Fiction: Kindle and Scorch

Jaclyn Patterson

We stilled time together all that long winter before. We were needing many small, tender things: things kept in jars, lightly toasted, and resembling antique watches. The hill was ours. We stood one-footed atop the snow, warm and unknowing in our knowing.

Inside, Eliza. Weakened, she rallied the will it took to recline on our small sofa. And she spoke once, saying, Seasons can be misleading.

Together, we were threading what was bearable, and along came nothing. In close quarters, we cooked meals and sat before fires and read old books and nothing was tender enough. So much we could not remember, we shared a name.

What we couldn’t see was also ours.

Eliza’s skin had turned to paper, and contained many words and sayings, though Eliza rarely spoke now.

Meanwhile, an exterminator arrived, claiming our clocks had reached beyond control. The exterminator said neighbors had been complaining of a sundial, emanating from our hill.

A family, with firmness we denied all accusations.

Yet we had begun to think a change had occurred. We consulted maps as well as Eliza; nothing gave.

Seasons can be misleading, but we were undoubtedly experiencing one. How? Eating potatoes, waiting on alteration. A stranger came, bearing large squash and other foods—in no way tender.

I wept and wept.

Or rather, I wanted to weep, inconsolable and uncontrollable, but I sat calmly at the dining table. The stranger and the stranger’s gift had no visible physical effect on me, try as I did to muster one. So I returned to reading Eliza. Francis and Donald hunted clocks in the attic, while Mother and Jane claimed nothing.

*

In addition to regret, there were other routines. We always rose at eight, lunched at noon, hosted Sundays. Yet the clocks began to interfere.

Jane’s Sunday roast, ruined because they refused to keep the time it cooked. And Francis found a lazy or free sort of time drinking, buzzing behind circuit breakers in the basement. Rising at eight, we found the afternoon of the following day—we had missed so much!

Or it wasn’t afternoon at all, and perhaps it was the day, the very moment to consider whether we were making up time. No tender shoots pushed through the soil atop our hill, and we had to allow, even to one other, the possibility we had misplaced an entire season. We had all been spending, spending before mirrors, watching our age come upon us, and our varied illnesses.

Family resemblance is never so pronounced as in sickness.

The exterminator arrived many times over with several poisons and pretty machines for dispensing them. The exterminator warned us to be careful of unused corners and countertops alike. The exterminator said our problem was considerable. The exterminator sprayed every clock she saw, and several spots where she thought time might thrive, given the chance. She recommended keeping photos in books, books closed and lined on shelves, music softly, and no more than once a week.

But watching is practically the same as not watching. Time thrived, and clocks encroached.

It was like our trying to remember before we were born, or the hill we stood atop one misplaced winter. They say in many states it once snowed every year, but Eliza, made of paper at the end, could neither confirm nor deny: the snippet I read affirmed every contradiction. I read its tiny tenderness every moment, again and again; at first it was nearly enough. There were events, yes, inscrutable events. Nevertheless, with consequence. Recalling them now cannot make motive or reason—or anyone more alive. A summer or a winter, a single day in this eastern state or that western. Eliza. Eliza sitting on a rock, or stirring the potatoes. But occurring habitually, lacking specificity, these are not events. Stirring potatoes, adding sauce from a jar, eating on a rock telling a story. What happened?

Jane has forgotten, Mother has forgotten, but I remember—I do remember! 

Swollen legs and cardboard tongue. Dear Eliza—not dead yet, but we wished. We did wish.

Every illness is potential, every age deadly. But we must recall what happened—frequent visits became an infestation. Infested by time—an event, a fact, Jane and Mother forget with deep intention.

But what happened is simple: time escaped, and potential illness realized. We resembled each other so much—control was no longer part of our routine. The event we discerned, the one we picked from all the others to remember, was Eliza’s.

It was not unlikely for Eliza, in her illness, to have turned to paper: we must, the stranger said, accept the change. And the stranger alerted certain authorities, who said we must either bury or burn Eliza.

Given our history of family illness, and all the control we had lost, we chose burning. And in the time since that event, we have remembered it.

The stranger was an undertaker; the event belonged to Eliza. We had chosen it for her. We had chosen it to allay illness, and we did survive. We did not burn up with Eliza, and Francis, Donald, Jane, Mother began to resemble one another less. Only I kept the family pallor, and during the burning, I attempted for the second time uncontrollable weeping. Sobs may have elevated the occasion, had I been able to perform. Without them, the event was another fever followed by another blaze. But we must recall! It was Eliza’s.

We had dressed Eliza in her polyester suit, and though the authorities did not permit us to look, she burned quickly! We had taken her rings and her antique watch—without them her fingers and wrists first toasted and crisped, then singed, curled to dust. Jane and I each inherited one of the rings, and of course Mother took the antique watch, which had once belonged to Eliza’s own mother.

Dressed in her suit, Eliza was a small, tender thing.

We burned Eliza, and put her into three jars. The event occurred over several hours, and then we stood on our feet beside the sundial on the hill, and watched all that was ours: we inherited the season—everything else was incidental, and in Eliza’s home we recovered again, lost again.

Watching was the same as not watching, and Mother said we would, when time allowed, dispense the jars containing Eliza to the ocean—which, in her final illness, Eliza had longed to see.

 

Jaclyn Watterson’s work has most recently appeared in Puerto del Sol, Loose Change, Paragraphiti, Psychopomp, and Two Serious Ladies. She lives in Atlanta.

“Kindle and Scorch” appeared in North Dakota Quarterly 82.2/3 (Spring/Summer 2016), 5-7.