She exhaled a puff of white that momentarily hung in the air before vanishing into the darkness. Hugging herself with her arms, she shivered; but she would stay just awhile longer to enjoy what she had come to see. They were pretty: twinkling beauty against the cold, night air. The lights had been strung the weekend before on evergreens encircling the skating rink. The tiny white bulbs that had graced the pines all the years before had been moved to the bushes and deciduous trees outside city hall. Resting in the now bare-boned branches, the lights gave a certain panache to the surroundings of the otherwise unremarkable building by which they stood.
But the red and green, blue and purple lights now lending their sparkle to the rink’s evergreen edge were amazing. She thought, as she gazed at them, she hadn’t seen anything so stunning in a long time. A very long time.
It had been ten years now since the fire, but in her mind it was yesterday. A neighbor – one she barely knew – who had resented her happy life even as she smiled and waved each time they met had channeled her jealousy into a lighted match thrown onto her morning paper resting on the jute rug in her small, enclosed front porch. Her morning ritual to switch off the outdoor light and get the newspaper had resulted in a backdraft which sent her to the hospital for treatment she wished she could forget and a future she wished she could escape.
A morning jogger had provided testimony of the event, and the neighbor had gotten five years and the satisfaction of destroying the irritating happy life.
Knowing what had happened and why and punishing the perpetrator couldn’t change the image she saw every time she looked in the mirror. Her scarred face and neck, once pretty – some said beautiful – were oppressive to see. The scars seemed to thicken with every year and a quiet, gnawing sadness grew with them.
She had avoided anything to do with fire, even light, at first. After its inhabitant had returned from the hospital, the neighbors saw a dark house, its interior as devoid of light as its owner’s soul. Light was unavoidable, of course, and gradually she had allowed it in its many forms to filter back into her life. She had left all light switches untouched for a long time; but one day she had turned on a lamp, and the next week she turned on the kitchen light. She was able to flick those switches now, but only one room at a time. There was no point in wasting electricity.
It had been easy to remove reflective surfaces – vases, silverplate, mirrors. The bathroom mirror had stayed. It was like living with an old friend she no longer appreciated. She didn’t need a mirror to remind her of the fire’s wrath. She saw it in the pitying faces of friends and the curious, repulsed, stolen glances of strangers. She felt it in the webbing between her thumb and forefinger.
A visitor to her hospital room had told her that maybe one day her skin would be as good as new, but forgiveness was more important than skin. It had to do with the inner pain, the pain that would never go away without it. He, she supposed, was an old chaplain looking for something to do or say; but his words were harsh. Forgiveness of the neighbor? Forgiveness of someone who had caused her such grief and pain seemed ridiculous. She hoped that neighbor would live hand to mouth, that she would have trouble finding work because of her criminal record, that she was disgusted with herself. The nurse attending her just then had completely ignored him. People could give care without caring, she had thought at the time. She had ignored him, too.
She had ignored everyone at first. It was two years after the explosion when she saw the old chaplain in a dream. He just stood, looking at her, waiting. The next time was at the grocery store. Well, actually, she couldn’t be sure about that. She had thought she’d caught a glance, but when she looked more closely, he was gone. She thought about the jealous neighbor, and wondered where she was now.
to be continued…
Image: Beeston_MMB_67_Christmas_lights_switch-on-wikimedia-commons.jpg; creative commons lic.