Worried little eyes peer out from behind thin fabric, reflecting fire.
A little child has her mother’s skirt pulled over her face, covering a mouth open with fascinated fear. The faded cloth smells of her mother and, though she doesn’t know it, ash. She wrinkles her nose at the unfamiliar odor but cannot tear her eyes away from the sight of her house being burnt down to the ground.
Fire. She knows what it is but has only seen it in the form of candle flames and, when those weren’t available, small bonfires. The first time she’d seen it she’d reached out curiously to touch the live orange. She’d only just barely reached it when her mother snatched her hand away. But that little touch stung and she had bawled lustily as her mother gently sucked on her fingertip, soothing the pain.
She had never gone near the cunning flames again.
But this. Who knew fire could grow so big? That it could run, faster than she ever could, all through the house, destroying everything in its way? That it could crawl up walls on its belly like a snake and spread? That it could diminish everything. As her mother grabbed her and started running out the door, the little girl watched in disbelief as the fire consumed her favourite toy, the mattress she slept on, her mother’s clothes.
Their wooden roof collapses sending sparks and cinders soaring into the night sky like stars falling up into the heavens. As the walls cave in, the heat pushes outward sending a wave of hot air towards them. It stings her face, making her gasp and forcing tears from her eyes even though she’s not crying. She whimpers softly and presses her body still closer against her mother’s legs, burying her face in the skirt and covering her eyes for the first time.
Her mother stands unflinching, one arm clenched by her side. The other arm is at the little girl’s shoulder, protectively forcing her behind the bulk of her mother’s body. Still, the child doesn’t stay hidden for long and slowly inches her face out into the open, holding onto her mother’s legs for support. She notices in surprise that they’re trembling. Was her mother scared?
She looks up and sees the set of her mother’s jaw, the single tear rolling down her cheek.
And she remembers.
This has all happened before. They had moved many times to get to this place, her mother had told her once. Life had thrown great troubles their way – artillery, floods, fires – they had been through it all, and it just kept coming. The child had stared at her mother’s face as she told the stories, watching her features closely. The mouth did not shake. The eyes did not tear. There was no sense of pride in her mother’s voice. These were not tales of achievement or triumph of the human spirit and endurance. Only accounts of resigned necessity.
Repeated only in order to teach her a lesson: Lose everything. Pick up. Move on. This was the lot they’d been handed. The life cycle that was theirs to perpetuate.
The little girl blinks, and as she continues to stare up at her mother’s face, she notices certain things for the first time. Her mother’s shoulders slump a little with tiredness. The legs continue to shiver as she hugs onto them, but she realizes – as only a child would know of her parent – that it is not with fright, but with a kind of helpless anger. The harsh firelight tints her mother’s hair bright silver. A young old person. An old young person.
A second tear crawls down her mother’s cheek but evaporates before it can reach her jaw line. The heat is at its peak. The final wall folds in on itself. The house is a memory now.
And so are their lives in this place. Once again, they have lost everything. Once again, they must move on and plant their roots in possibly even shallower ground. No help. Just a dogged, unnamable need to exist.
Her mother’s brief moment of despair evaporates with that second tear. She breathes out in one strong puff of air, briskly twists her long hair up into a definitive knot above her head and reaches to gather her child in her arms.
The little girl lets herself be carried and snuggles her head against her mother’s chest even though the heat of the fire is still coats them both in a sweat. She listens to the erratic beating and feels strangely comforted.
For now she can count on this pillar to carry all her troubles for her. For now, she can still be a baby; she can still run off to play in the grass when the need takes her; she can still cry and expect her saviour to be close at hand, to make her feel better.
But she has a clock inside her head, and it’s ticking. She doesn’t have long before she will have to walk in her mother’s footsteps. Grow strong before her time. Keep moving relentlessly forward no matter what is thrown their way.
But for now, she can still be a baby. There’s still time.
* Inspired by the Poonthotam fire.