The fires started in the dead of winter, springing up out of the frost-coated ground like demons. They rose up in four swirling columns, like orange swizzle sticks, unmoving in their paths and unyielding to water.
Those too old to fathom such things, and too young to comprehend science, declared that the fiery searchlights were sentinels from hell, announcing their kingdom’s presence. We watched from our porch those first few nights, too afraid to go any closer. Scientists came, took measurements and declared our town a natural wonder. The earth, it appeared, had built up gases in our small region that no one knew about, and when those gassy pockets had grown too large they’d erupted onto the surface, igniting as they hit our atmosphere. Men with degrees from Yale and Stanford, UCLA and MIT, eventually decided the flow of gases would cease and the fires would dwindle and die on their own in a matter of months. There were awards and proclamations, and even a giant parade down Main Street. The major networks came and interviewed the scientists in front of the pillars with their plaques and their smugness visible in front of the entire world.
Then, as quickly as they’d invaded, they left to chase another story.
I had let him finger me in art class the previous fall, let his callused, fumbling, mechanic hands grope me while we studied Van Gogh and Degas on flattened slides. There was no pleasure in the act, no orgasm to speak of, just my heart as it skipped a beat and my breath as it quickened a little. I would have given money to feel that alive, but feeling me up seemed a sufficient payment for him.
He thought I belonged to him, thought that because he had marked me in such a public way I would fall down on my knees and love him forever. That was the problem with farm boys: all they wanted was to control me, own me in a way I couldn’t own myself.
But, like the fires I belonged to no one.
They had been burning for a week when I went to see them the first time, slipping out of my house in nothing more than a large grey T-shirt. I wanted the cold to sting my skin, to lash out and punish me, but instead the warmth of the fires spread through me. I felt the intense heat wash over me, proclaim me a sinner, and set me free.
I watched their flames dance for hours in the darkness, calling out to in a primal ritual I felt myself swaying to even when I didn’t know the beat. But it didn’t matter. The rhythm was as ingrained in me as the pulsing of my own heart, and I danced until my feet were numb and blistered before I found my way home.
Daytime became the dream, dancing with the fires became my life.
I didn’t need a schoolboy to make me feel alive; I had the dance of the beginning and the end inside me. One night as I swayed against the darkness, the wind swirled around the column in front of me, untying one of its strands and whipping it across my body. A string of blisters stood out like beads on my forehead, branding my flesh with its touch, proclaiming me as its own. And I let it.
That was the night he’d come to my house, certain I would run away with him, marry him, and be his living trophy. He followed me, saw me strip naked and dance with the flames and knew I was no longer bound by this world. He must have told his friends over a six-pack, or confided in them during the hushed pre-dawn hours of hunting season.
Either way they had discovered my secret, and they wanted me back. I could feel their eyes stalking me in the corridors at school, knew they were planning a way to retrieve me from the fire. I would dream I was running through the night, the ice sheathed blades of grass cutting into my bare feet. I knew they were behind me, running, panting, chanting in the howling voices of adolescence.
I could not out run them. I could not find my fires.
I remembered how it felt to have human contact, how his rough fingers scratched over my thigh, stroking the inside of me, and it had never been as freeing as the dance. The movements that swelled up within me, the way my hands moved through the air, and the feel of my sweat-slick flesh, had given me what he couldn’t.
Now I am in this desolate land alone, running, begging for another chance at salvation in the heat, praying their hands wouldn’t find me, knowing tomorrow I would be nothing more than ashes in the fire’s wake.