A gloomier house you would not find, perched there atop the hill, complete with a German Shepherd to guard it and a rattle trap barn in the rear. The main structure stood at the end of a long gravel drive, amid trees whose dark and icy shadows embraced our slight shoulders. A wind rattled the last leaves on the spindly branches, and the ones that scuttled across the gravel like crabs and mice and lemmings.
The house stands unoccupied, abandoned by the owners, the O’Leary’s, now living in Pennsylvania. They are unable to sell the once-magnificent white clapboard house with its grand staircase of now rotting boards to trip the unsuspecting. So imposing it doesn’t need locks. Its reputation for horror and bad dreams are quite enough to keep out vandals. Or maybe vandals themselves contributed to its demise what with the clap-trappy state of the place. Nevertheless, this frightening structure is rooted like a vine deep within our imaginations.
In the front yard is a well, where we drop many a stone and a penny to try and hear it hit water or dirt. We are just looking for some definition to our boundaries. There are signs reading “Don’t Trespass” and “Danger” which we never mind anyway. The bottomless well, the lonely tire swing swaying in the wind or its own haunted propulsion are not enough to stop us.
We stand on tiptoe at the kitchen’s back window to peek inside at the shifty stacks of mail on a table, nothing opened, all unread. Our sight continuing to sweep the room, over the kerosene lamp, andirons, and butter churn until the German Shepherd’s bark runs us off. Yet, the dog has never been seen and though the house is never entered, it creaks all the same. But we are drawn to the barn.
The barn we can get into so we do. Bales of straw piled in corners for long ago sheep whose stench remains in the barn-boards and the stalls, some of their wooliness in cobwebs. The straw was ideal for extending fire. Matches enthrall me. Once I set a book of matches on fire, dropped them in the ashtray and watched as the ashtray split from the heat.
Firebug, my dad called me. My mom told me to quit.
Younger children revere me. I enter O’Leary’s barn near dusk with Tracy and Ellen following. Fire and esteem have my head swimming. I am going to strike a match.
The neighbor girls’ eyes shine bright, their eyes fastened on me and what I take from my pocket. School teaches fire safety; our families scold, “Don’t play with matches.” But like the warning signs on the O’Leary’s property, I ignore them.
“We’re in O’Leary’s ramshackle barn,” Tracy says.
“Our shoes are caked with mud,” says Ellen.
“We’re going to be whipped anyway,” I say. The sulphur smell in the air, the match I strike illuminating the three of us, the stalls, and straw. “Voila!”
The first match’s flame descends until I have to drop it. Two, three, four, five more. One, when it drops, touches a strand of straw and glides along it before winking out. Once each match goes out, the barn appears eerier, darker, bereft. Our small hands huddle together holding a teepee of straw. A lit match makes it burn brightly. Ever more teepees, ever more burning, until I touch the last match to a whole straw bale and then the fire takes the next bale and the next, eventually catching the stall boards and the posts. Like an electric bird it flies to the rafters and cuts across the main beam. We stay rooted, watching until the roof comes down and the sides fall in.
Outside the grass slashes so cool against our ankles. Dead grass, but grass all the same. Once green, it almost feels wet to us. We remember we want a drink, and run to the well. No water there, but we are a little out of our minds. Fire does that, it covers everything and then clouds, scars. It makes you forget. It overcomes you. It overcame us. It’s why horses panic in a fire, why they stampede and why they mow down one another in their fright. We try to find each other in the dark, and only come up with two and still parched.
“You pushed Tracy in the well!” Ellen cries.
I swear it was like flicking a match, it was that easy.
Screams and sirens and suffering smoke. You can’t tell who is alive or dead, white or black, blond or brown. Neighbors are everywhere, rescue folks, gawkers you can’t begin to count. The revolving red lights of night where all numbers, letters, identification burn. Even the long-dead sheep are screaming a cry I never want to hear again. Call it purified, the burning barn is beautiful to me. My fingers itch to strike another match.
Tracy disappears, but not in the well. But, we knew that, didn’t we? She walked out of the barn like a stick on fire, her blond curls sparking, her fingertips smoldering, her shoes burning a path brightly to O’Leary’s back door, where she knocked, where she bleated with what was left of her voice, her little handprint a ghost burn on the bottom of the door.