“Chimney Fire” by Mary Lewis

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Clara pushed herself off the plywood floor and looked down at where her face had been.  No blood this time, but the skin around her left eye was puffy and tender to the touch. Earlier in the year she would have found some snow to put on it, but March had turned it all to mud and she’d forgotten to fill the ice trays in the freezer. Last time he was upset because she overcooked his eggs again, but this time he found a bank statement for a checking account she had just opened in her name. She should have told Eunice at the bank not to send them, but she was in a hurry to fill out the forms before anyone knew so she forgot that detail. Her first deposit was part of her last paycheck from the turkey plant, split so that most of it still went to the joint account, so Stan wouldn’t notice. Of course now he knew everything, but he only had time to rough her up a little before going off to work in the lumber yard. Later he’d make up for that.

Slowly she stood and walked to the stove in the corner of the old log cabin. Only a few sticks to feed the dying embers, she’d have to go to the outdoor pile to get more.  Then she looked at the stack of broken down cardboard boxes behind a chair, waiting to be recycled. A bit of that would get the fire blazing again while she got more wood. She folded a piece in two and thrust it in. She put in another. As it took, the draft pulled strongly and heat radiated into her chilled arms. Then she heard a small crackling coming from the stovepipe itself. In one spot a circle of red grew larger on the surface of the black metal.  A chimney fire. Creosote had been building up there for years, from low fires out of soft wood, and now it was on fire in the chimney. Hadn’t been able to get much besides box elder lately, and that was great for making creosote. Clara knew what to do, damp down the fire and stop feeding it. She reached for the damper handle above the stove, but her hand went to her eye instead and she stared into the red spot that seemed to grow large enough for her to dive in.

Her hand fell to her side and a tear welled up, stinging the tender swelling on her face as it made a trail down her cheek. She hugged herself and bent forward to ease the empty feeling in her belly, and let the lump in her throat grow large, but she did not sit down. Instead she paced the few steps it took to span the small kitchen, to the window overlooking the wooded ravine, then to the opposite wall where a small window in the door looked out on the muddy path that led to the field road. She paced to ease the tightness in her neck and the indecision in her heart. An image came to her from her childhood, of a tiger who traced the same monotonous track over and over in a tiny cage in the old Como Park Zoo in St. Paul, and looked at her with vacant eyes, as though knowing he could get no help from her.

She paused by the stove, listening to the crackling that was always a fire alarm in the past, but now pulled her down a path she dimly realized she was already treading. Some harsh bit of that knowledge welled up from inside like a sudden release of steam that propelled the hand that knew it should turn the damper down, to do an opposing action. It grasped the chair and threw it aside to get to the cardboard. She stuffed all that she could into the firebox and then flew up the stairs to the loft. The stovepipe glared red-hot in two places on its way to the ceiling. She dragged a cardboard box full of old newspapers next to the chimney and it began to smolder. She pulled the old dresser as close as she could and soon mushroom clouds of smoke grew to engulf it. Clara raced downstairs and threw on her chore jacket. She pulled on her mud boots and charged through the door. Her eyes fastened on the path so she could avoid the muddiest puddles. That’s why she didn’t notice the figure on the path until she bumped into him.

“What the…?” said the figure, a man of rugged build, in coveralls and a denim jacket.

Clara stopped in her tracks and looked him full in the face. The veins at his temple were about to burst.

“Go to Marsden’s and call for help,” said Clara. Why had he come back so soon? Maybe the truck had gotten stuck in the mud.

“You didn’t call yourself?” Stan pushed her aside to get past her on the narrow path.

He ran to the house and opened the door. Smoke poured out.

“Too late, the phone wouldn’t work,” said Clara, picking herself up off the ground.

“We’ll just see about that,” said Stan as he disappeared into the smoke-filled room.

Clara considered her options. Continue down the path to the truck, but it was probably stuck, and she didn’t have the keys anyway. She could race out along the driveway to the county road, but that was half a mile over open fields, no place to hide. Better to head to the woods, he’d have a harder time following her there. She started running along the wooded path that led down the ravine. In a moment she heard Stan screaming, “You bitch, you started it! You torched my house. Son of a bitch! Damn, you can’t run away from this!”

Stan was still in good shape, from farm work and work at the lumber yard, so Clara had to escape with something other than speed. At least she had a head start. The trail twisted down at a steep grade. She had to slow down here to keep from toppling forward.

Gooseberry thorns ripped at her pants. Her feet struggled to regain balance over a muddy spot. Down the ravine, she knew she’d have to cross the creek, and hoped it wasn’t so high as to submerge the stepping stones. No such luck, she splashed through the brown water up to her knees. Nowhere to hide, the underbrush was still bare of leaves this early in the spring. Clara glanced over her shoulder, just long enough to see Stan racing down the slope. She left the trail along the creek and took off uphill climbing to the cliff edge above her. No longer able to run because it was so steep, she planted her feet into the moist earth, one after another.  A wave of dizziness swept over her but she put her head down to fend it off and forced her lungs to gulp more air. Behind her she heard Stan plunge through the creek, cursing as he hit the water.

Just under the limestone ledge Clara followed a raccoon trail that traced the contour of the cliff. It ran into a break in the cliff, a grassy slope between two rocky faces. She pulled herself up the steep slope by grabbing on to scraggly branches of juniper. Her hands went instinctively to the live branches, which looked a lot like the dead ones. Only way to know with juniper was practice. Too bad Stan knew how too.

Now on flatter ground above the cliffs that lined the ravine, she thought ahead. The Torkelson’s had left a bit of their cornfield standing last fall, because it was too wet to get the combine in. She picked up speed again, leaping over fallen trees, skirting tangles of brush. There was a place in the barbed wire fence last fall where the top wire was down.

She angled to the right to find it. Yes, still there. She could straddle it there without having to step on the lower wire. The barbs tore into her pants and bit into the skin of her inner thigh, but did not slow her down. She dove into the corn and loped down a row, ignoring the sharp edges of dried corn stalks that scratched her face. Just a few yards in, there was no way to see her from the outside. She could be anywhere in that patch, maybe a half acre of standing corn. But she had to find a spot and hold still. Any movement would give her position away in the still air. Good thing Stan hadn’t brought Truman. That hound would have no trouble sniffing her out.

It was easier to be still when sitting, so she found a place to settle, where some stalks had fallen over. She willed herself to breathe deeply and slowly so she could listen for Stan, but her heart was still too loud. In a few more heartbeats she heard him rustling at the edge of the corn. He cursed quietly now, hoping not to warn her she supposed. Clara saw without seeing the curve of his back as he plunged into the cornfield. He had a way of sliding his shoulders up and forward that gave his back a hunch when he was angry. It was a warning to her, like the fur raised on Truman’s’ neck when he caught the scent of a coon. Stan was too good a hunter to think he could find her this way. He’d have to flush her out or wait her out. Maybe he’d go back and get Truman. Nope, then she’d get out of there. He could wait all day in a deer stand, barely moving. But he wasn’t angry at the whitetails. He wouldn’t last two minutes in this hunt. Clara could keep still. She’d had practice. When a drunken fog gripped him it was best to get out of his way. In their little cabin, the only way to do that was to be still. She’d sit in her red rocker by the kitchen window looking out while he swore at the TV and the government and Maynard, his boss at the lumber yard. He’d forget all about her at such times, unless she got up to get a cup of coffee. Then she’d be the focus of his curses, and the blows would not be far behind.

He was closer now. She could hear the dry cornstalks scratching out of the way.

Suddenly the rattling stopped. Clara turned her head way to the right to see the spot.

Maybe six rows over, a black boot smeared with mud. That was all she could see because near the ground the corn forest was thin with only stalks. The canopy of pale brown leaves concealed the rest of his body. At his eye level there were so many leaves in the way you couldn’t see more than the next row. All he’d have to do was to crouch down and he’d see her. But would he think of this? Clara held still but her heart would not stop beating. The brown fabric of his chore pants stretched over a bent knee, and a hand reached to the ground. His back carved a hunch in profile. He looked ahead, then to the left. When he looked right he’d see her.

She didn’t give him that chance. Like a ruffed grouse she sprang up with a yelp. No matter how many times she’d had one fly up in front of her, it always startled her and made her stop in her tracks. She hoped it would do the same to Stan now. She sprang straight forward in the direction she was facing, the woods. He wouldn’t expect her to go back. Clara scaled the fence at the same place she’d just crossed it in the other direction. Stan crashed through row on row to get to hers and he was fast, but he’d taken a moment to start his pursuit and change directions. The grouse impersonation had worked.

“Damn, you think you can scare me you bitch! This is it Clara, you’re not getting away this time.”

He’d kill her, she knew it. She started back in the same direction she’d come, looking for ways around brush and over fallen trees. Her path angled downstream along the cliff edge to a break she’d climbed up many times before. The slope was so steep and rocky she had to use branches again. Like aerial stepping stones she reached for one, then the next, twisting to go backwards down the draw. They might not support Stan. When she reached the creek she heard Stan starting his descent. A branch cracked under his weight and she heard his boots scuffle. His curses changed from anger to fear for a few moments. But he regained his feet well down the slope.

Clara plunged back across the muddy water and headed along the creek edge to the path that she’d come down from the house. Fastest trail out of the ravine. Too tired to think of strategy. Smoke settled into the ravine, burning her eyes. At a turn in the path she glanced over her shoulder. Stan had gained on her. If she stumbled he would be on top of her. She’d get to the house and put it between them. Close now, she made her legs struggle on though her lungs screamed and spots of dizziness passed in front of her eyes. Another few steps and she was out of the ravine and on flatter land again, twenty yards from the house. Clara raced to get to the other side of it where the smoke was thickest, and ran into something, someone.

“Clara, we came as soon as we saw the smoke,” said Frank, their nearest neighbor.

“Tried to call you, but got a busy, so I called the fire department. Don’t know if they can even get in through the mud.”

Clara could barely speak through her heaving lungs. “Frank, what a savior you are.”

She pulled back from him and let her heart beat twice before saying, “We were checking the woods fence when we smelled smoke.” A little ways back Frank’s grown son, Mike, peered into the windows of the smoke filled house, an ax in his hands.

“Think you can hide from me!” Now it was Stan’s voice disembodied in the smoke.

Then he burst through the screen of smoke, still running. Stan braked when he saw Clara and Frank, but it took several yards for him to come to a complete stop, so close Clara’s feet bit into the soft earth, ready to run again. But she stood her ground when Stan grabbed her arms and shook her hard. “She started this fire, and I’m not going to let her get away with it.”

“Mike get over here!,” yelled Frank, and they struggled to pin back Stan’s arms to release Clara from his grip. “Just calm down Stan, let her be.”

“The Hell I will, she’s trying to destroy everything I worked for, the bitch!” He broke one arm free of Mike, who had to grab it again.

Clara looked at the three of them, framed by the cloud of smoke engulfing the house.

“It was nothing but a cage and you can’t keep me in it anymore!” She took deep breaths to stop her heart from crashing into the walls of her chest.

Frank said “Clara, take my truck, the keys are in the ignition. Amy’s home.”

Stan struggled against his captors like some overgrown beetle in a horror movie, his human guise now shed. That was what she’d lived with all these years. He bent forward in half to lunge against his restraints, so his eyes raged upward from beneath his heavy brow to look a her.

Clara planted her feet to draw strength from the earth and looked down at him. “I’m leaving you Stan.” She took her time to turn away from him, as though she was in a video in slow motion. Her breathing slowed with each step down the path. It was good to be done with running, but it would take a long time to get the smell of smoke out of her hair.

 

 

Mary Lewis has published many works of short fiction and has a story in the collection Frank Walsh’s Kitchen and Other Stories. She contributes articles on environmental issues to her local paper and teaches biology at Luther College in Decorah, IA.  Before that,  Lewis worked on a research farm for sustainable agriculture that she co-founded.  Lewis taught piano and dance for a number of years and has a weakness for Beethoven and Chopin.  Skating is another passion, both ice and roller, but wheels work best in parades.

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