SELECTION FROM

Cuyahoga

Pete Beatty

Winter.

A tidy house, under bedclothes of snow, every window dark. The night is empty. No moon, no dogs, no drunks. No night pigs wondering after food. Not even a hungry hoofprint.

The eye is the lamp of the body and yours shows on The city of Ohio at the third hour of the year 1837. A lamp is no use without more to look at. Go ahead and enter the house. I will watch for constables walking bundled against the cold. It is fine – we go as haints. Haints cannot be criminals.

Inside is no mansion but there are modest riches. You see a young mother abed, a cherub child tucked in a cradle at mother’s feet, a house-cat the size of a hog, a family Bible, brass candlesticks, clean swept floors, quilts, stick furniture – nothing fancy but good for sitting. This feels a home. A respite on the long flight from Eden.

Your lamp beams brighter and soon you see the absences between comforts. No axe or man’s britches hung by the door. Perhaps this is a widow’s home. You think a widow must always be tragic. But look at the cheerful aspect of this place. Even the bedpots have a pleasant look.

As you haint around, the light of your lamp-eye keeps to growing. Such that it beams brighter than day, and the air breathes warmer, stifling even. The woman abed begins to stir. You turn nervous at being seen.

Crap. This is poor luck. Look behind you. We have started a fire. Flames is lapping up the wall. How has this—Did your burglar eyes spill their blaze? Have you done this? You set the domestic tenderness to burning. With your eye. I do not know how.

Douse it in blankets – hurry.

Not that one – that is too fine a quilt.

Have they got any water?

Get out of the damned house.

Back to the snow-shrouded lane. You are agitated and scorched. You are safe. But we have not done the courtesy of rousting the home. Through the cackle of flames come the cries of widow and beautiful child and plump cat. Even as the devil’s laughter rolls and the wailing sharpens you hear a sudden thwock. It must be timbers snapping at the heat – or the family Bible ignited, shocked by the blaspheming fire. And another thwock.

As alarms spread to the neighbor houses you hear calls for buckets. Folks yell FIRE as if to shame the blaze, but it only cackles back. The widow is hollering for the Lord to take the household up quick, but only the thwock answers.

The fire has roused the whole town. We are no longer alone – the sounds of tragedy is joined by hoots of alarm and barking church bells. Every soul for a mile around is singing out for Buckets buckets buckets Thwock thwock thwock the house says back.

Nothing draws folks out like a house in flames – soon enough there is chatter and snowball tossing mixed in with the Buckets! and widow’s wails and thwocks. Do not think the neighbors unchristian. Some are still whiskey-drunk from greeting the New Year. Thwock. In the absence of a sing or a nut-gathering there is nothing like a house afire to stir us up. I do not propose the burning of widows and babes for sport. Only that a house afire is a credible substitute for the sun. Especially at winter. Preserves carry the ghost of summer. You yourself are transported some by the blaze – I can see so by your face.

Thwock.

Your clumsiness has set all this going. Folks seem to drop from trees to gawp. Boys fool, men mutter, women pray. Thwock. The call for buckets dies down and so do the wails from inside. There is only the rough breath of flame and the thwock. But even the thwock ceases.

Just as you are certain the house must fall – must make a grave of itself – the flaming front door bursts open. Out of the smoke steps the charred shape of a man. Stooped, staggering, he stumbles but does not fall. He carries with him the young widow. Does she still draw breath?

This roasted rescuer heaves the widow onto a snowbank and falls to his knees. Steam rolls from his back and the winter white melts in a circle around him. A sooted arm goes into the breast of his blouse and comes out with the baby, who screams with wonder at being rescued. At this cry the mother awakens – she lives! Our hero reaches into his shirt again and produces the halfhog cat, its furs singed some. As the cat runs off – dignity busted into a thousand pieces – the angel of the fire breathes heavy. The crowd takes a reverent quiet.

You are a shambles to know who this man is. His shoulders wide as ox yokes. A waist trim as a sleek lake schooner. Muscles curlicued like rich man’s furniture. Chestnut hair shining in the orange light of the blaze. A cheerful red cloth knotted at his neck. His small bright eyes look up and he drinks another great breath, which comes out as a laugh. A church organ full of the sacrament wine. And he says Who has brought refreshment?

Now you have met my brother Big Son.