Jeremy Packert Burke



Those of us old enough to remember cannot help but shiver as we look upon the hill that still holds, all these years later, Mariah’s bicycle. On a cold summer night ten years ago, she rode her bike to the top of the hill, left it there, and walked out of the town forever. Lightning struck it, and the tires melted into the hardpacked earth. We as a town came to a consensus that we would do nothing about it. We waited for the wind and rain to weary it into its composite spokes, and tubes, and cables, and chains, for it to sink into the mud the way everything eventually does. We did not count on the rain leaving, too.

The bicycle sits there, shining and blue, a rejection of the sky’s primacy. An implacable reminder of the prairie fires that have plagued our town all these ten summers. Nearer to our line of firefighters, particolored bunting hangs from slack lines, unmoving in the breezeless summer afternoon. Carousel horses smile and spin in endless cycles. The fire rages and flows and we stand in single file.

Today our task is twofold: keep the flames at bay, and recover a child’s ashen bones.

Every year the fires claim someone. On occasion the life is willingly given: some madman believes that, in sacrificing himself to their hunger, he might cease their burning. Or some depressive cannot resist the flickering enormity, the brilliant tapestry of light that hangs between us and the blackened plain beyond.

On occasion it is someone like Tyella Ptan. Someone who did not heed the warnings their parents dealt out. (In Tyella’s case, we expect that her parents did not move their mouths from their bottles long enough to advise her of the danger.) The fire moves fast in the night. A cataract of combustion. It will make an island of the place you stand. Taunt you before you spill into its glowing throat.

Above us all sits the bicycle.

Simon Tollow comes to the head of the line and spits on the fire. Vera Wetherby hocks a  lougie. Twins Caspar and Pollia spit together and run to the back of the line holding hands. (They are too young to remember the rain, the time before Mariah left. Their first memories are of fire, with only stories to assure them of the earth’s lost verdure, the delicate fall of a thousand soft needles.)  Mayor Pleep stands at the line’s tail, grabbing bottles of water from the back of an eighteen-wheeler and handing one to each of the expectorating firefighters. To spit is the price of a drink. We came to consensus on this issue.

Behind the carousel stands a candyfloss machine. To the delight of children, they may eat as many bales as they can stomach. The sugar coaxes saliva from deeper within their gums.

The winters aren’t so bad. We can almost pretend, then, that Mariah never took the rain from us. In winter we huddle against tamer fires, eager for the warmth of a hearth or stove. Fog rolls down from the mountains and we race through it, cupping its mist in our open mouths.

Brock Sibelius spits. Cara Tow spits. As people reach the head of the line, many close their eyes against the heat. Against the sight of small, blackened bones.

Tyella was nine. She used to stand in line all day, contributing what little spit she had. She asked the people around her “Where does fire come from? Where does it go?” and they tried their best to answer through fact or fable. She asked other questions too: how grass grew; how rain knew where not to fall; if there had ever been a census of birds, and if so how many were there?

At the end of each day she carried her bottled water back to her parents. Each wall of their house slanted against the others. A dozen windchimes hung from their porch, each bell dangling clear of the others and issuing no song. Her parents sucked greedily at the stale water, hollering, between gulps, at Tyella and each other all the long night.

The whole town comes out for the spitting, with some exceptions. Tyella’s parents haven’t stood in line for at least five years. Greta, Mariah’s sister, has never come. If we stand on the edge of the carousel and crane our necks, we can see her bicycle repair shop just over the hill. She sits inside, checking the alignment of wheels, the fastness of cables. There are those who believe that every bike she touches will eventually be struck by lightning. There is, however, not enough data for us to reach consensus on this point.

Shrieks rose from Greta and Mariah’s house that final night. Screams to rival thunder. A series of crashes as the hermetic worlds of Mariah’s snowglobe collection opened to the night. Their father was barely in his grave.

“Either his chair goes,” Mariah yelled. “Or I do.”

An enigmatic ultimatum, we thought.

Their father had once been the mayor. He dressed in tails and spats and gladhanded up and down the town. He smiled wide at the head of parades. As a girl, Mariah was mousy and cowed, silent beneath his auric glow; Greta forever basked in it. When Mariah saw him grasp another’s hand, she flinched. Greta sat in on town hall meetings, watched how her father rhetorically wrangled us all into consensus.

He never let a single stranger into his house. Mariah insisted every photograph he graced be buried with him.

And their mother? Their mother died in a flood.

Victoria Erasmus spits. Malek Malek spits. No one rides the carousel; it spins regardless. The spitting’s been going on for some weeks, but we’re far from halfway done with this, the season of fires. Each day we hope only to keep the border even—a truce between our mouths and its. When at last it has consumed all the brittle grass, when there is nothing but a scorched black plain stretching toward the horizon, we will walk through and scatter seeds among the ashes in hopes that something more than grass will rise. Even without rain, the grass always returns. We agree that this is strange. But, we reason, since grass covers so much of the globe already, some greater engine than we can understand must power its illimitable cline.

Tyella Ptan, any child would tell you, always had the wrong clothes, the wrong bicycle, the wrong questions. The children all seem abstractly sad at the loss of her (at the reminder, perhaps, that they themselves will eventually die); but, too, they seem to believe she deserved it.

Some days Tyella Ptan rode her bicycle to Greta’s repair shop to watch her work. To ask of her modifications, repairs. Some nights Tyella fell asleep to the long, low clatter of wheels and gears. She woke on Greta’s divan, swaddled in an afghan, a cup of steaming tea waiting on the table beside her. They spoke lowly of guilt and flames and bicycles.

Greta fashioned a whistle to the spokes of Tyella’s bike so that variable notes played as Tyella rode about town. She wore, as all cycling children do, rubber gloves and boots lest she be struck by lightning and killed.

Children delight in this risk, and particularly enjoy doing tricks on the half-pipe at the edge of town. They sail through the air, hoping that a bolt will reach from the cloudless sky and snare them, just at the peak of their rise. They use a system of points and determine a winner. We understand that, although Tyella sometimes joined in these games, her bicycle was deemed “fuck ugly.” Furthermore, she never won.

We would like to reiterate that we can reach no consensus on whether or not it is Greta’s work on these bikes that draws the lightning.

Booth Querrel spits. Thalia Stanson spits. The line dwindles as people grow tired or satiate their thirst. We come closer to the bones. Among those remaining, restless gossip passes:

“Such a shame that—”

“Well at least she’s escaped her father.”

“What do you—”

“If we convinced Mariah to return . . . ”

“We will weigh her down with the bones of what we’ve lost.”

“I heard the old mayor—”

“A countercurse on our lands and lives.”

A contrary noise interrupts. “What if we—” But already, the others are shaking their heads. They know this move. Every summer someone suggests we pour the bottled water on the flames directly, but we can devise no perfect system for apportioning it.

As soon as the rain left we came to a consensus: all water will be saved for us to drink. To the fires, we will contribute only what the body is able to give.

Does Mariah know, we wonder, how she has come to define the spirit of the town? How we have united beneath the banner of her flight? We would, if we could come to an agreement on it, rename the town in honor of her, in horror of her.

Some days it seems almost strange that Greta should be Mariah’s sister. Mariah looms so large in our minds she blots out any sense of humanity. Greta, now, is quiet and withdrawn. She spends days and nights inside her bicycle repair shop. She goes on dates with Katje Prender, the butcher. She buys cereal and hums to herself as she cooks. She is only a person.

We spit the fire back and back and back until someone, Poppy Calla, is brave enough to dash against the heat and scoop up a few of the charred bones. We carry them through the black and orange dusk to the peak of the hill and lay the bones in a circle around the bicycle. They do not shine beneath the pale stars. They repeat no light from the raging prairie fire. We carry their stains on our hands for days, lacking the means to wash them away.

The carousel spins on into the night. We return to our husbands, our wives, our children and mistresses. Katje Prender arrives at the bicycle repair shop. The fire makes its slow encroach.

None of us speak to Tyella Ptan’s parents. Many of us heard rumors, of course, about the way her father treated her, the way her mother let him. But rumor is the opposite of consensus.

Our sleep is black as the spent earth. Some of us, straining our ears, hear, beneath the crackle of flame, a cyclical clicking. Ball bearings in a wheel. The sound, we imagine, of a machine ruminating.

In the morning, Buck Buckwick is the first at the fire. He is gathering spit in the pits of his jaws when he sees the chair.

He first thinks it a person. Then, a vision. Its upholstery is flayed free by flame. Its blacked velour curls. Charred legs glow from within with a vermilion light. The chair is almost gone by the time a second person, Sasha Tambrame, arrives. Buck has already begun to spit the fire back, but there is no saving the chair. Boundaries grow indistinct behind the fire’s haze and the thing crumbles into nothing.

We never learn for certain who brought the chair, or indeed whose chair it was. We have our theories, but are unable to form a consensus, and so it is no one’s chair. It is everyone’s.

Some merry dreamers believe this to be the end of things, believe that some price has been paid and the rain will soon come. The sky will open now, or now, or now, and wash the dust from children’s faces. It will scour new rivers deep in the charred earth. The ash will become an ink in which we’ll write all our names on bright new clouds. At the very least, they think, Mariah will return. She will pry free her bike from the hill and wheel it back to her home and make good with her sister.

No clouds gather. There is no sign of change. Children still fly through the air and catch lightning from the empty sky. They call out “That’s a hundred and fifty points!” The carousel spins on. Even the older among us sometimes forget that things were ever another way. A town can get used to anything.


Jeremy Packert Burke is an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. He has had work in or forthcoming from The Nashville Review, The Adroit Journal, Quarterly West, Split Lip, Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Third Coast, and Puerto del Sol, among other places.