The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Fire People

Mama always told me not to speak to the people in the fire.


“Leave them be,” she said, as I sat on the hearthrug and watched. Faces and flames, bodies that crackled orange and vanished, only to reappear again, dancing along another burning log.


Mama told me not everyone could see them, but that our family had always been able to.


She told me not to tell anyone I could see them.


The colder it was outside, the more the fire people gathered. Sometimes, when frost glittered along the branches of the trees that tap-tap-tapped against the windows in the wind, there were so many of the fire people that I could scarcely make out each one. They were a mass of waving arms and flickering tongues, sparks flying up when they opened their mouths.


To sing, or scream, I could never tell.


Did it hurt them? Or could they not be burned, because they were made of the fire itself? I longed to ask, to lean in close until the heat scorched my cheeks, but of course I didn’t. Because Mama always said to leave them be.


The first snowflakes hissed against the glass in my bedroom window. I couldn’t say what woke me, or even if I was awake, for certain. The night certainly felt like a dream. A dream with darkness in it. A dream simply waiting to become a nightmare.


It was quite completely dark. Not even a tiny amber glow came from the hearth, the fire burned down to positively nothing. No whisper of heat. No cackle-crackle of light. And I missed them, I missed the company of the fire people, but only the folk up in the grand manor house had fires that blazed all through the night. Us as were in the smaller cottages, we made do with enough to cook our dinner on, and keep us warm until bedtime.


We weren’t starving, I want to make that very clear. Mama scrubbed and scrubbed to put food on the table, and there was always enough of it. Trouble is, there wasn’t overmuch of anything else. When Maise and Harriet at school had new hair ribbons or dresses that had only belonged to one of their sisters, I made do with my old ones. And I had no sisters; my dresses came from everyone else’s sisters.


But we did alright, Mama and me. Summers, I’d help her with the vegetables and I was always the best at getting the chickens to give up their eggs.


Anyways, I was shivering in my bed, thinking about the chickens. I hoped they were warm in their coop. The floor was terribly cold on my toes as I crept from bed, down the stairs of the tiny cottage to the room where Mama and me did everything but sleep. And oh, it was cold. The coldest night of the year by a long ways. I shivered in my nightdress, toes so chilled they hurt. I was sure if there was enough light to see by, I’d see they was blue. I tried to pour a cup of water from the jug, only it was frozen solid.


One lonely log sat by the hearth, and I wouldn’t normally—you have to know I wouldn’t—but it was so very cold, and I knew Mister Lavender would be by in the morning, carving tracks up through the snow to bring Mama and me extra firewood for the cold spell.


Mama kept a bowl of matches on the mantel. The fire caught with a snap.




I wasn’t sure I’d heard it, not at first. Fires, you see, can make all kinds of strange sounds.




I saw its mouth move, right at the exact moment it spoke.


“Hello,” I said back. This couldn’t be disobeying Mama. I hadn’t spoken to the fire person, it had spoken to me. There was, curiously, only one, despite the chill outside. But it had the full length of our last log to dance upon.


“You are cold,” said the fire. I wondered how it knew, and then decided it probably knew of such things better than anyone, having the leisure to sit back and witness them from afar.


I nodded. It had long legs and log arms and wild, spiky, sparky hair and I held out my hand before I could think what I was doing. And before it could think what it was doing—or perhaps not—it leaped into my outstretched palm.


My yelp drew a loud snore from Mama above. The fire jhopped back into the hearth. The bed creaked as Mama rolled over. Two tiny foot-shapes blistered on my hand.


I wasn’t cold anymore.


“What else can you do?” I asked. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps warmth was the fire’s only trick.


It raised its arms and an enormous, searing ball of flame flew up the chimney. It spread them, and my face appeared, shimmering red and orange. It jumped from the grate again and ran around the room, laughing as my heart rose into my throat, moving too quickly to damage much of anything.


And we didn’t have much of anything to damage, so I suppose that worked out just fine. A few bits of furniture, and Mama’s old chest filled with books and papers. Sometimes, when the light stretched out just a little longer, she’d read them to me.


The fire person still hadn’t answered my question. “What else can you do?” I asked it again. It grinned a wide, red grin, its hair twisted and curled.


“Follow me, Mary,” it hissed.


“How do you know my name?”


“We watch you. And now, it is time for you to watch us. It is time to learn.”


Sparks flew from the floorboards as it ran to the door and slipped through the crack beneath it. I fumbled with the latch, my fingers numb and cold again now that the fire was gone. An inch of snow lay over all the ground, perfect and untouched except where the fire person stood. In the snow, he—and I will always think of it as a he—was almost blinding, such a bright and flashing flame. A circle had melted around him, the grass below too sodden from the snow to catch fire.


“Where are we going?”


He smiled. Flicker, flicker. “Come close. Stay warm. And now we go make everyone else warm, too.”


I should have been shivering, my teeth should have been chattering as I stood there, all in my nightdress and bare feet. He ran ahead, not so far that the cold came rushing back to me, but far enough that I had no choice but to follow. How could I not follow this dancing, running, skipping creature of crackle and flame as it led me deeper into the village?


“Now,” he said, stopping outside a grand house. Not the grandest, but larger than the little cottage Mama and I shared. “Come, friends!”


And there they were, all at once. All the fire people who hadn’t come inside when I lit the last log. They jumped and twirled and crackle-cackled, and the grass might have been too wet to burn, but the old, dry wood of the houses was not.


A half-dozen were alight before I realized what was happening. My screams were lost to the roaring fire.


All I could do was turn and run. Run back up to the cottage, chased by the fire that had spread to every house in the village. Every house except our little cottage, where Mama was outside the door, holding my coat and my shoes, her old trunk by her feet.


“We have to help them!” I said.


She did not look angry, but she did look sad. “Put those on, Mary,” she answered, pointing at my things. I still wasn’t cold, but I did as she told me. From the chest, she pulled a square of folded paper, and from her pocket, a match.


“I told you not to speak to the fire people,” she said, unfurling the paper on the lid of the trunk. It was covered in tiny holes with ragged, scorched edges. Mama flicked the match with her thumb and touched the flame to the tiny spot where the name of our village was marked. Sparks popped as she blew out the tiny flames and studied the map for one more moment.


“This way,” she said, taking my hand and pulling the trunk along behind us, over to the road that led north. “In the next place, we leave the fire people be.”

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