Kari Larsen

Mine Fire

Someone sent Angela a draw­ing of a pair of hands cradling her house. The draw­ing looked like lay­ers of mat­ted smoke breathed across each oth­er. She left it on the kitchen counter and she did not han­dle it. She did not know why some­one would give her some­thing that frag­ile.

Angela received the draw­ing after she wast­ed her last week of unmon­i­tored com­mu­ni­ca­tion with her daugh­ter, Anaïs. She let Anaïs drink pep­per­mint schnapps in the den and did not come through to sweep up the bro­ken decanter. She did not want to man­gle a con­ver­sa­tion and not learn any­thing about her daugh­ter even at the last minute. She did not go into the room until she was gone. All the bro­ken glass was gone, too. It was too dark to see in the fire­box, but she stuck her hand inside in search of stray shards.

She heard the decanter break­ing on the fire­place foun­da­tion from the kitchen where, in the cor­ner, she had a box of porce­lain cups and plates. The rest of them were in the cedar cab­i­nets. In the box was the excess. She put more cups and plates in the box and moved it to the curb across the street when she could still hear the ache of the glass inside. A cam­paign of break­ing glass was hard to orches­trate for some­one who would not ingest cal­ci­um, so her bones were as porous as the chim­ney grille, the lit­tle fence between she and her moth­er and the fire.

The first morn­ing with­out Anaïs, Angela left her bed at four-thir­ty to take a Klonopin. She vom­it­ed until five and went down­stairs. She looked out her win­dow and watched a girl open the box of cups and plates. The girl sat down and took her bag off of her shoul­der. Angela had put all the cups and plates in the box when she had meant to leave one of each for her­self. The cups were inad­e­quate at con­tain­ing hot liq­uid. The girl out­side han­dled a plate and slid it into her bag. She looked around to see if she was alone.

The girl was gone when Angela went out to get the mail and found the draw­ing. After that came anoth­er of a nape of a neck, fem­i­nine and downy and alert. The draw­ing was old­er and the edges were creased and flaked. The lines were inked but lead palm prints orbit­ed the neck. The let­ter came next:

My name is Mikaela. I would nev­er intro­duce myself in per­son by start­ing off with my name is. Starting out I am Mikaela sounds meta­phys­i­cal, like Mikaela is a con­di­tion. What I am is a fan of your music and your art and I want to tell you how much your work has helped me in a dif­fi­cult time. So I will tell you. Or I will tell you how I have been telling you, show­ing you. I sent you those draw­ings, if you have received them, or else this sounds extra insane. I take it for grant­ed that I sound insane. The hos­pi­tal admin lies, I think, about what they do with our out­go­ing mail.

Another let­ter came with­out Angela writ­ing back. She balled it up in her face and cried into it. On top of the cab­i­netry in the kitchen she had the draw­ings pre­served. Everything else was sub­ject to pun­ish­ment. She took box­es of records and clothes out­side and they kept slip­ping out of her hands. She lit them on fire with a pack of match­es from a place called the Tar Pit. She thought of a win­dow­less bar, opaque with smoke, and knives grat­ing glass on their way through meat; meat shrink­ing in the smoke and the mouths around her full of meat and cig­a­rettes, tongues dry­ing up in the mouths, the teeth like char, and she the one thing slick with pan­icked breath. She did not look around to see if she was alone. As eas­i­ly as her breath embold­ened her chest, the flames rose to her shoul­ders.

When she retrieved the let­ter from the fire, Angela could only make out the first line: I thought it would be fun­ny to end my pre­vi­ous let­ter with a joke.

Angela’s man­ag­er called, and she answered on his third attempt. She told him about the draw­ings.

He asked, “How did this per­son get your address?”

Angela sat on the floor. Her man­ag­er apol­o­gized. After they moved off the top­ic, she said, “I’ve nev­er got­ten any mail from a fan before.”

I col­lect it. I’ve got it all here, you can see it.”

You nev­er told me that.”

I did, and see, you don’t remem­ber. If you’re going to clean up now, you can come and get it.”

She wait­ed for him to hang up. She noticed a Polaroid lodged in the dis­in­te­grat­ing chim­ney­breast. With uncan­ny fore­sight the cap­tion said, Yes this is me, Mikaela. The girl was bent down hold­ing the cam­era in front of her so she was head and hair and long, long legs. Her light orange hair was soft and wet. Her eyes were wide-set, pale and unfo­cused. Her smile was polite. Angela remem­bered open­ing the enve­lope with the let­ter in the kitchen, not in the den. She crawled into the fire­box and did not find any more pho­tographs. She stared up the flue but kept shut­ting her eyes, afraid of what could fly into them.

If Angela asked her what of her albums she liked, and Mikaela said any of the oth­ers besides the one she decid­ed was an achieve­ment, Angela could not under­stand her and she would lose that con­nec­tion. She felt like she deserved to lose that. In the mid­dle of the night she fished her let­ter that she wrote for Mikaela out of the mail­box. A girl was cross­ing the street onto Angela’s lawn. She noticed Angela and kept on walk­ing jagged­ly across the next lawn. The girl had some­thing in her hands.

I’m not very crazy. It’s not so bad. I don’t believe I could get that bad and sur­vive. I have paint­ed my win­dows black and tak­en my blender apart so it would stop emit­ting the sig­nals.

In Angela’s imag­i­na­tion Mikaela said she was con­sum­ing only man­go pre­serves and gar­lic toast—not together—and did hot yoga clum­si­ly in bed and could not get out of bed any­more. That was what she was like until she heard Angela’s music, after which every­thing changed. This waft­ed into Angela’s imag­i­na­tion and singed its way down to the scorched earth of hope.

I’ve got a per­sis­tent and intru­sive prob­lem with anx­i­ety. This is the sec­ond time I’ve been here. They take my insur­ance. Should I feel bad that I can be here and oth­er peo­ple can’t afford to be? I can’t afford to grap­ple with that. I am glad I’m get­ting the help I need and that I have your music and that this hos­pi­tal is the kind of place it is. They don’t com­mit peo­ple any­more. It’s too expen­sive. You have to be in a grave state to be tak­en away

Angela got off the bus as soon as she could see the hos­pi­tal. She was on the far­thest edge of the grounds on the oppo­site side of the street, in the park­ing lot of a lav­ish Italian restau­rant. She was alone in the park­ing lot, but the peo­ple inside were packed to the slats, fog­ging the win­dows and laugh­ing.

She wound around the build­ings and the bright, new sig­nage that had nev­er seen rain to the glass guest cen­ter. A nurse was head­ed where Angela was head­ed. They trav­eled through a glass tube and passed a red­brick and wrought iron cas­tle in a dell behind the main cam­pus.

Is that the psy­chi­atric ward?”

It used to be. It’s a Kirkbride build­ing, in the National Register of Historic Places now. Beautiful in parts but I don’t see how any­body could feel bet­ter in there.” They moved onto anoth­er thing of grey plas­tic and glass. With hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry per­sis­tence from beyond the con­stant win­dows, the cas­tle fol­lowed them.

Angela was expect­ing to wait and need­ed a wait of at least a half an hour in the con­course where her daugh­ter was ready. They had the super­vi­sion of a med­ical health pro­fes­sion­al sto­ical­ly dart­ing her fin­ger around the sur­face of a smart­phone. She rec­og­nized Angela and deft­ly typed some­thing when Angela pro­duced a present for her daugh­ter. Anaïs put the present on the wood­en table.

Angela kept down the com­pul­sion to sug­gest they try the Italian restau­rant across the street. Angela had nev­er become alert to the life and the daugh­ter she had. She want­ed to say it just to feel Anaïs as she exist­ed in oppo­si­tion to Angela’s impulse towards an imag­ined fam­i­ly who went out to Italian restau­rants.

Angela asked her if she received any mail. Anaïs said, “I didn’t give my address to any­body. I don’t want any­body to know where I am right now.”

Is there any­body spe­cial you would like to see?”

I could not stand to be ner­vous about some­one else being ner­vous about what they are or aren’t doing for me.”

Do you think no one can do any­thing good for you?”

I wouldn’t want them to feel bad that they can’t.”

They were not per­mit­ted, per Anaïs’ psy­chi­a­trist, to dis­cuss how she was eat­ing at the hos­pi­tal. Angela could not get over what a good idea the Italian restau­rant seemed to be. She felt barred from talk­ing progress of any kind. Their chap­er­one worked the sweat off her phone. Anaïs cried. When her daugh­ter returned to her room with the present unopened, Angela stamped by their chap­er­one and sobbed inaudi­bly.

I can’t tell you what it means to be cor­re­spond­ing with you. I don’t want to wear out my wel­come or begin to fix­ate more than I am on whether or not I sound crazy to you. I should take this and use it to get out of here. Getting into the hos­pi­tal, the moves that called for were hooked up to what I was all ready doing: the way I breathed and stayed awake and cried. I can hook up to your music and what­ev­er you see in my art and I will leave, and I will do some­thing good with that.

That let­ter was like her oth­er ones that Angela had thrown away, but with a return address at the top. She looked up the hos­pi­tal online. She was not where Anaïs was. She was in a health­care facility—a “lodge,” not a hospital—in Virginia, inac­ces­si­ble with­out a refer­ral from inside. She laughed. When her album had earned four and a half stars in Rolling Stone, her man­ag­er told her they would admit her for addic­tion ther­a­py. When she was will­ing to accept the help she need­ed, he had new clients and the invi­ta­tion no longer stood.

Outside his office in a duf­fle bag was the mail Angela’s man­ag­er had col­lect­ed for her. She could not take the bag on the bus, so she called a cab. The dri­ver told her it was irre­spon­si­ble of her to let some­body else see the body before she dumped it. Only because she did not under­stand his eli­sion did Angela not laugh. The dri­ver was qui­et the rest of the way.

On the porch Angela rest­ed the pile—the size of a person—of feel­ings she did not know exist­ed. She took out her gui­tar. With her every strum, it exhaled dust. Angela could not turn away to look for a clock. She leaned against the let­ters and a bare­ly per­cep­ti­ble shock coursed through her. Somebody moved in the grass.

Coming into the porch light, the girl apol­o­gized. “I want­ed to leave this, in exchange for the plate.” She held out a crys­tal decanter.

Once Mikaela’s let­ters stopped, Angela per­mit­ted a fan­ta­sy of her to evolve. She imag­ined her own low moments felt by some­one whose suf­fer­ing was jus­ti­fied. When Angela was fif­teen and hitch­ing a ride to Butlins Skegness, she was ready for what­ev­er she had to do to the dri­ver to get to that point and to the next, and the sound of Fleetwood Mac’s “the Chain” alone kept her in the world. In her fan­ta­sy, Mikaela heard Angela’s music and had lux­u­ri­ant rev­e­la­tions on her analyst’s chaise longue. Outside of the hos­pi­tal, cribbed lyrics adorned her school­books. She lis­tened to “Oyster” before light­ing a fire with­out match­es in front of a big­ger crowd than she had ever lit a fire in front of before, and this was the begin­ning, and she prob­a­bly won a prize. After she heard “the Chain,” Angela did none of those things. She could not even play “Oyster” unprac­ticed any­more. No more let­ters came.

She unzipped the duf­fle bag. Close to the top was an asym­met­ri­cal pack­age rav­en­ous­ly taped and over-stamped. The address was the same as Mikaela’s lodge, but the pack­age was very old. Angela could bare­ly lift it. She knew it was a bomb, and the fact that it was a bomb was dis­ap­point­ing for a sec­ond. Angela put it in her gui­tar case and took a cab to the spill­way. She rolled the pack­age down the crags. She dis­missed the cab and wait­ed to watch it go off. The water could ruin it, she knew, if not the years it went unopened. Why it nev­er went off both­ered her. The bomb teetered on the bank before plung­ing into the chute, where it went out of sight until it turned into an out­stretched arm of force and ash­es.

She heard it first and twirled and ducked. She thought a plane was fly­ing through the trees. Brown smoke unspooled into a bright splay of flames. Angela felt micro­scop­ic, like she was look­ing at the mouth of a mon­ster. The blast cleared the height of the chute. She clung to the rocks and lost it. She felt like she was under elec­troshock. She could not cling enough to any­thing and she was alone.

The smoke went back under the water. The bot­tom of the spill­way was a sprawl­ing black spot. The night bled into the spot, and Angela could not tell where it end­ed. She waved down a car. The woman who stopped for her snif­fled and reigned in a sob to say hel­lo. Angela brushed her­self off before climb­ing inside.

She asked, “Did you see the explo­sion? At the bot­tom of the spillway—I think it’s mine fire.”

A mine fire?”

Yeah.”

The way you said it sound­ed like your fire. Did you cause it?”

No, I was just tak­ing a walk along the spill­way at sun­set.” She laughed.

The woman laughed, too. Angela told her where she lived, and they drove sev­er­al miles before the woman added, “Mine fires nev­er go out. Underground, they can burn indef­i­nite­ly.”

Angela bought a set of glass­es to go with the new decanter. She arranged them in the den under the draw­ing, framed and hang­ing, of the pair of hands cradling her house. She com­posed a song on her gui­tar and record­ed one copy. On the curb across the street she left the disc on which she burned the song. It was gone in the morn­ing, her only copy, but she remem­bered the way it went enough to play it when she need­ed it lat­er.

~

Kari Larsen is the author of Say you’re a fic­tion (Dancing Girl, 2012) and the Black Telephone (Unthinkable Creatures, 2012). Her work has recent­ly appeared or is forth­com­ing in Two Serious LadiesCaketrain, and La Petite Zine. More infor­ma­tion on these and oth­er projects can be found at www.cold-rubies.com.