Barn Fire, 1985

Barn Fire, 1985 1920 1440 Kevin Richard White

Back in October 1985, I woke up to the horses screaming.

My parents weren’t home – they were spending the last of their paychecks line dancing and whiskey-tasting. They could be blamed for a lot, but there was no way this could be pinned on them. I never did find out how it started, but that’s not what’s important about this.

My sister Laurie woke me up. She was cleaning up from the spaghetti dinner we had earlier that night. “Ben, wake up,” she cooed into my ear. She was calm, but I could smell the whiskey on her breath too – she was fond of sneaking sips when she was in charge. “Get dressed.”

I heard the howls from the animals glide along in a windstream through our backyard and into my open window. It was an odd song, one you might hear when you’re locked into a nightmare. I couldn’t find my shirt. Laurie grabbed my hand anyway and we opened the screen door.

Our property was not big so right away we were hit with wood ash and ember and the sounds of the livestock. I never saw a fire brighter. I heard it sing and whistle as I saw the smoke rise up and disappear into the nighttime with the few stars that were out. The animals, though, were louder. I wouldn’t be able to recreate it if you paid me money. I just remember them being deep and harrowed, unjust and roaring.

“There’s nothing we can do,” Laurie said as I started to walk towards it. I’ll never forget the pitch her voice had, the glaze in her eyes. She was right. Calling the firemen would have been impossible – our parents had forgotten to pay the phone bill and our neighbors didn’t like us enough to look out for us. Reputation can be a terrible thing.

I watched as cracked wood fell. She stifled a sob as she thought of all that was in there – her favorite pony, the hay bales we jumped into from the loft. I tried to run towards it again, but she tackled me into the ground and I spent the rest of the night picking wet grass off my chest and neck. The fire showed no signs of slowing down its performance. It shone like rare gold, throwing out its expanse over everything that lay around.

I was trying to count the number of bones we would have to throw in garbage bags when it was all said and done. I only hoped some had made it out, whether through a slit or by luck, but I wasn’t holding my breath.

I don’t know how long we stood there but I heard the crunch and whirring of Dad’s pickup truck. I turned and there they were, hanging onto each other like vines, drunk as hell and also struck by the sight of their livelihood tumbling down. Laurie tried to hug them but they acted like stone, not interested in love or affection. Mom went into the house after a pause and I figured I’d try to talk it out, make sense of it all.

“Dad, all the horses were in there.”

This is what is important about this story.

He didn’t look at me. I saw fire in his eyes. Eventually, he ruffled my hair but that was it.

Mom came back outside with the whiskey bottle that Laurie had been sipping from and gathered us all into a huddle.

“Well,” she said as she unscrewed the cap, “what are we going to drink to?”

Laurie laughed, unsure, like she couldn’t believe it.

Dad gave a hearty bellow and took the bottle, drank a big swig. He acted like he was going to say something, but kept his mouth shut again. He offered the bottle to the both of us. Laurie shook her head and walked away, picking bits of wood and whatever else off of her clothes. I took the bottle in my hand, couldn’t believe what I was doing.

“You’re a man now, I guess,” Dad said.

I took a drink – my first and last one. I couldn’t help it. It was too much like the fire that I just saw.

When I finally went back in, Mom and Dad were slow-dancing, like they were in a ballroom. There was still screaming.

Header photograph © Heather Wharram.

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