors, I got scared. I would stare out the window at the lake and shudder, alone, from the stress. I should have seen a doctor, but my mother said they would take me away if they found me. I had to remain a secret. I was older now.
“Who will take me away? Why am I a secret?”
She would not answer. She told me to sew. I was afraid of her, so I continued in an electric little rage that probably would have killed me had she not died first.
I baked a red velvet cake with sixteen sparklers. I prepared a milkshake with milk and cherries. It was once her favorite. I moved towards her, singing the birthday song when she picked up the milkshake and threw it at me. It dripped down the wall, a slow moving stain. She smiled.
I could not breath.
“You’re a tyrant,” I said finally.
“Tyrant?” she mimicked.
There was a sudden heaviness to my existence. I slowed to a dream state. Black bugs arrived out of nowhere and landed on my hands. It was winter. Where did they come from? Did I drop the cake? It is a fierce blank moment. She was the opposite of me: bone thin. I was fleshy, muscular and strong, but she bared her bones like teeth while I dragged her to the sewing room.
I cleaned the kitchen and cried heavily. What did I do to deserve this? I didn’t notice the fire forming around my feet. The sweet, chemical smell of polyester stung my nose before the searing pain burned my ankles. The thought of water sent me running for the lake. It wasn’t until I stood on the ice did I see the fire moving about the house like a released red snake. My skin sizzled and melted into my bones. I radiated pain, but I looked for my daughter. I called her.
“Vegas! Get out!”
The ice cracked into a million slivers before it imploded below my feet. I fell into the cold water and sunk to the bottom of the lake. Relief.
I rose back up through the icy water. I shifted and squirmed, searching for light, but I could not find a hole to escape. I tried to scream. A wave of water filled my chest. I smashed my fists against the lake’s frozen ceiling, trying to break through but it would not break. My body surrendered to the silence.
From the cellar, I watched as my panicked mother ran to the frozen lake to relieve her burning skin. The fire turned the ice to a puddle around her feet. She screamed my name before she disappeared like a sinking apparition. The lake swallowed her whole. Her body slid beneath the lake’s glass, where she drowned, her fists clenched against its icy underbelly as if she were knocking to be released. Only when absolute silence overtook the ice, did I think to smash the cellar’s window to escape.
About the Author
Marnie Maguire lives in Aurora, Ontario, Canada. She was diagnosed with bi-polar "disorder" in 1999, so it informs a lot of her writing. She synthesizes her understanding of the experience through the metaphor of story. For example, this particular story explores the dichotomy of the manic and the depressive state. Though she has experienced many ups and downs, like many people with mental illness, she has lived an extremely full and productive life with a supportive family: her incredible mom, sons, husband, and talking husky, Levon.
Many thanks to Ann Ireland, who edited parts of this story before she passed away in 2018.