After the Fire (SJ Finn)

The hut sat untouched, a strange, defiant object against the black landscape. The grass under her feet also. Yes, it was a little parched from the summer sun, but not incinerated like everything else.

Marion looked up, surveyed the flattened buckled roof, the twisted charcoal posts and bricks, the crumpled outdoor furniture. The contrast made her dizzy. She wanted to look away — back at the grass, back at the hut — but she forced herself to stare, instructed herself to remember. Human noises, cooking smells, pot-plants and birdcalls, the feelings the house had held. She conjured them until they formed a painful lump in her chest, until she could sense them thrumming in her: all the years, all the people, all the long hours when she’d been in the house on her own — lonely hours, restless ones — and she wondered why it seemed that the fire had taken those things, things she’d thought had belonged to her, that’d be hers — without having to think — forever.

‘Here Gran.’

Nicholas came out of the hut and stood next to her. He put a cup of tea on the little side-table that folded out from the canvas camp-chair he’d set down for her when they’d arrived.

‘Thank you,’ she said.

He lowered himself into the second chair. ‘Are you alright?’

‘I didn’t think it’d be so … still.’

The words felt like a heavy parcel on her lips, a parcel she was handing him.

He frowned quizzically.

‘The fire has taken everything,’ she attempted to explain.

‘Not you, Gran.’ His voice rose in hopeful candescence. ‘We still have you.’

She wanted to tell him how sweet he was but could only manage a pale grin, a small nod and Nicholas didn’t ask for more. He turned back to the crumpled house, looking into the desiccated hillock of refuse with a beleaguered, somewhat unsure expression.

‘I don’t want to miss it,’ she said. ‘And I didn’t think I would. Human lacking, I guess. Stupid sentimentality.’

‘Your hut’s here … exactly as it was when you bought the place.’ Nicholas’s arm shifted in a measured aquiline arc as he swiped at an insect on his shin. ‘And that fly is a sign of life, which I shouldn’t kill!’ He raised his eyebrows, mocking himself.

She turned, considering the hut, her eyes stinging. Was it incomprehension burning at their edges as she took in its narrow hardwood boards, the little shuttered windows, its peaked roof?

‘I bet there are cobwebs in there.’ She turned back to him, to his vivid eyes. He nodded slowly that there were. Then they both turned to watch her son’s vehicle appear over the lip of the driveway.

Nicholas stood, his hand shielding his eyes as he stared intently across the monochrome of the charred remains of her property, the counterpoint of pale translucent sky that held a weak, perhaps even contrite sun not far above the horizon. He was taking his moment as he needed, watching his father with a seriousness that nearly overwhelmed her. When he turned back he bent down, pushing her hair away from her forehead to kiss her there. The care he took, the concentrated way he attended to this, penetrated through the bone of her skull. With her eyes closed, it spread like a tonic into her blood. And when she opened her eyes to follow his large strides across the moonscape of ash and burnt earth, the kiss drilled further and deeper into her.