The Life Cycle of Fire by Rosaleen Lynch
“The Life Cycle of Fire” is one of three stories picked as an Editors’ Choice Selection in the 2021 CRAFT Flash Fiction Contest. Our editors chose these stories with particular attention to the unique possibilities of flash fiction.
Rosaleen Lynch’s “The Life Cycle of Fire” is an example of the potential for flash fiction to use form as a tool of narrative momentum. As the piece opens, the narrator feeds her newborn brother amidst the quiet of “caravan creaks, and now and then the whine of a finger pad sliding across fogged-up glass.” The intimate, closely observing voice invites the reader to walk alongside the narrator and her younger siblings as they wind through their morning routine in search of simple comforts such as warmth and food. Here, Lynch works with one long sentence, punctuated only by commas, to convey the narrator’s sense of urgency as she seeks to provide for her family. All the while, the young voice is imbued with resilience and survival, even as she takes the offering of her neighbor’s Tupperware: “…and I tell her we have our own fire.” —CRAFT
We can’t take Mam’s new baby to school, the boys guess as much from my silence and nobody wants Mam to wake and make Baby cry, so when I put him to feed there’s quiet, just suckling sounds and caravan creaks, and now and then the whine of a finger pad sliding across fogged-up glass, drawing stick-children in the window, dancing round the ashes of the fire pit they can see outside, in their reflections, until it’s done and Mam’s covered up, and I give them the nod for coats that were blankets to be put on, to follow the click of the open door letting them out, smelling of smoke and damp as they pass, to run off the chill, while I stand, wearing Mam’s moth-eaten duffle coat, in the doorway and enjoy the clean of the morning cold, the warmth of Baby on my hip, his foot in the pocket of Mam’s coat, as I pull the door to close up the seal, leaving her asleep inside, as I kick aside the rocks holding tarpaulin on the pram, wipe the dew off, use it to rub my face and shake the rest, in a one-handed snap, like the sound of breaking twigs, and I hang the plastic sheet on the line, to drip-dry, and check the mattress of the pram for bugs and damp, and while it airs, I start preparing the fire, taking kindling from the pram underbasket where it keeps dry, pull newspaper lining from my clothes and matches from the other pocket of Mam’s coat, and one-handed again, I bend to ball newspaper and tent kindling and set the box of matches on the pyre ready, as I take off Mam’s coat, swapping Baby from arm to arm, the body of the coat still warm from my body and I wrap Baby in it, to put him in the pram, his head in the hood and I close the toggles, tuck the bottom under his, and knot Mam’s coat arms over and round him, pushing my face into the musty woollen smell as he settles, before grabbing the axe from the stump to warm up with the work of chopping wood, wondering if next week we’ll give him a name, and I chop, wondering if we’ll have more than tea and beans today, and I chop, wondering, wondering, wondering, until the fire has caught and blue flame turns hot, and I leave it long enough into the sky-blue of the morning, before I push the pram across the field to where the boys are playing swords with branches they’re collecting for the fire, and they drop them in the ditch to follow me on the farm road, towards the chimney smoke, the rattle of the wheel rims on stones stopping talk, but amplifying the baby’s wail, and the percussion making it sound like hiccups, until he falls asleep, rocked by the road, and we pass more fields, black and bare after the stubble-burning of harvest, and a swidden, where once there was forest, until the slash-and-burn, where after the slash and before the burn we stole most of our logs for fuel, carried home in the pram and now under the caravan, and the road goes quiet as we meet mud, going up to the house and it splatters on my bare legs where I let it dry and contract, as I knock on the farmhouse door and we three stand, one shorter than the other, hands out without a smile and Baby cries and ruins the show, but warmth spills out of the opening door, where a red-cheeked woman nods and smiles, understanding, like Nan when she heard Mam was pregnant again, and the woman looks us up and down and I don’t need to look to know the boys’ backs straighten like fire irons, lined up like saplings, like they did at the coffin, as the red-cheeked woman asks if we want to come in and sit by the fire, and I tell her we have our own fire, and it will need tending to, and she nods and smiles and tells us to hold on there a minute, and we let down our hands, the boys nudging each other in the wait, and I tip my head when I hear her return and they take up their positions and on cue, a belly grumbles as she gives us faded blue Tupperware containers, condensation forming on the insides of the lids and tells us if we bring them back tomorrow there’ll be more and the boys take one each, hugging it for warmth, each blessing her and I take mine and put it in with Baby and before the kind woman can be kinder, I nod and smile my thanks and wheel the pram round, telling myself, like Nan used to say, before her lips went blue, that begging isn’t begging when you don’t have to ask, but I tell Baby when he wails, to shhhh, it isn’t true, it was just easier to believe when you knew Nan had the kettle on the fire, and from across the fields, the colder it was the more steam you’d see rise into the sky to welcome you home, even though, until you did it for yourself, you thought it was smoke.
ROSALEEN LYNCH, an Irish youth and community worker and writer in the East End of London with words in lovely places like SmokeLong Quarterly, Jellyfish Review, Ellipsis Zine, Mslexia, Litro, and Fish Publishing, shortlisted by the Bath Short Story Award and the Bridport Prize, a winner of the HISSAC Flash Fiction Competition and the Oxford Flash Fiction Prize, can be found on Twitter @quotes_52.
Featured image by Kiran Manoj courtesy of Unsplash