(Cardinal County Series)
01 | Striking Matches
August 1973 - I scraped a wooden match along the rough surface of a fireplace brick, bringing about the hiss and sizzle of a newborn flame. The quick release of sulphur stung the inside of my nose. I watched as the tiny piece of wood turned black, the fire eating its way along to the end, nipping at the skin of my thumb and finger like something with vicious, hot teeth. I let go of the match. The beginnings of my first fire planted its roots on the wrong piece of newspaper.
“What’s that awful smell? What are you doing?” My mother’s questions came to me from the direction of the kitchen. I stood there, staring at the glowing red dot as it turned into a shifting flame. “Augusta Louise. When I ask you something, I expect an answer.”
She came into our living room, a dishtowel slung over her shoulder and a stained apron covering her dress from neck to knees. Soon as she saw the burning newspaper, she shouted at me. “I’ll never understand where you get these ideas. It’s already hotter than the insides of a day-long-roasted-pig and yet you started a fire.” She pointed at the squashed sheets of newspaper and pieces of kindling I’d stacked on the iron grate. “That’s where the fire is supposed to go. Not on the floor. Are you soft in the head? Are you planning on burning this house down?”
She rushed back into the kitchen, returning with her mop bucket. “Good thing for you, it’s floor-washing day.”
She shoved me out of the way with her free arm, then heaved the bucket in the general direction of the fireplace. Water splashed down onto the flames until they fizzled out into little black bits. The empty bucket dropped to the floor. She turned towards me, her face redder than an infected mosquito bite. “Get on up those stairs before I do something you’re going to regret.”
She spread the dishtowel over the wet floor. Spots of soot marked the tops of her soaked slippers. As she wiped her forehead with the back of her hand, I recognized the exact moment when my mother gave up on me. I could have stuffed an apology with a thousand words, but it wouldn’t have made any difference. My mother’s forgiveness lasted no longer than one of her rare smiles.
As I stomped up the stairs, I thought about what my father might do to me when he got home from work. I’m not totally stupid. I’d done a really bad thing and deserved a sound thrashing.
Instead of sitting on my bed, I knelt down on the floor, close to the opening of the furnace ductwork. Most of the time, my bouts of eavesdropping proved to be useful.
A few minutes later, the kitchen door slammed shut.
My mother did all the talking, speaking so fast I couldn’t fully understand what she said. Two words stood out: fire and matches. “Augusta Louise. Come down here.”
I counted each step, all the way to the kitchen. Twelve stairs. Twenty-one steps across the living room. Eleven steps through the dining room.
My father pushed his dinner plate towards the centre of the table. A clump of mashed potatoes and chunks of broiled steak remained uneaten. He wiped his mouth with a polka dot napkin, shoved his chair back and stood by the kitchen door. “Follow me,” he said.
I walked behind him until we stood on the other side of the tool shed. “What are you gonna do?”
“Stand over there, by the fence,” he said, pulling the belt free from the waistband of his pants.
Most of the time, my father didn’t believe in slapping, smacking or spanking. I’d learned the hard way that beliefs could be set aside under special circumstances. Almost every darned day, if necessary. “Why did you do it?” he asked.
“I don’t know.” I looked down at the weeds tickling my legs.
He hung his belt over the top board, then grabbed me by the arms, digging his fingers down into my bones. “Look at me when I’m talking to you.”
I didn’t move. Not to breathe. Not to blink my eyes.
“It’s over ninety degrees outside and yet you start a fire. Inside the house. For no apparent reason. A fire which you could not control by yourself. It goes against a normal way of thinking. Your mother is very upset with you.”
“She hates me.”
For the first time, he didn’t deny it. “Let’s get this over with. Turn around.”
I looked up at him. “I wanted to start a fire. All by myself. I don’t know why. It’s fun watching stuff burn. Do you suppose there’s something wrong with me?”
The anger disappeared from my father’s face, replaced by something I’d never seen before. I cried, hard enough to feel every teardrop as it landed on my shirt. Turning, I held onto the wooden fence and closed my eyes, forcing the remaining tears to run down my cheeks.
My father took a deep breath and picked up his belt. The strip of hardened leather made a swooshing sound as he brought it down, striking the fence post beside me. “Go on up to your room. Don’t ever mention this to your mother, understand?”
“Don’t ever tell your sister, either.”