I know autumn is coming when my thoughts turn gleefully toward the macabre. I was given an impromptu writing prompt by a friend, which on the surface seemed wildly out of my wheelhouse due to its seemingly comedic bent. Well, my brain somehow managed to turn it into the story that follows. To my friend, I apologize in advance for totally cheating on the last sentence. To everyone else, I hope you enjoy.
My mother always told me not to play with fire.
Perhaps it was a warning I should have heeded more carefully, but her caution only served to provoke my interest. If she’d never said anything, I’d probably have been one of those lucky children who burn their hands on the stove and subsequently learn their lesson with no more suffering than some raw skin under a bandage for a few days.
But no, that was not to be my fate. As I stand here, shivering, struggling to fight against the elements with no defense, I can think of nothing beyond how I arrived here. Perhaps if I impart my tale now to the frigid winds, the words will float back in time, to my young mind as a proper warning, or forward into the second thoughts of mothers who first think to instill temptation into their children.
What no one ever tells you is that there are many different kinds of fire, and they all burn in their own special ways. There is a very specific name for the species of fire that would be my downfall. Its name was Woman. I never knew her given name.
I’d seen men watching her, but it wasn’t until she looked into my eyes for the first time that I understood why.
She’d come to my master’s shop while he’d been out. I was apprenticed to a blacksmith, much to my mother’s chagrin. The skies were threatening snow that day. People pulled their clothes tight around them, as if doing so would somehow protect against the biting cold. But she did not cower. She walked as if it were a spring day, and the wind rewarded her, playing with her hair, which was black as night, perfectly disheveling it like a lover would, obscuring her face but hiding none of her beauty.
She entered and closed the door behind her. With one toss of her head, her hair parted, and her eyes locked onto mine. They were blacker than her hair, and I could not look away. And then she smiled, and something in them flashed, and I felt as if my very bones were on fire. My vocation had given me a tolerance for heat, but this was like nothing I’d ever felt. To this day I cannot remember if she spoke a word, but I understood her perfectly. Her cauldron had rusted through, and she needed a new one, a stronger one. I told her I’d see to it personally, as if this would impress her. She smiled at me again, and then left.
After that, I was always looking for her, every moment of every day, and even worse at night. Always burning. As the years passed, the height of my obsession grew with the height of my body. Everyone watched her, but I watched her best. Sometimes at night, I would see her through my window, leading a man down an alley. And she would see me. I would not look away — I don’t even know if I could have — and she would hold my gaze, smiling as if she knew my most secret thoughts, until she disappeared into the dark with her conquest. Some nights I was convinced I’d wake up nothing more than a pile of ash. Some nights I would have welcomed such a destiny. Anything for relief from the fire.
Finally, I could take no more. I would either consume the source of these flames or I would be consumed by them entirely. As soon as night fell, I ventured out. It was the dead of winter, and the ground was white, but I felt nothing but heat.
I hurried toward the alley where I’d seen her take so many men. It never occurred to me to consider whether or not those men had ever returned. My mind could only think of her. I turned the corner into it and stopped in my tracks. There at the end, she waited. She smiled, and her eyes flashed. The fever was unbearable. She put a finger to her lips, and then it was outstretched to me, beckoning me toward her. I stepped forward, and she stepped back. She said nothing, and yet I understood. I followed without any thought at all.
We wound our way through the darkest streets, her eyes always alight, my soul threatening to incinerate me from the inside out. No matter how fast my pace, I could never catch her. I never hesitated once, not even at the edge of the forest. While mothers warned of fire, fathers warned of this place — always dark and full of spirits, they said. A picture from a storybook flickered in my mind — a fairylight leading a man toward an unseen cliff — but it was quickly snuffed out by my blazing heart, so bent on catching its only desire.
She was so far ahead of me now. I was broke into a sprint, terrified of losing sight of her. I had only the now-constant glow of her eyes as my compass. Suddenly, I found myself in a clearing. In my surprise, I stopped. The moon illuminated the land, all I saw was her. Standing mere paces away, she waited.
I took a step toward her, but this time she did not move. Another, and still she remained. I continued until I could have reached out and touched her, but I was too afraid. She smiled, and her eyes blazed orange. She embraced me, and her lips found mine. The heat up until now had been nothing. Her fire engulfed me, scorched my very being. Never had I imagined such torment and such ecstasy.
And then, at the brink of what I was sure would be my complete incineration, everything suddenly, inexplicably, went cold. I opened my eyes. She was gone.
The wind cut through me, and I reached to pull my shirt up around my neck, but my hands found nothing. I looked at my arms and saw bare, blistered skin. My eyes travelled down my torso and to where my shoes had been. There I saw my bare feet, and under them nothing but ash-covered ice.
I searched the landscape for her but found nothing. Not even my own tracks remained. I realized I was standing in the dead center of a frozen lake, surrounded by snow-covered trees in every direction, with no indication of the one from which I’d come.
And here I remain. How I long for that excruciating fire now, the fire that brought me here, to the middle of nowhere, naked and slowly freezing to death. I try to recall her embrace, to draw some of the warmth from my memory, but I feel nothing but pain. My only comfort is in knowing that soon, very soon, I shall feel nothing at all.
© 2011 Elizabeth Ditty