There is a little town just outside the woods. It sits idyllic in the countryside, perpetually autumn-tinged and welcoming, bookended by cornfields and distant orchards. Bone dry leaves crunch beneath my naked feet and I wonder if fire is a problem here, though I don’t know why. Music dances in the wind, twisting up and around the forest’s frontline in an ancient waltz I don’t know the steps to. It beckons me from the safety of the tree line.
A crackly mmrow breaks through the faint music, the whispering of the wood, and I am joined by a dark cat in my observation of the town below. It doesn’t ask questions, and I am grateful for the silent companionship its presence brings.
Together, the cat and I watch the fields below, the way the crows skip along the fence lines and soar through the air, not at all bothered by the scarecrow standing guard over its vegetables. The sun stays where she is, paused between noon and dusk when the sun is hottest and everything is cloaked in hazy blue, and I thank her for waiting.
Eventually the cat tires of my stoic watch and rubs against my legs, then runs into the field a ways. When I don’t move, it returns, continuing the cycle until I finally sigh and agree to follow.
The fallow field feels safer than even the trees despite its openness. How would it taste, to sit beneath the static sun, feel the warm earth beneath my hands and on my skin, further still into the ground as to be held by it, held close by dirt and root? I dig my toes in, feel the granules of it beneath them and under my nails.
Alas, the cat marches on, and I must follow.
We reach the town, decorated lavishly with leaves and vines for the autumn harvest. The music is livelier here too, reverberating against the oak siding and my temples, and the cat rushes from view, into a barn. That’s where the music bubbles out like a spring, and I am parched for it. Quickly now, for the music scratches at my skin and requires satiation, I slip into the barn. I am greeted by warmth and lamplight, the scent of cinnamon heavy in the air, with fresh vegetables, salt, and something deeper and darker that I cannot name.
They surely cannot know me here, and yet they all cheer at my arrival. The people of the town surround me, dressed in colorful rustic clothes, laying a hand on my shoulder or my arm, all of them coming to touch me before continuing their merriment.
The cat leaves me; I see it dancing with some children at the far side of the barn, spinning in a happy circle and laughing. I don’t remember ever seeing a cat dance with such abandon, but it feels right, and so I leave them be.
There are townsfolk carving pumpkins, handing out clothing, flitting about the warm barn with baskets of little cinnamon brooms and candlesticks for the attendees, all warm and busy. I fall in a line, not speaking, and find myself facing a woman dressed in bloodwood cotton, smiling at me, her wheat-red hair braided down one side and adorned with oak leaves and twine.
“Hello,” she smiles, though I’m not sure her lips move to speak.
I incline my head in greeting, not trusting my voice to work, to not cough dirt and ash. I feel the heaviness of the unspoken in my chest and let it burn.
“First time?” she asks, hands skimming the various shades of harvest at her fingertips. I think it obvious, and remain quiet.
She nods to herself, tapping her chin as she pursues her stores before finally pulling a green linen costume from below her table, the bodice trimmed with silver keys and golden bees. “You can change back here,” and she waves me further into the barn. I follow, missing the cat and its silent kind of assistance. “Hurry up! The party is about to begin!”
What had I been wearing before? Some soot stained trousers and dark shirtwaist, but it didn’t matter, for the new clothes seem to anchor me. I now feel a part of something, no longer drift lumber, but the beginnings of a new tree.
The woman is not wrong, the party is starting just as I emerge, everyone in their yellows and greens and reds, autumn come alive in people, dancing around a massive pumpkin that seems to sway with the music.
The cat returns and leads me through the dancers and the onlookers, out into the perpetual afternoon, and the celebration comes too. We walk the dirt roads into the fields, music propelling us towards something I cannot name. I feel breathless, the ash in my throat shifting, the leaden lungs shaking free from the stone that held them.
We come upon a ruin, stone walls no longer strong enough to support a roof, the wooden bones collapsed on themselves after a final breath. It feels familiar, a liminal space within the field, anchored here by the soot stains and lingering smoke.
The hands are on me again, pressing on my shoulders and arms, hands on hands, heavy and hot, so hot.
“It’s okay to remember,” someone says.
Remember what? I want to ask as the hands get heavier, the soot blacker, the heat hotter, and I am burning. The hands shift to coals, winter-hot, forcing me down, and I no longer face the ruin of the manor house.
The floors, freshly oiled, are slick beneath my young and knobby knees. I can hear arguing in the next room over, screaming in my ears long after I’ve gone to bed. The fire is my comfort and I lay next to it, feeling its warmth and pretending that the heat of the hearth is the same as a loving hug.
The arguing only increases in volume, and I long to become the fire.
Years later, I am the one screaming and throwing hatred with everything in my chest, driving away the dreams I held close as a child. I still find myself next to the fire in the hearth, the heavy generations of anger swallowing me. This is my home. W
I hold the fire in my hand now, it licks at my palm like an old friend, the sun in my hand. I ignore the horror of watching the flesh of my palm bubble and curl, ignore the pain searing through my arm, and gently, so gently, I stroke the edges as blisters rise.
It seems only right, then, to place the fire in the corners of the room, to watch it embrace the unnecessarily frilly window dressings, watch as the glue beneath panels of mother-selected wallpaper boils to bursting, exposing the decayed framework to flame. It catches quickly, as though we were always meant to burn, and I smile.
I lie with the fire again, as I had always done, and watch as it claims my birthplace around me.
Eventually the heat fades, seeps out of my chest and then my limbs, leaving only sharp needles dancing in its wake. The hearth holds me still, brittle and black, pieces of cloth and paper caught in the grate, perhaps even my mother’s face hidden in the ash. When the needles fade into nothing, when mother is gone from the shadows, I rise, light as the smoke surrounding me.
I am in no hurry to leave this place, instead watching the smoldering memories continue to head skyward, fading into the unhurried daylight. I watch them go, until there are no more embers and only soot. As the smoke fades, I follow it, losing my way. Though, I know of a little town just outside the woods.
There is weight on my shoulders as I open my eyes to a blurry afternoon, surrounded by the celebration crowd again. The cat is rubbing against my legs relentlessly. The woman is smiling at me.
“You’re back,” she says, mouth not moving, and that is correct.
The crowd cheers, swelling up around me, and we return to the fields around the town. The music is back, lifting us, and I feel the urge to dance, to participate in the merriment surrounding me. I take the woman with the wheat-red hair’s hand and we dance to music and to cheers, spinning around the giant pumpkin, and it’s okay. I feel laughter bubbling in my dead throat, and now I let it out, and as the sun sets the sky alight, the two of us silhouetted against the dusk, it feels more like love than heat ever could.
Courtney Floyd is a writer who exists within the Appalachian mountains. She can be baited into appearing with chewy Sprees.