Route 7 Review - Page 126

House Fire By Brent Fisk Nothing terrified me more than the dark. It had a weight and texture that settled over the world I loved, made the familiar uncertain, misshapen, and dim. The creak of each dry timber in the attic was a bone bent toward snapping. After my mother coughed and closed the bedtime book, and then the bedroom door, I was certain ghost wolves and spiders made the darkness home, wore its blackness like a blood-wet pelt. I imagined it rip into my belly and drag my body off behind the moon. There were small talismans against it—a nubby bear, my covers, the brittle sound of television in the other room. Just before sunup, the windows changed, stood out against the walls. Something stole away, a soft retreat, and as cars slipped along the road, I breathed again. My father’s alarm clock rattled to life, his razor tapping the sink, his hand streaking the mirror. When he’d go to work, his return was certain as the scent of sweat and tobacco, machine oil, spearmint gum. The dark did not scare my father, and he moved through it like a wolf himself. I was in no way like him. Death is a kind of darkness, an absence—a thing we cannot see into. On walks I inspected toads flattened in the road, the core of a rotten tree, a starling crawling with maggots, but I didn’t connect the things I studied with life in the way I did my mother and father, the way I did with myself. I was fascinated with sleep and dreams and how the two would weave together, one often indiscernible from the other. I would watch my parents, see the eyes tremble behind the lids and hear their steady breathing. When there was a storm and the wind would thrash the trees, I would sleep beneath their bed. They had white carpet and the room was brighter than my own. I feared other things: thunderclaps, wasps in the eaves, inoculations, and loose teeth that fought that final freeing twist. How pain could fly from the blue-- the tip of a cigarette I thought was pretty. A length of barbed wire stretched through tall grass, a finger smashed in a slamming door. But I did not connect pain with death. I connected it with blood. When I lost my grandfather, I was confused, not afraid. Everyone screwed on their faces and whispered of the afterlife, its golden streets crowded with angels. His body so drawn and ashy, I didn’t know the stranger my family wept over. They told Cousin Missy he was still at work, explaining she wouldn’t understand. I didn’t understand. I got a box of his belongings: a penknife, a whetstone, an old lock and key, the nub of a red pencil and a log in which he wrote cursive notes that were a mystery to me. I would give it to an adult and ask what it said. Grocery lists and things to do. A brief passage about a dog he saw swimming in a lake. Death was like sleep, they said-- something that happened when you were very old and tired. At first it made me feel safe, like a light left on in the hall. But I began to fear sleep, worried I wouldn’t wake up. Then one day I walked in on the fragment of a movie where a chubby-cheeked girl loved some boy from a nearby town. She stole a canoe to run away, but it overturned and she slipped beneath the water. My mother sewed buttons onto a crocheted pillow and chewed her lip. I asked what happened to the girl and she shrugged her shoulders. “I guess she drowned,” she said. It was the first time I knew a child could die. One morning my grandmother was warming bacon grease in a cast iron skillet. She cracked eggs, sunny-side-up, made toast for me and my brother. She wore an orange house coat and slippers frayed at the edges. I asked how kids