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Controlled Burn

by K. L. Barron

Finalist : 2011 Fiction Contest
  
 

The first time Pearl saw the prairie, it was on fire. It was late at night and she was driving west on Highway 40 as fast as she could through Kansas when she saw bright orange bands of flames sweeping across the hills on either side of the highway and pulled onto the shoulder to watch. She rolled down the windows and smelled the seductive odor of smoke, heard the dry grass being consumed by the roar of the heat, the velocity controlled entirely by the wind. She had never seen land that stretched as unbroken as the sky, and the whole of it was burning, or had just burned, or was about to burn.

She’d heard of prescribed fires. Ranchers burned the land each spring to destroy shallow-rooted invasive plants and protect the deep-rooted native plants, the tallgrass ecosystem that fed the livestock. She’d wondered, though, if they’d considered the ground birds’ spring nests and eggs; the fires would destroy them. The dead grass was naturally a fire hazard; a controlled burn was less dangerous to the human population than an accidental one from a smoldering cigarette butt or lightning, and actually seeing one was on the same scale as seeing the aurora borealis light up the sky. Thousands of blazing acres appealed to her just then. She was nineteen and looking to escape a failed first love on the East Coast. She watched the fires burn through the night. The next day she drove home, packed, and migrated to Kansas. In time, she married a cattleman and eventually had an only daughter, both of whom she’d outlived, Delmar by 20 years, Maureen by two.

Pearl was 69, all spitfire with little width or length to her. She’d thrived in the Flint Hills for 50 years dressed to the nines, flitting about the countryside like a redbird, bluebird, or a Baltimore oriole. She still lived in the three-bedroom white frame house, which she herself had painted every other year until she turned 65 and had siding installed. It sat on just five acres. The other nearly 3,000 acres that she and her husband had owned and run cattle on during their married life, she’d sold after her daughter had passed on, not to her son-in-law, Walker, who under normal circumstances would have had first bid, but to an absentee owner, a stranger, which suited her better.

After 50 years, people still thought of Pearl as a stranger; she had no roots there and now no blood relation in the entire county. She, on the other hand, considered herself part of the landscape. She knew the 88 strains of grass that grew in the hills as well as she knew the keys of her piano. She could name every wildflower by its scientific and its common designation, every species of what few trees there were, and the cycles of wildlife, especially the birds.

Everyone had considered her a good neighbor until her losses seemed to have become unbearable for her. She put stray cows in when she saw them wandering outside the fence, pulled over and waited when there was a cattle drive in the road, bought fruit every year from the Future Farmers of America, and called to warn town people when the road had just been graded, the sharp pieces of flint rock exposed and hazardous to any tire less than ten-ply. But after her daughter died, it was common knowledge that there was bad blood between Pearl and Walker. She was certain he had killed her daughter. Maybe not in a direct way, but anyone, Pearl thought, could have looked into the girl’s eyes and seen that her heart had been bludgeoned to death, her legs cut clean out from under her.

Every time Pearl visited Maureen lately, she’d gotten smaller. It wasn’t that she was ever overweight, except for the time forever etched in Pearl’s memory when Maureen had broken up with Walker in high school after their terribly inappropriate and well-documented love affair (she was caught with him in the back row of the movie theatre entirely naked under her winter coat) and then he’d gotten bored with her and mean besides. Maureen tried to bring him back around with her love, and oh, she held on like a pit bull until she finally realized it was over, and nothing would ever be the same between them.

She went through denial and depression but she became numb rather than angry. Maureen had said that she could light herself on fire and not even feel it. There was some professional help after that, but she always came away feeling sorry for the therapist, that he or she had lived such a shallow life that would never require such depth of despair. After so many such months when she finally let go of Walker, he grabbed hold of her as if he were drowning, and there wasn’t anything she could say or do to get him to leave her alone, except to get fat, which she did, and it worked, but only for a while. Eventually, she lapsed back to her normal weight, and they got married as everyone always said they would. For ten years they tried in vain to have children.

At the Stop-2-Shop where Pearl got her gas, word was that Walker was fooling around with the young help. When she’d confronted him about it, he denied it; when she confronted her daughter about it, she dismissed it. “He’s naturally a flirt, Mother. Besides, you know how people talk.” And then Maureen began to disappear, little by little before Pearl’s eyes. At first, she reminded Pearl of a model, but with a radiant beauty, muse-like, ethereal, as if she were falling in love again. The thought that Maureen and Walker had finally conceived crossed Pearl’s mind, but after several months, she could see that was not the case.

It wasn’t until Maureen began to appear pale and skeletal that Walker took her to the doctor.

“Level IV cancer,” he told Pearl. “A lesion on the foot that’s eaten away to the deep tissues.”

Maureen refused any last ditch treatment. The only concession she made was to quit smoking.

Pearl looked at her daughter lying on the bed perfectly still, pale and cool as marble, and something in Pearl’s mind ignited like a match.

Maureen’s body was cremated. Pearl scattered her ashes over the hills as she had Delmar’s, and placed a stone for her daughter next to his in the old Swedish cemetery across the road. Pearl was alone now, but she wrote them both notes in her beautiful script as if they would be right back. She sat, as if waiting for them, on her leather chair in the living room. She played music for them, and for the bantam chickens roosting outside the window.

Her daughter’s working dog, Dixie, a blue heeler, had shown up at her place the day after the funeral and stayed, even though Pearl no longer had cattle. It lay on the porch and howled. She felt her husband and her daughter there with her, too, but she missed their physical presence. Her empty bed she’d grown used to when her husband was still alive, and their marriage had become somewhat fallow after so many years, but his empty chair at the table still sunk her like a stone, and now the silent phone was worse. She had talked to her daughter daily, if not in person, then at least on that telephone. For days after her daughter’s funeral, Pearl called the house when she knew Walker would be out and the answering machine would pick up. “I’m glad you called,” Maureen’s voice would say. “Please leave a message and we’ll talk a little later.”

“I miss you,” Pearl would say over the beeps before the machine recorded her voice. Sometimes she called several times in a row, several times a day. She doodled on paper while she listened and after she had hung up, the voice still echoing in her head, first long lines of spirals straight from the practice page of the Palmer Handwriting workbook she’d used in grammar school. Then she would expand the loops to the shape of her daughter’s body when it was healthy, the head, the trunk and limbs each connecting at the joints. Then she’d draw her husband’s body as the young man she’d fallen in love with, searching the muted images in her memory to make him clean shaven and chiseled looking, then him as a father holding baby Maureen, the angora blanket light as air, him holding her hand the first day of school, then him standing by her with his right arm missing after the farming accident, his beard long and beginning to gray, the adult Maureen at the cusp of her life standing beside her father, and Pearl herself in her favorite jacket and skirt ensemble, the silk draping as if it were fluid over her body. The three of them frozen in time before Maureen had married Walker.

A month or so later, Pearl had phoned to listen to her daughter’s voice but Walker’s was on the machine.

“You can forget about the money,” Pearl recorded, her voice echoing slightly with feedback. “It’s going to the memorial for my husband and daughter.” She hung up and left a neat and concise note on the door stating that she’d gone to town, then drove the pick-up to the library, did some research on monuments, and found a reputable company in Italy that could sculpt life-size marble statues from her drawings.

On the way home, she stopped at the mall when a SALE sign in Talbot’s front window caught her eye. She wheeled into the lot at her usual entrance so she wouldn’t have to think about where she had parked. When Maureen had been so ill and Pearl had to get away, she came to the mall, but once it had taken her several hours to find her truck to drive home. As she walked up and down row upon row of cars in the lot, she imagined Maureen’s weak voice calling her name and Pearl’s daze quickly spiraled into panic. She reported the truck stolen to the security police and was so embarrassed and humiliated when they found it outside Dillard’s where they said she must have parked it in the first place.

Pearl merged in with the mall-walkers then veered toward Talbot’s where she picked up a suit the vivid yellow color of a goldfinch. The transaction took longer than usual because she could not write neatly with the plastic stylus on the tiny screen of the credit card machine. “That’s all right,” the clerk kept saying each time Pearl cleared the screen and re-signed her name. Her P was atrocious. The clerk rudely pressed OK after Pearl’s fourth attempt. It was disturbing to Pearl to have that sample of her writing documented, her signature no less. On the way home, she became occupied with calculating the time difference in Italy. When she pulled into the drive, she saw Walker’s truck. He was sitting on the porch, the blue heeler barking at him.

“Been shopping?” he said, an anemic smile on his thin lips.

“Hello, Walker.” She slid the garment bag across the seat and got out. “Heel, Dixie,” she said to the dog, which stopped barking and came to her side. She reached down and patted the dog while assessing Walker. He was wearing a dusty old feed cap and the pair of Carhartt coveralls she’d given him for Christmas. They already had what looked like a barbwire rip on the shoulder. “What brings you by?” she said, then disappeared into the house with her bag.

“I saw the damnedest thing this morning,” Walker said when she came back out. He spit some chewing tobacco, which landed on her daffodils. “Four baby deer legs in the grass, the hide and the hoof still on them.” He spit another stream of brown juice. “Must have cut them clean off with the swather and carried them a ways when I was baling last summer.” His teeth were stained a dull yellow from coffee and chew.

Pearl tried not to show any reaction to his words nor the liquid tobacco spit out of his mouth. She had been around ranching and farming long enough to know that accidents like that happened, but he knew she hated hearing about them. She’d accidentally killed a pheasant once. The locals used to hunt them, but they had been on the decline for years, quail, and prairie chicken too; it was clear to Pearl that the birds could not compete with the cattle. When this random surviving hen pheasant had run out in front of her on the highway and stopped, she slowed as much as she could and drove straight ahead so that she wouldn’t swerve the wrong way. But the hen didn’t move either; it was looking straight at her when she hit it.

When Pearl didn’t respond, Walker said that he’d gotten her message and had come to talk to her about it.

“There’s nothing to discuss, Walker. You were present at the reading of the will. In the event of Maureen’s untimely death, the money her daddy left her in trust would go to you only after I had taken care of her funeral and burial expenses.”

“That’s what I’m talking about, Pearl. I was fixing to buy some of the land that you sold out from under me with that money. That’s what your husband would have wanted. Everyone around here knows that. If he hadn’t already died from a heart attack 20 years ago, he’d have damn sure had one when you sold off his land to a stranger.”

She looked him in the eye and studied him for a moment. “He might have wanted that when he was alive, when Maureen was alive, but he wouldn’t want that now. Lucky for you, he didn’t have to watch his daughter die.”

“Now, Pearl,” Walker said, looking down at his scuffed boots. “I know you need to blame someone for her death and you’ve chosen me. But I loved Maureen. And she loved me to her dying day. Your daughter died from cancer. I’m as sorry about it as I can be, but that’s a fact. You can’t blame me for that.”

“She never smoked till she took up with you,” Pearl said.

Walker laughed. “That was her choice to come around behind the barn and smoke with me when we were in high school. And before you get started, it was her choice to kiss me, and her choice when it went further than that, too.”

“You ruined her for any kind of healthy love is what you did.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, bringing up all this ancient history. I doubt that you do either. What do you do, keep a running list of grievances?”

“The whole human endeavor is to keep intact at least the outward adornments of that first visitation of love: like the riderless horse, or the empty armor, they are borne through the slow funeral procession of the life that follows love when it departs.”

“Now that is some romantic bull crap.”

“It’s ‘Perseus in the Wind.’”

He laughed. “Pissing in the wind is more like it. Pearl, I swear you’re losing it. That little light bulb in your brain was bound to burn out sooner or later.”

 “I can still figure out that you’re in a mid-life crisis too blind to see that you killed your own wife fooling around with girls half your age.”

“The cancer killed her, Pearl, and I didn’t take up with anybody till she was too sick to care. I needed someone to help me get through it.”

Pearl stood over him as he sat in the chair. “My daughter died from loving you too much. And you never deserved it.” She turned her arms to expose the inside of her wrists and held them before his eyes. “Maureen came to you in the most innocent and vulnerable state and you cut her deep. You should have been the one to bleed to death.”

“She didn’t bleed to death.”

“She died from dehydration. She starved to death. Oh, she bled all right.”

“She had cancer,” Walker said, his voice raised.

“She got cancer when all her strength was gone.”

Walker got up and started for his truck, then turned to face her again. “You’re getting senile,” he said. “You better move into the nursing home and hope that someone there will take care of you.”

“You’ll have no more of her money and no more of our land,” Pearl said evenly. “There’s no need for you to stop by here again. I can take care of myself.”

When he left, she called the company and determined that she could afford nine life-size Italian marble statues, four of her daughter and four of her husband, that they would begin immediately, and one of herself, which wouldn’t be completed until after her death. The statues were to be flown into the international airport in Kansas City where a driver directly connected with the marble company would personally deliver and place the statues in the cemetery of her choice. She commissioned all nine on the spot and negotiated perpetual upkeep for them and began planning her life around what few resources she had left.

There would be a large vegetable garden around the house, the produce of which she would put up for the winter. Perry, the man she had sold the land to, would surely bring her some meat when it was time to burn pasture. If not, she could fish the ponds on the place. The well water was still good. The house and the land were paid for, which left the expense of propane and incidentals. She had enough clothes and figured that if she needed money she could sell the fresh produce at the farmer’s market in the warm months and her canned goods to the grocer in the winter. But she didn’t plan on going to town ever again.

Being entirely alone made Pearl feel disoriented, as if she were floating around in space. The wide-open sky might have contributed to it, the depth of it heavy and wide over the undulating hills. She tried to fill the space with the familiar notes of the piano that her fingers recalled. She began talking to herself to hear a human voice.

Pearl did not recognize the first statue that arrived nearly a year later. “That isn’t him,” she said.

The deliveryman handed the sketch to her. “It looks exactly like this drawing you sent of your husband.”

She vaguely recalled drawing that face. This was her husband then. She had remembered the wrong man. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I had to be sure.” After that, Pearl requested copies of all the drawings she’d made and put them into a book on the table beside her chair. She labeled them all and wrote notes to herself describing exactly who was whom, which she reviewed every morning.

She began writing herself notes for everything as if she had left on vacation, and she was in charge of taking care of everything while she was gone. Feed Dixie, the dog. Her food is in the mudroom by the backdoor. Feed the chickens fruit and vegetable scraps from the kitchen and scratch in the shed behind the house. Collect the eggs from the nesting boxes in the shed, wash them, and store them in the refrigerator. After lunch, shower, study the family albums, read, practice piano, and handwriting.

* IMPORTANT NOTES: Walker is Maureen’s (deceased daughter’s) husband. Remember him and be nice or he will put you in the nursing home. The mail carrier’s name is Dale. His wife’s is Delores. Ask about his cattle. Betty and Bob Jarvis are neighbors (her hair is gray, he is bald.) She has diabetes. Offer them black coffee, unsweetened tea, or water. Ask after her health. (Gold Impala) Perry is the man that bought our pasture. Dark hair, cowboy hat, red neckerchief, Texas accent. (red GMC) Tony is the truck driver who delivers the statues of Delmar (deceased husband) and Maureen (deceased daughter. Only child. )

Should anyone have happened by they would have seen the place only moderately different—the yard turned for the garden—and they’d have heard her playing the old upright piano, not quite as well as she used to as arthritis had taken hold of her hands.

The mail carrier was the first to notice the statue. “That’s a real good likeness,” he said.

“Why thank you, Dale,” Pearl said. “And how’s Delores?” Then she asked after his cattle. “How many head are you going to run? Well, I haven’t paid as much attention to the market as I used to. Are you going to burn this year?”

He answered her questions, declined a cup of coffee. “What is that… marble? Must have cost you quite a sum. Heard it come all the way from Italy.”

“Yes,” she said. It was Italian marble. Couldn’t get such detail out of any other type of stone. “Michelangelo sculpted in marble. He had good penmanship, too.”
“Well, it looks just like old Delmar back in the day. He was a good man. We won’t forget him now, will we? Him and his marble boots.”

Six months later, Tony, the deliveryman placed three more of the statues in their chronological places on the plot. Delmar as a new father holding baby Maureen in his arms was one piece. The baby’s face looked so delicate, it was only when Pearl touched it that the coldness and deadness registered. Still, she hummed lullabies to it. The next pair of statues was separate. They stood close together but it was as if they had just let go of each other’s hands. Maureen’s first day of school, her first day of independence. Pearl knelt down to her eye level and kissed her on the cheek. The man’s face appeared more vulnerable than the little girl’s did. Pearl held his marble hand.

The more statues that appeared in the cemetery, the more people came to see them. Pearl liked to sit on her porch with the binoculars and watch them. They were strangers to Pearl, just as she was to them. Occasionally, someone would come up to the house after, but most just looked and then left.

When a dusty gold Impala started up the drive, Pearl reviewed her Important Notes. It was Betty and Bob Jarvis.

 “Hello, Pearl. Long time, no see. We were admiring the statues,” Bob said. “Whoever could imagine such a thing?”

“Please, sit down.” Pearl offered them some tea, as Betty had a trickle of sweat running down from her temple just below the earpiece of her glasses.

“They look like they belong in a museum rather than out here in the country,” Betty said, as she pulled a tissue out of her bag and dabbed at her face.

Bob piped up again. “You know, Pearl, Walker’s saying you’re just spending all the rest of Maureen’s money so he can’t have any.”

“Who?” Pearl asked politely.

“Walker. Your son-in-law,” Bob said, a little louder.

“Walker, of course.”

“He says Delmar would have damn sure bought land over Italian marble. He was a practical man, you know.”

“Well, he was and he wasn’t.” Pearl really couldn’t remember for certain which.

“He would have wanted the money to go to building a hospital for our community,” Betty said. “He would have wanted that for Maureen. God rest her soul.”

“How are you feeling, Betty?” Pearl asked.

“I have to drive 35 miles for treatments,” Betty said. “I think we’re going to have to move closer to the hospital, and that just breaks my heart.”

Pearl did not like growing old. The older she got the more she lost, her loved ones, her own body, and the more her mind clung to what wasn’t there. She was stuck between two worlds, the seen and the unseen. It was all very confusing. She tried to remember to keep track of it all on paper. What she didn’t remember simply didn’t exist.

The last of the statues of Delmar and Maureen arrived early the following spring. It had been a cold winter. Pearl had burned what remained of the woodpile in the stove. She wore her suits under Delmar’s old clothes with his insulated coveralls on top. Dixie had passed on. Pearl tripped over her when she went out to get some wood for the fire and at first thought that someone had put a dead animal on her porch. It wasn’t until she followed the notes for her routine and started to feed the dog, that she realized it was Dixie. She tied a rope to its collar as if she were taking the dog for a walk and pulled it across the yard and into the pasture by a cedar tree. She patted the dog and walked back to the house to feed the chickens, but they were gone.

She found a piece of paper and a pen. Holding on to the table for support with one arm while trying to make the impossible loops with her other arm, she scribbled a note that said she was down at the cemetery, in case anyone should stop by and to remind herself of what she’d just done. Looking it over she thought the shaky handwriting seemed vaguely familiar, but it didn’t look anything like hers. She tacked the note to the front door, followed the instructions on the coffee pot, pulled on her coat and a pair of old clogs and walked down the drive. The coffee sloshed out of the mug at every misstep, burning the top of her hand. It felt good to her, the warmth, which left uneven red splotches on her skin. In her peripheral vision, she saw the old dog raise itself up and cut across the yard to lie at the marble feet of the new statue of Maureen, as if it could rise from the dead and recognize her marble scent. Pearl stood looking at Maureen. Her eyes looked straight back at Pearl as if there was nothing to fear.

There was a young Maureen in pigtails holding a fishing pole with a fish on it. Pearl leaned in expecting the aroma of fish but she smelled smoke. She straightened up and sniffed again. Someone was burning. She turned to the statue of her husband that was missing the right arm. “I’ll take care of it,” she said. “You stay here and rest. I’ll be right back.”

At the house, she took a shower and brushed her teeth and paused to look at her reflection in the mirror. Her hair looked like dead grass. She usually pulled it back in a clasp but today she combed it out and left it down. She opened the cedar wardrobe and pulled out the red silk suit to wear. She pulled on hose and put on some heels, her only choice for that outfit. It took her a while to find the matches, the Strike Anywhere wooden ones she always used to set fires. While she was looking in one of the drawers, she found some red lipstick and applied the color to her lips. She smiled into the mirror on her way out the door. She picked up the rake; the hose was already uncoiled and attached to the water pump. She turned it on but kinked the hose to control the flow of water and pulled it along beside her as she had done with Dixie on the leash. “Come on, girl,” she said to the hose and to herself.

The smell of smoke was stronger; she could see wisps rising above the hills to the south. A northwest wind had picked up. She soaked the short grass around the perimeter of the yard, then laid the hose in a ditch in case the wooden rail fence caught fire. A hundred yards north of the house, she struck a match and cupped her hands to encourage the flame and protect it from the wind. When it burned yellow, she knelt down and dropped it in a nest of dead grass, pounding the grass with her fists until the whole patch breathed orange. She pulled her rake through it and watched the fire begin to eat its way through the brush.

Moving methodically along the edge of her yard, she tried to pull the rake in straight lines across the grass but it was as combing through long tangled hair. The rake caught in places where the sumac had taken hold and her arm seemed to move of its own accord in large loops. The footing was uneven, especially in heels. Her toe caught in one of the tufts and she tripped, dumping most of the matches into the deep grass. She took off her shoes, the thick brown grass cushioning her feet from the flint rocks just beneath it. The flames burned in jagged circles, but the wind would eventually join them into a wall of fire that would sweep evenly across the hills.

To the west, the cemetery and road formed a natural firebreak. Pearl moved to the east, setting the fire in front of her and then walking back to the edge of her yard and setting another fire to meet it. When both the north and east sides were burning well, she went back and turned off the water. She could see an orange line of fire moving in her direction from the south. She faced her house, lighting the bluestem before her and letting the wind and the flames push her backwards. She thought she heard a truck in the drive. They would see her note and then look for her. She hid behind the smoke, her exposed skin warm and glowing, her eyebrows and the hair on her arms curling under the heat. When her matches were gone, she lay face down in the grass near a nest and rested, the silk fabric covering it like liquid.

  
  

K. L. Barron currently lives and writes in the Flint Hills and teaches writing and literature at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. Her work has appeared in New Letters, The Bennington Review, and Little Balkans Review, among others. New poetry and nonfiction are out or forthcoming in the anthologies Voices of the Great Plains and Begin Again. She has a weakness for landscapes, that of Kansas being the most subtly powerful and enduring.
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