portion of the artwork for Shelagh Power-Chopra's fiction

The Dreadful Story of Harriet and the Matches
Shelagh Power-Chopra

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 name; 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 Greek 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 all right?

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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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 34 | Fall 2011