The house where I grew up was perpetually catching on fire.
It wasn’t all bad. Although I fought with my brothers and sisters sometimes, we really had a beautiful family. Sunday dinner was especially nice. Dad always asked each of us what we did that week. If one of us had been misbehaving, that got dealt with at Sunday dinner, too. Like if we had been fighting and one of us started using a weapon instead of just our fists, Mom would tell us, “Don’t do that. He’s your brother.” And then Dad would give you a stern look that made you feel real bad. Or if one of us put the toilet paper onto the roller the wrong way round, then we got a serious lecture and were sent away from the table.
But what really made Sunday dinner nice was that it was also a time to discuss family plans, or if there were any problems to resolve, we would discuss them together. One time at Sunday dinner, I brought up the issue of our house always catching on fire. What happened was that at school, I learned how fire works, how it needs three things—fuel, heat and oxygen—and learned about fire safety in the home, that kind of thing. That was an eye-opener because suddenly I understood some of what was happening in our house. So, as we sat around the dinner table, I said, “You know how our house is always catching fire? Well, I was thinking that maybe we should move the Christmas tree away from the curtains.”
My sister Elona said, “Maybe we could modernize the tree, too. Instead of decorating it with candles we could switch to electric lights.”
We had a very nice chat about it and then Mom said, “Okay, your father and I will discuss it and see what to do. Now, who wants some dessert?”
In the week that followed, our house caught fire a couple more times, once from the candles on the Christmas tree and once from Dad smoking in bed (he fell asleep watching The Gong Show, which was a sort of a 1970s precursor to America’s Got Talent). When he showed up at the Sunday dinner table with his right cheek and ear bandaged up, he shrugged it off, and said it wasn’t serious.
Then when I brought up the fire issue again, my older siblings Dee and Troy began telling me how candles aren’t dangerous and all houses catch fire sometimes. It was Dee who always made the homemade candles with Mom, and she really liked doing it. And Troy was the one who put most of them on the tree since he was the tallest and the oldest. I guess they didn’t like the idea of us giving up our family Christmas tree tradition.
We didn’t discuss the fires for the next couple of weeks, but in that time they kept getting more frequent. My youngest sisters Affie, Azhi, Izli were getting the worst of it because their bedroom was in the attic and all the smoke drifted up to their room. When the fires were really bad, the flames even came up through holes in their floor and make life kind of bad for them.
Our dining room wasn’t big enough for the whole family, so Affie, Azhi, and Izli had to take turns coming for Sunday dinner, and whichever one came had to sit in the corner with her plate on her lap instead of at the main table. But still, it was nice that one of them got to be with us each week. So, one week when it was Azhi’s turn, she said she had written a poem and asked if she could read it.
“Of course,” Mom said.
So Azhi took a paper from her pocket, unfolded it, and read it for all of us. It was called, “Not fair,” and it was really beautiful. It talked about the smoke and the flames coming up into their bedroom in the attic, and some of us almost cried.
So sitting around the table, we discussed the fires again and Mom said, “Okay, we’re going do something about this. First, we have to phase out having campfires in the living room. Starting today, we’re only allowed to have campfires in the living room twice a week. After a couple of months, we’ll cut back further to only once a week.”
I said, “Maybe we should also take down the Christmas Tree. Or at least take the candles off it. After all, it’s June.”
Dee and Troy objected. “Affie and Azhi and Izli have a candle in their room!”
“It’s only one candle,” Azhi objected, “and it’s always in a candle holder on the night table. We need it to be able to read at night.” (My oldest sister Britannia had taken the only light bulb in their room months earlier.)
Dad and Mom looked at each other and used that secret, wordless communication they seemed to have, and then Dad said that we could leave the tree up, but that we would switch to electric lights real soon and that Dee and Troy would get to be in charge of stringing up the lights. And Elona could help them if she wanted because she knew more about electrical stuff.
But after that, the fires continued, and they got worse. Affie came down from the attic to get away from the flames and the smoke, hoping to sleep in someone else’s room. Sometimes one of us would let her stay for half the night but then kick her out, so then she would go and try to find someone else’s room to stay in.
Eventually, the problem got to be too much, and I went to my sister Elona. She was the smartest of all my brothers and sisters.
“Mom and Dad aren’t taking this seriously,” I said.
Elona shrugged. “We tried to convince them.”
“But we have to do something!”
“I am doing something. You can come help me.”
She told me that she was building a zip line from her bedroom window to the garden shed. She leaned forward and whispered, “If the house looks like it’s about to go up in flames, the zip line should be able hold three of us. We can zip down there and then live in the garden shed.”
Our garden shed had a roof that leaked, had no running water and no insulation, and had holes in the walls. And with Dad’s riding mower in there, there would be no place to sleep. Riding on the zip line might be fun, I thought, but I didn’t want to live in the shed. So, I left Elona and went downstairs, where there was fresh smoke coming from the kitchen. This time, the fire was behind the stove. I put it out, but after that the stove didn’t work anymore. So then we started cooking everything in the countertop deep fryer. And since we were using it so much, we just left it turned on all the time.
At the next Sunday dinner, I said that leaving the frier turned on all the time wasn’t really a good idea. But Dad and some of my brothers and sisters looked at me like I was crazy. And Mom said, “We have to eat.”
The next evening, I was helping my little sister Izla take a bath when fires broke out all over the house. Mom called an emergency meeting. Some of us didn’t go. Instead, we turned on the tap in the bathtub and started scooping water out with pots and cups and rushing to different parts of the house. Eventually, we put out the fires without too much new damage to the house, and then collapsed in exhaustion in the living room. Mom filled us in on the meeting, which had just wrapped up: they had unanimously agreed to reduce fires in the house to pre-Christmas levels by next October.… fires broke out all over the house. Mom called an emergency meeting…. they had unanimously agreed to reduce fires in the house to pre-Christmas levels by next October. Click To Tweet
Later that evening we discovered Azhi and Izli’s bodies. Azhi had burned to death in the attic, and Izli had drowned in the bathtub.
I ran away that night and never went back.