The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches
You’ll burn to death if you do so. I love to say those words to him;
they’re just on the precipice of danger; a slippery ledge of ice and
stone where one lingers. Like a sailor who crouches and squints at the horizon
but never tastes the water. The world looks foggy and dim and you take
the first step; into the fire, into the memory pit, flames or favors, you decide.
I can’t say much for fire except it’s a cruel master. Smoke signals
and coal walkers. Fire-eaters: kings of the heat. Harriet was his helpmeet.
An old flame with fiery red hair—but only above and not below. A lover
left on that ledge, a bride asleep on our threshold. Why Harriet? I asked.
I could never swoon for that
it was scratchy in the throat, a thorn left inside by a freckled woman. Oh,
but it rolls off the tongue so well, he would say, and when I was very angry
with her, I’d yodel: “Oh, Harriet, oh, Harriet! You’ve harmed
my little ego.”
She favored candles, wax, and solvents, built
bonfires on the sand and danced around them. Marshmallows blackening and a
dark bottle of wine sinking in the sand, and Harriet, drunk as the water, and
Peter slinking close, eyes shut against the tide. She drowned in fire but like
fire it washed her clean. And I still leave the matches out so she’ll
burn herself more; lose an arm to blisters, burn the bridge of her nose and
singe her lashes and we’ll tell each other it’s all right. Is it
Peter and I traveled once to a foreign country and on the streets they cleaned
our ears with long, thin sticks that looked like matches and I roamed around
and tilted my head at the language. I found a man there and we became lovers
for a brief moment near a tea stall; he boiled water on a flame and poured
tea as he kissed my neck. Another purveyor of fire.
Through all this, this scenic conclusion, Peter slept, in the hotel—a
nap at noon, boxes of matches on his bedside table. The matches were colorful
and one showed a profile of a man with a turban, the other was an ox bearing
a wooden cart; the last was a camel, solitary against an orange background.
And the cats cry and the cats mewl, telling us not to play, not to test our
theories, not to harm old loves or they will lose flavor.
Fire is grounded. Fire is here.
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