Calico Embers

Calico embers floated up and trailed the night sky like shooting stars. A grand finale, then burn-out. Poof! But some of the embers fell like seeds to the ground. Marla smashed each one with the turn of her boot. Bright orange bits of fire extinguished. This act brought out her solitude and stung, but she kept repeating it. Was closure what she sought?

Marla had hesitated to burn the quilt.

Impossible now to amend, she realized. The fabric morphed into ash and mingled with coals redder than her hair which hung loose around her tear-smudged face.

She thought about the town doctor. He knew only of tinctures and potions, bandages, and perhaps rare healings. But did he understand grief? When faces peered at him behind sobs on the occasion that their loved-one lay under a sheet, never to rise again, did he grasp the finality of it? Or was it just a routine, his profession, his practice?

“Burn all the linens,” he’d told Marla, before his carriage rode west toward town with the sun sinking like Marla’s heart. She’d watched the doctor tip his hat to her dead husband’s casket that lay on the ground under the maple tree. Then dust had flown up from the carriage as the doctor had hurried to the next victim of a cruel and mysterious illness.

Dust into sheer dust, thought Marla.

She hadn’t looked at Robert’s casket. Instead, she’d retreated to the house and sunk to the floor, heavy with grief and the growing baby inside her.

Hours later, Marla had stood and groped for the staircase railing. She’d hoisted herself up in the darkness. Each step had groaned under her feet. She’d reached their bedroom, then walked over to the bed and lifted the quilt.

With shaking fingers, she’d held it at a distance. The rest of his sick bedding could be burned, but not this. Oh, how she’d wanted to bury her eyes in its calico squares.

The influenza, she wondered, how had it gained such power? It seized so many, chose those unsuspecting. It left communities gasping, then gaping. Her strong, healthy farmer husband, shaken upside down. First came the fever, then the cough. Even the soldiers in Des Moines, their corpses sat piled up like discarded clamshells, the ones they punched holes in for making iridescent pearl buttons. Once vibrant and shiny, now vacant and left in a heap.

Marla hoped her neighbors would hold true to their promise. Or would illness strike the Wilson home next? She needed these men to dig Robert’s grave.

Maybe Doctor was right?

Her hand had passed over her swollen middle, a habit by now, but unknown to her. And inside her, Robert’s baby had turned a summersault.

When the screen door had slammed behind her and she’d walked down the porch steps toward the barn, a brush pile stood ready. Robert would be glad, she’d thought, after she’d lit the fire. He’d wanted her well, not contaminated. All his coughing fits he’d smothered into the squares. She’d stitched them together long before they’d been a thing.

Marla let her mind play hopscotch on the memory of when they had become a thing. At the one-room school house, it happened when he’d been the regal farm boy. Clydesdale horses, oh hordes of them, they ran in his family blood. And Marla? She’d been the newcomer, sent to live with her aunt in Iowa. Not much history except the girls in her grade had acted like Chicago must be the fanciest place on earth. They’d hoped to go by train someday, maybe when they became ladies.

She remembered more about those schoolyard days and watching Robert swing an ax, or beat the boys at a horseshoe game. She couldn’t even piece together three or four instances of her past in Chicago, but as for Robert, she could string together a whole existence. Hers began with him.

The fire, she remembered. Marla grabbed a stick and swirled a loose end from the quilt back into its center. That’s when the wind caught more embers than she could manage. She felt a hot gust and looked over her shoulder.

A flame danced on the alfalfa. Dry, listless, the field absorbed the flame and burst into song.

“Robert,” she said, and her body couldn’t move. But the baby did. Inside her, Baby turned another summersault. Marla jolted then ran forward.

She stomped on the singing flames, pulling her long skirt aside. The heat intensified. Next, she threw fistfuls of dirt. Each bend to reach the ground, she worried for the baby. Standing, she hurled herself toward the house, their house, and grabbed a washbasin. It bounced on her bulging belly as she ran. She filled it near the barn. Then with water, she strangled that fire as if her life depended on it. Their life depended on it. How many trips to the pump? She never counted, but she moved until the monster breathed its last.

Next morning, the Wilsons arrived with shovels. Marla told them she wanted Robert’s grave to face east.

“Why east?”

“The burnt field to his back,” she said.

“The field will regrow, ma’am,” one of the Wilson boys said.

“I know,” she looked up at the morning sky with its pinks and grays.

“You want him to see the sunrise,” Mr. Wilson answered for her.

“Yes,” she said as her hand went to her stomach. “And, I want to face the day.


The above story was written for a University of Iowa flash-fiction contest. This particular contest required entries to contain less than 1,000 words and be completed in one weekend. For the writing prompt, I chose from their list, a painting of a prairie fire. The character idea was expanded from another short story I wrote, "Marla in Iowa" which takes place during the 1918 Influenza and is based on a few known facts from my own relatives during this era.

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