Zhanai’degau sample

Part One: The Cavern of Fire

Chapter One: Bonfire

The bonfire was bigger than she had thought it would be. The flames leaped six, seven, eight feet into the late afternoon summer sky, and were reflected in the windows of the house, and of the smaller of the two garages. The larger garage was on the other side of the back yard.

It was just a tree, just the remains of a large Siberian elm, fully dead at last since fall. But she was glad to see it burn, as if, somehow, its destruction by fire could heal the damage it had done.

Burning the tree was the right thing to do. Except for the image of the pleading woman in the dancing flames.

#

Jeanette had first seen the woman about five weeks ago, when Steve had taken her to her favorite candle-lit restaurant. There was no special reason, he just did things like that sometimes. She had first noticed something odd about the two flames of the candles while waiting for desert. When she looked directly at them, she saw that there was a tiny face in each. The two were the same, the face of a woman which wavered when the flames did. Steve noticed her startlement and asked her about it. She mentioned the face before thinking, and he assumed that she was seeing the same kind of illusory face that one sometimes sees in a cluster of leaves, or in the texture of a rock. She did not insist.

The second time was a morning two days later, when sunlight from the bathroom window reflected off the surface of the mirror, making it difficult for her to see herself. This time the image — in the glare, not in the mirror itself — was life-sized, but transparent like the glare on the glass. She stared at it, unable to think. The woman was young, and attractive, and distressed. Then the light changed, and the glare and the image were gone.

The face had appeared after that, with greater or lesser clarity, in most glassy reflections, was hinted at in the glints off chrome, and was clearly visible in the stove flame when it was turned up high. She didn’t mention it to Steve again, afraid he might think she was hallucinating.

She had known, before starting the bonfire, that the woman would be there, but she did it anyway. She had cut the tree up, and she could have left it for weeks if it were just a matter of clearing away the sections of trunk, the branches, the twigs and leaves. But every time she saw it all lying there, it was as if she were seeing it whole, the first time after it had fallen. The need for emotional release made her burn the tree now. She needed to act out her anger and her grief in some physical way, even if there was the inexplicable image of a woman in the fire. The tree would burn, and then it would be over.

There was nothing unusual down near the coals, only the shimmering shapes from which people’s imaginations sometimes created pictures. The image of the woman was in the upper flames, flickering not quite in synchrony with their dance. She watched, and the image became stronger, if not clearer, many subtly differing images one after the other, superimposed on each other.

The woman was five or six years older than she, dressed in what looked like a bad movie’s idea of rustic medieval clothing, a dark brown vest laced over a rather full-sleeved shirt of pale muted green, and dark, almost black trousers, rather loose around the legs, held up by a broad black belt, with a heavy but plain brass buckle. Something hung from the belt by her left hip. The woman seemed to be looking right at her, though it was impossible to tell for sure with the images so rapidly replacing each other. And though the woman did not hold out her hands to her, there was more than a suggestion, felt rather than seen, of pleading, in her posture, and in her expression.

#

She tossed another dry branch onto the blaze and stepped back out of the ensuing shower of sparks. Even if they landed on her they wouldn’t hurt her. Her tee shirt was soaked with sweat, front and back, and her hair was just as wet and hung unpleasantly around her face. She wanted the tree gone tonight, so that she wouldn’t have to see it whenever she came out into the back yard.

The funeral, only yesterday, had left her exhausted. It had been closed-casket of course. But she kept on imagining that she could see through the dark polished mahogany, and the steel which lined it. Sometimes the image in her mind was of Steve as she had seen him sleeping next to her. At others, it had been as he had looked when the rescue squad had finally gotten him out from under the tree she was now burning. Either way, the anguish made her throat clench, her stomach knot, and the skin of her face and arms tight and hot. But she had not cried.

Old Mr. Seaton, her neighbor on the side beyond the fire, came out into his back yard and up to the fence. He stood there a moment, hands in his pockets, watching. “I see you got most of it.” He was somewhere in his late seventies, long retired, stocky, bald, and pleasant in a placid sort of way. “Looks like you’ll finish up before it gets too much later.”

“I hope so. I’m more tired than I thought I would be.”

“Of course you are.” He looked at her a moment, then turned his attention back to the fire.

“And then I’ll have to clean up this mess tomorrow.”

“Be careful. Sometimes coals can keep going for a long time under a heap of ashes like that.”

“I will be. I’ll soak them down before I go in tonight.” She paused. “But then I’ll have to let them dry, or they’ll be too heavy for me to carry.” She stared at the ground between her and the fire. “I might use some of it for fertilizer.” Just words, to be polite.

“You could do that,” Mr. Seaton said. There were few flower beds in his yard, but there were luxuriant bushes, different kinds with interesting foliage, growing against the house and the single-car garage. The lawn was perfectly smooth and green. He mowed it almost every Sunday.

#

He had watched, standing in almost exactly the same place, when she had started the fire earlier in the afternoon. “Are you sure you want to do that now?” he asked her. “You look awfully tired. It’ll burn better after it’s had a few more days to dry out.”

“I’ll be all right. It’s had the whole winter to dry out. I just can’t stand to have it lying here any longer. Besides, I already started it.”

“It’ll make a pretty big fire. You’ll be out here a long time looking after it.”

“I can do it. I’ve got a hose. Is it all right?”

“I don’t mind. I understand.” He watched her silently for a moment. “You were such a happy couple.”

She couldn’t answer him.

The Jacobis, on the other side of the yard, never came out to visit the way Mr. Seaton or his daughter did. They hadn’t come out that afternoon either, so maybe they didn’t object to the fire. They knew as well as anybody what had happened.

Mr. Seaton watched a little longer, then went back inside. Jeanette threw on a couple of the smaller branches. Burning the tree, after cutting it up all by herself, was a way to work out her anger. The tree had not fallen deliberately, but punishing it with fire gave her a vent for her grief, as well as for her anger.

#

Jeanette Delgado was a small woman, not quite five feet tall, and less than a hundred pounds. Steve would not have let her do a job as physically demanding as this all by herself. It wasn’t that he was — had been — chauvinistic, even though he was, a little bit. He let her do her share of moving books at the store. But cutting up and burning the tree was, as he would have put it, an entirely different question. She would have thought so too, as small as she was. Until today. Her parents had believed that. And yet she had cut it up all by herself. She was proud of that, an achievement of which her parents had been convinced she was incapable.

The prospect of running Steve’s chain saw that morning had almost stopped her before she started. She had used the loppers first, taking off all the smaller branches. She couldn’t tell what part of the tree had died last fall, and what had been dead since before she and Steve had moved in three years ago.

She had gotten the saw from Steve’s workbench in the large garage, and brought it out to the picnic table by the back door. She sat on the bench and looked at it for a long time. It was a small saw, it’s blade just a little over a foot long, and it weighed less than ten pounds. But it was big enough for the job. She could have asked one of her neighbors for help. Even Mr. Jacobi might have been willing. But the thought of asking a favor made her uncomfortable. Steve’s brother, Tony, would have been glad to help, to work out some of his own anger and grief, and she wouldn’t have minded asking him, but he was already flying back to St. Louis. Besides, using Steve’s saw herself on the tree that had killed him would be cathartic.

She knew how to run it from watching him cut wood before. She knew that to start it, the choke should be on and the stop button should be off. At last she worked up her courage, stood to get a better hold of it, and pulled the rope. It started the first time. If it hadn’t, she might not have had the courage to try again.

Mrs. Malloy, from across the alley, came over right after Jeanette had started the saw, but before she had worked up the courage to actually start using it. She stood watching from just inside the gate in the back fence, between the two garages. “You could get the city to do that,” she said. “I wouldn’t touch one of those things,” meaning the chain saw, “if you paid me real money.”

Jeanette let the saw idle. “I think I’d rather do it myself.” The saw frightened her, but she wouldn’t back down, now that she had an audience. She gripped it firmly by the front and back handles, carefull not to touch the throttle, went to the tree, took a breath, and started to cut a branch, about half way between the trunk and the lopped-off end, where it was still thick enough to not bend too much when she pressed the saw against it. She pretended that she knew what she was doing, and started another cut after the first piece fell, about a foot and a half closer to the trunk. It took her a while to get used to the noise and vibration, and her arms and shoulders were going to be sore the next day, but to her surprise, she quickly learned how to use it.

“I guess it’s better than just sitting and stewing,” Mrs. Malloy said. “Something to do. You have to work it out of your system.”

Jeanette paused. Mrs. Malloy was making her nervous. She couldn’t run the saw and talk at the same time. “I want to get this thing out of here. I can’t stand the sight of it any longer.” She finished that branch and started on another. It wasn’t going to be as difficult as she had thought.

“If you need any help,” Mrs. Malloy said, “maybe Brian could come over. You’d have to wait until the weekend.”

Jeanette finished the branch and paused again. “I appreciate it,” she said, with the best smile she could make. “I’ll let you know if it gets to be too much for me.”

Mrs. Malloy nodded, watched for a few moments longer, then went back across the alley.

#

The saw had cut the branches away quickly, and she had cut the thinner pieces into manageable size, by holding them against the trunk with one hand, and the little saw with the other, bracing her elbow against her side. She had enough confidence, by the time she got to the trunk itself, to know that she would be able to finish the job. Of course, the fact that the trunk was hollow and half rotten made it easier. Damn tree.

There had been one bad moment when the saw stopped running. She pulled it out of the cut, took it over to the picnic table, and sat and stared at it for a few minutes. She was glad enough for the chance to rest a bit. Her ears were ringing and her hands were numb from the vibration. She was afraid she might not be able to get it started again.

She caught her breath after a few minutes, then took the saw into the large garage where Steve kept his tool box. Sitting next to it, on the workbench, was the gas can, the oil, and the coffee can to mix them in. Certainly the saw would stop if it had run out of gas. Which, in fact, it had. She found the manual in the top left drawer of the workbench, read how to mix the oil with the gas, and filled the saw’s tiny tank.

She went back out to the tree and, starting at the small end, cut three sections off the trunk. And heard her father coming through the front gate behind her.

“Jeanette!” he called as he hurried down the walk beside the house. “What are you doing! Put that thing down before you hurt yourself!”

She didn’t startle, for which she was thankful. She finished the cut, then let the saw idle while she turned toward him. Her mother was with him, looking equally shocked and anxious. “I’ve done pretty well so far.” She tried to keep her voice level.

“I thought,” her father said, “that you were going to hire somebody to take the tree away.”

“I never said that.” She turned back to the tree and started making another cut.

“Jeanette!” her mother cried.

“Put it down! Put it down!” her father insisted.

She forced herself to be steady, and to finish the cut. The eighteen inch section of log, not even four inches in diameter, dropped to the ground. “I’ve done this much.” She looked at them and gestured at the piled branch segments with the saw. “I want to finish the job.”

“Good Heavens,” her mother said. “You didn’t do that all by yourself. You’re not strong enough. You must have had help. Let whoever it was come back and finish it up for you.”

Jeanette did not answer. She turned back to the tree, and cut off another section, aware that, by now, her movements were confident and sure.

“Please, Jeanette,” her father said. She let the saw idle. “Let it be. The city has a tree removal service —”

“I’m going to burn it.” She didn’t look at him. “I’ll sell the larger pieces for firewood and burn the rest.”

“Oh, no!” her mother said. “No, that’s much too dangerous. Let the city take it away —”

“I’m going to burn it, Mother.”

“Jeanette,” her father said, “enough of this. Our plane doesn’t leave for two hours yet. You have plenty of time to pack and come home with us. We can send for the rest of your things later.”

“No. This is my home.” The Seaton’s back door opened and closed. She glanced around to see Mr. Seaton’s unmarried daughter, coming down off the back step and over to the fence. She was maybe fifty, and stocky like her father, and had lived with him all her life.

“But Estefan is dead,” her mother said. She never called him Steve. She didn’t like nicknames. “You can’t live here all alone.”

“It’s what I’m going to do, Mother. It’s my house —”

“The bank owns the house,” her father said.

“and there’s Cat’s Books to run —”

“You can’t do that without help.” her mother said.

“I can hire somebody. There’s a young man who comes in a lot….” She looked toward the fence. Miss Seaton was watching them. She turned back to her parents. She revved the saw. “I’m staying.”

“But what will we do with the ticket?” her father asked.

“Give it away. Get a refund.” She turned back to the tree and started cutting off another section of the trunk.

She did not look at her parents. Perhaps they would have said something more, but Miss Seaton was looking on, and it would be most improper to argue family matters in front of someone who was just a neighbor. After a bit they went away.

“Would you like some iced tea?” Miss Seaton asked.

“Yes, thank you,” Jeanette said.

#

She finished the job before running out of gas a second time, and felt quite proud of herself. Now she had to start the fire.

She had never done that before. Her parents had never let her handle matches, and when Steve saw how nervous she was with them, he had taken full responsibility for lighting the barbecue, the candles, whatever. She was ashamed of her timidity and inexperience.

She put some crumpled newspapers around the jagged stump, which was taller than her waist — it wouldn’t be hip-high on Steve — then piled the driest of the smaller twigs and branches on top. It took her three tries to strike the match, but she did it, and lit the edges of the newspaper. At first there was very little flame, mostly a lot of white smoke. She felt an angry thrill when the fire finally took hold. The damn tree was going to burn.

#

That feeling, though it had changed, had not diminished, even now that the fire had gotten so big. She tossed on the last of the large branches, which had died only last fall, and older deadwood that didn’t burn as well. All that was left was the smaller stuff. Any wood of reasonable size, trunk or branch, she had stacked in front of the large garage for firewood, even though she didn’t have a fireplace. Somebody might. She had learned to be frugal during the last thee years, and whatever she could bring from selling the wood would be a help. Especially now. Unless she gave it away.

Miss Seaton came out again. By now Jeanette was crying. “Are you all right?” Miss Seaton asked.

“I’ll be okay.” Jeanette wiped at her eyes with the back of her wrist. Her hands were filthy.

Miss Seaton said, after a pause, “It’s a rather big fire.”

“I guess it is.” The tears that hadn’t come yesterday came now. She kept on working.

“Poor dear,” Miss Seaton said.

Her sympathy was real. She and her father had come to the funeral, even though they never went anywhere.

The Malloys from across the alley had been there, Mr. Malloy just a bit distant as usual. Her parents had been there of course. They had expected her to go back to Martinsville with them. They had even bought a ticket for her. The scene, when she had refused it the first time, had not been pleasant. Steve’s brother Tony, and his mother and grandmother, who lived here in Harborbeach, were much more comforting. They had taken Jeanette into their family as one of their own, despite differences in race and religion.

Annie and Phil McCauley had given her a lot of support that morning. They ran the Pink Poodle Gifte Shoppe next to the bookstore, and had been a lot of help while she and Steve were getting Cat’s Books started. They were the kind of friends who would continue to help her for as long as she needed it.

And there had been other local people there, who knew the Delgados, most of whom Jeanette had never met.

“Is there anything I can do?” Miss Seaton asked. “Have you had any lunch?”

“Just before I came out,” Jeanette said, though that had been several hours ago. She didn’t stop crying, nor did she try to stifle or conceal her grief.

“Just let me know if you need anything,” Miss Seaton said. Then she went back inside.

#

She gathered up an armload of smaller branches and threw them into the middle of the blaze. She could just barely see the top of the stump, half burned down now. There was still an occasional hiss, or loud crack, as the moisture lower down in the roots turned to steam. There was more than just water down there. A jet of hot gas shot straight up, flaming like a blowtorch, hissing loudly as it blew large sparks out of the fire. The image of the pleading woman became, for a moment, more distinct. She didn’t let herself think about it.

She had let the fire get a lot bigger than she should have, but watching the tree burn filled her with elation, and with a kind of angry defiance. She tossed on another armload of small trash. It darkened that part of the fire for a moment, then smoked heavily, then burst into flame, ruddy orange fire, paler near the wood that was burning, laced with smoke, black at first, then gray and eventually white. She hadn’t realized, when she had started the job, that it would take so long, but it was all going to burn today.

Siberian elms grow quickly, and hold and drop a lot of deadwood, but this tree had been more than half dead when they had moved in. Besides, it had been shading too much of the back yard, and she and Steve had decided that they would take it out some day. Then, last autumn, the tree had died altogether. The leaves on the few living branches had not turned color, they had just faded to pale greenish brown. Nor had they fallen, and there had been no new growth at all this spring. Left to itself, the tree would have come down on its own sooner or later, since its trunk was mostly hollow. As she had found out. She tossed in another armload of small stuff, watched it darken the heart of the fire for a moment, then turn black, smoke, and burst into flame.

Steve had intended to take the tree down ever since they moved in. She had been twenty, he twenty three. The down payment had been a wedding present from Steve’s grandmother. They had been married only a month, and they were excited about being able to have a house of their own so soon, instead of having to live in an apartment as so many young couples did. Jeanette had at first been uncomfortable about accepting such a huge gift, but old Mrs. Delgado, shorter than Jeanette by a couple inches, had quickly reassured her. She had been given a similar gift by her father-in-law when she and Steve’s grandfather had married. It was important to her to pass the generosity on.

The house had been a fixer-upper, though it turned out to be in better shape than the realtor had believed. That, and starting the bookstore, had taken all their attention. There was just no time to worry about a half-dead tree in the back yard.

Then, this spring, it had become clear that the tree was wholly dead. Even then they were too busy to attend to it until, five days ago, one of the long-dead branches fell against the roof. It had not caused any damage, but Steve decided that they couldn’t put it off any longer.

He had not been aware of the extent of the internal decay, or he would have done the job differently. He would have used guide ropes and pulleys, as he sometimes did when, in order to earn some extra money, he helped someone he knew thin a stand of timber. As it was, without knowing it, the first cut had been through the only solid wood in the tree, and it had fallen in a direction quite different from what he had planned. He hadn’t even known it was falling until it came down on him and crushed him. At least, Jeanette thought, glad to see the tree burn now, there had been no time for him to be frightened, or to have suffered any pain.

Damn tree.

#

She stepped back from the fire so that, though it disturbed her, she could see the image of the woman more clearly. She did not think she was hallucinating. The life-sized image, now visible down to what looked like black, calf-high boots, shifted and changed, as if a piece of movie film had been exposed over and over again, a dozen times or more. The woman was always in the same pose, but each exposure was just a little different from the others.

The woman’s hair was blonde, tinged with red in a way so seldom seen, that color of blonde people called strawberry. It was slightly wavy, combed back from her face in a casual style, and cut just above the shoulder. Her eyes were large and intelligent. Her skin was fair and softly tanned. She was definitely attractive, though whether she were Caucasian, or Asian, or Middle Eastern, or what, Jeanette could not tell. Her figure was fuller than Jeanette’s. Her anachronistic clothes looked to be appropriate for outdoor activity of some kind, hiking or camping, not laboring. She could make out few details, other than that they fitted her well, and were heavily stitched, and were made of leather, even the shirt. The thing hanging at her left hip looked like a large knife sheath, rather than a purse or a pouch.

Jeanette glanced at the windows of her house, on her right, and at the windows in the small garage opposite it, on her left. The image did not appear in the reflections, as it would have before today, only in the bonfire itself.

It was not a trick of her eyes. It was not a trick of her mind. And yet, not only was no one really there in the fire, neither was there an image that anyone else could see. Steve had never seen it. Mr. Seaton and his daughter had not seen it this afternoon. It was a signal, focused directly at Jeanette. A message of some kind … call for help?

She was a rather inappropriate person on whom to call. She was not as incapable as her parents believed, and had wanted her to believe. Steve had been helping her learn this since long before they were married. But Jeanette was small, unathletic, with no physical skills to speak of, no experience outside of family or college, or her all too brief life with Steve. What could she possibly do, even if she were where the woman really was?

The image wavered and rippled, not in rhythm with the movement of the flames, but faster and more regularly. The woman was not actually in the flames themselves, but somewhere beyond them, as if the fire were a lens of some sort, or a window through which Jeanette could see to wherever the woman really was. Wherever it was, it was very far off.

She tossed more leaves and twigs onto the fire.

The end of the hose was at her feet, its slow stream inaudible against the noise of the bonfire. The water ran down the back walk and under the back gate into the alley where it found its way to the storm drain. She picked up the hose, put her thumb over the end to make a spray, and doused some sparks and embers which had gotten too far out into the lawn.

She put the hose down, then tossed on the last of the small branches, which caused the flames to jump, and made the woman’s image waver violently. All that was left now was a carpet of long dead leaves, tiny twigs, and saw chips.

She went to the small garage for the leaf rake, and was surprised at how dark it was in there. It was later than she had realized. She brought the rake out and started cleaning up the last of the mess. She tossed rakefulls of debris onto the fire, making more smoke, which obscured the image of the leather-clad woman with the strawberry blonde hair.

When she had done all that she could, she went to the picnic table by the back door, leaned the rake against it, and sat on the bench facing the fire. The heat was not so intense here, twenty feet from the flames. The evening was still warm, but her back became cool, almost chilly as the sweat evaporated. It felt good. The tree was mostly consumed now, and whatever was left could be shoveled into plastic bags and put out with the trash. Or used as fertilizer, or mulch. Maybe Mr. Seaton would want some.

The figure in the flames, always facing her wherever she was, called to her silently. The shifting stillness of the image, without moving, beckoned. But how could Jeanette respond, even if she wanted to? She could no more give the woman any help, than she could bring Steve back from the grave into which he been put yesterday. Besides, she had enough to think about right now. At least there was no problem with inheritance, thank God, since she and Steve owned everything with right of joint tenancy. Steve’s mother, also a widow, had insisted on that. But there was a life to rebuild, the store to run, families to deal with — especially hers.

She didn’t really blame her parents for their attitude, even though she hated it. She had been her mother’s fourth pregnancy. Two had been miscarriages, and one stillborn. It was understandable that her parents should be overprotective of the one child that lived, especially since she had been very small at birth and slow to grow. She just wished that they could have taken more joy in her survival, and have been less concerned about their own possible disappointment had she died. They had no right to have shaped her whole life by their fears. Even while letting her go to college, they had insisted that it be at Vilanette in Martinsville, so she could live at home.

She had met Steve, who was a senior, at the beginning of the second semester of her sophomore year. They had quickly gotten to know each other well enough, that neither had dated anyone else. Steve had gotten a job in Martinsville after he graduated, so that they could still see each other.

By the time Jeanette graduated, it had all been settled. Her parents liked Steve, and trusted him, even when he took her away. But that didn’t keep them from calling, at least once a day, to reassure themselves that their precious daughter was all right. Steve had borne it with good humor.

The sky slowly darkened as late afternoon shaded into early evening. She felt a twinge of hunger. It was long past her supper time, but the fire needed her attention. There was a real chance, she told herself, of some larger embers leaping out and maybe setting the small garage on fire.

As the dusk deepened, so the flames grew brighter. The image of the woman, shifting and shimmering to its own rhythm, grew clearer and stronger. Jeanette watched, fascinated and frightened until, with a start, she realized that she had come to almost believe, that the woman was really there among the flames, standing on the knee-high pile of coals. And she also realized, with a twinge of guilt, that, for that moment, she had forgotten about Steve, and the way he had looked with the tree lying on top of him.

The heap of coals settled, occasionally erupting with a momentary leap of flames and a shower of sparks. There was still a lot of wood yet to burn. She got up from the picnic bench, picked up the hose, and sprayed water around the edges of the fire to keep the grass from burning any further than it had to. She was careful to keep the hose away from the fire as she pulled it around by the back walk to the near side of the small garage. A few chunks of burning wood had fallen out there. She kicked them back into the fire, and wetted the charred grass where they had been.

There would be a huge black burn scar. Grass would grow back eventually, but it was too late in the summer for it to do so now, and the mark would remain through the winter. In the spring, if the damage hadn’t been too deep, the new grass would be much greener than the rest of the lawn, finer and thicker, fertilized by the ashes.

She went back around the way she had come, and sat down on the bench again. She was not just tired, she was numb, in an achy, puffy, shrinking kind of way. She couldn’t have described it any better than that if anybody had asked her, but she knew it was as much psychological as physical.

It grew darker. She watched the column of white smoke rising above the still head-high flames, to eventually disperse in the deepening sky, which was completely clear aside from this bit of smoke. There were one or two stars out already.

When the nights were nice, she would lie with Steve on a blanket on the other side of the back yard until way past midnight, looking up at the stars which he wanted so much to visit. That had never appealed to her, but she sympathized with his longing. She turned to look at the house they had bought, and which they would now never finish fixing up, and which still had twenty seven years of mortgage to pay off. The light of the bonfire reflected off the windows beside the back door, but there was no woman’s image there, only in the fire.

She got up from the bench and, pulling the hose behind her, walked around between the bonfire and Mr. Seaton’s fence. She did not look at the flames.

She hadn’t talked with Steve about the image. How would she have explained it? It would sound crazy, and she wasn’t crazy. She was distressed by it, and worried about it, and distracted by it whenever she saw it, but the woman in the fire had not otherwise affected the rest of her life. She was coping well if she were delusional. She had no feelings of paranoia, of persecution, of being watched and spied on. There was just a woman in the flames.

Nothing more had fallen out of the fire. Its edges were well contained. She watered them down nonetheless. The heap of coals and burning wood, not quite as high as her knees, settled again and shot more sparks into the air. She followed them up with her eyes.

The sky was darker now, and there were more stars out, sparkling like chips of diamond scattered across indigo velvet. Or something.

Something deep in the fire exploded softly, sending a jet of flames and sparks high into the sky where, for a moment, they competed with the stars. She went back around the bonfire to the walk between the house and the alley. She sprayed more water just beyond the edges of the fire.

A crackling and hissing came from the remains of the stump, buried in the coals, as more hot gases inside the rotten wood found release from the pressure caused by the intense heat. This time the jet of flame kept coming, roaring up out of the bonfire, burning blue and hot instead of red. Jeanette backed off the walk a step. The whole fire now expanded, and she stepped back again from the sudden heat. Her foot came down on something uneven, she lost her balance, and sat down hard. Her breath was knocked out of her, and her vision blanked for a moment.

She gasped for air, blinked her eyes, and saw around her, instead of her back yard, a large dark space, lit by dozens of tall, blue flames, coming up silently from cracks in the hard, uneven stone floor.

* * * * *