{sunday stories: the cracked kettle}

“…none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity.”
– Gustav Flaubert, Madame Bovary

A group of writers, slamming out stories every Friday – that was the Flickr Fiction crew, who, for eighteen months, pushed themselves to craft unique tales with a picture prompt. Life, in the form of school, jobs, cake, weddings, knitting, and babies intervened, and we took a hiatus for a few years. As of now, most of us are back, story-hopping again, this time on a Sunday. I would have been back closer to SUNDAY, only a transformer in our neighborhood blew, and it took until two-thirty this morning to get the power back on this time. (The power had already gone out the night before, mind you. In order to tell good stories, a writer sometimes needs a generator.)

Thus, the story before you is unfinished, a mere fragment, based on an idea – furniture burning. And the magic which is in fire. And the ritual which is the process of grieving, wherein we lay a part of our lives to rest, and move on.

I’m actually relieved I didn’t get a chance to finish, because this month, I wanted to write stories with happy endings (I can better endure sentiment in December). I’m not sure I could have wrestled this particular drift toward a happy conclusion. Anyway – here it is. The kettle is thumped, anyway; no sign of bears just yet.

The Fire This Time

Sister Dials told Grandmama she heard Iris Baker wasn’t no better than she ought to be, what with that man in her Mama’s house all hours. “Traipisin’ in and out, all hours of the night – no wonder Luella Baker up and died before her time,” Sister Dials said, lurid conjecture darkening her doom-saying tone. “It was the shame, poor thing.”

“Mmph, mmph, mmph.” Grandmama’s headshake was sorrowful.


I know nobody dies of shame, no matter what craziness Grandmama and Sister Dials get up to talking. Miss Luella was hardly one to have died of it, anyway, since usually Grandmama said she had none. Neither Grandmama nor Sister Dials had ever liked Miss Luella, whose blue house across the street was too bright, whose front yard, with its colorful thicket of flowers was too wild, and who didn’t walk down with them to the AME of a Sunday like a “decent” woman.

Miss Luella’s daughter, Iris, had been at her Mama’s house for less than a week – a little strange for Miss Luella to die of shame just now, especially seeing as Iris had been her daughter for thirty-eight years. While she didn’t die of shame, she certainly died of something catching, since Iris just dragged a chair out of the house and threw it off the porch.

Grandmama had something to say about that, too.

“Is that girl crazy? Grandmama squinted through the sheers on the kitchen window, trying to see without pressing her nose to the glass. “Luella’s not even cold, and that hussy’s throwing out her precious things. ‘Sharper than a serpent’s tooth,’ Jolene Sanford. ‘Sharper than a serpent’s tooth.’”

Usually I’m the “thankless child” referred to in the verse, and I knew what she was thinking. I was her only female grandchild, and someday it might be me tossing away her furniture, discarding what she had valued. Since Grandmama, quoting Scripture and sighing, could go on for hours, I slipped out the front door to investigate.

It wasn’t a bad chair – a little worn on the arms, and the seat cushion was shiny with the wide-hipped polish of years. Anything that sits on the street for too long in our neighborhood is fair game, and already a brindled gray cat was leaping lightly to the back to perch, purring.

“Better get down from there,” I warned it. “Don’t think Iris will like that.”

“He’s all right.” Iris was suddenly there, shuffling down the drive in an oversized sweater and slippers. “That’s Mama’s cat.”

She had a bottle tucked under one arm, and was fumbling with a brass lighter in the other hand. Her eyes were red-rimmed, her face was puffy, and her hair was squashed flat on one side. “Hey, Iris,” I said, knowing the words were inadequate. “I’m sorry about your Mom.”

Iris just nodded, and thrust the lighter at me. “Hold this,” she instructed, wrestling the bottle open. Humming a little under her breath, she stepped forward, and began to sprinkle the chair. The cat jumped to the ground and wound itself around Iris’ ankles as she paced around the chair once, and then again.

If she hadn’t given me the lighter to hold, I would have found someplace else to be, somewhere that didn’t feel so – involved. I could feel Grandmama’s gimlet stare on the back of my neck as Iris sang more loudly, a wordless crooning, as she sloshed more of the clear liquor on the seat, the arms, the back. It seemed that there was much more in the bottle than there should have been. The chair was saturating, dripping. And then Iris held out her hand.

I opened my mouth – could think of nothing to say – and handed Iris the lighter. My part finished, I moved to melt back into the audience of unseen neighbors who would doubtless get a show they’d talk about for weeks. My lifted foot encountered resistance, and I frowned down at a bulldog, sitting heeled and alert at my side. I stared at the silent rows behind me – six cats, four dogs, an host of pigeons, all disturbingly silent and still. A rooster was perched on the fence, its spurs visible above its wrinkled feet. My skin prickled as I noticed that the poppies in Luella’s yard were turned our way, their eyeless orange faces intent. The drone of bees was suddenly loud and the cabbage moths in the rose tree were lifting their white wings in unison.

I swayed, lightheaded.

And, Iris said, “Burn.”

The CC licensed image above is courtesy of Flickr user Bonesue728. The original is here.

©2012, Cracked Kettle

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