After the Fire
It was 1999. Darkness: lit up by the lamp of your childhood house burning to the ground. Ashes smudged over my skin like a silken mask, then its substance gone before I could truly touch it. Certainly I could never hold its melting flakes in my palm like a bracelet charm or a tiny glass giraffe. Ashes—an ephemeral lather. Father, you were not there that night. Could not watch that old house burn; I did. I had seen that old house’s skeleton hinged next door to your sister’s modern house, out of my peripheral vision for twenty-two years but never really seen it. The house literally was crumbling by the time my cousins and I came along. We were never allowed to even go near it—the words poisonous snakes lodged into the crevices of our minds. And so we never ventured near. Its shadows became background noise. Afterthought.
That night, as the fire crept and creaked across the aged wood, it carried a sound I did not recognize, a sound I surmise now was the moan of heartbreak, part of your past, gone. I was twenty-two when it burned, really only a child. What did I know of memories? What did I know of things, erased?
Your house was on fire because a Boston film crew needed a house to burn for a documentary on the life and murder of Vernon Dahmer, slain civil rights activist. In 1966, Dahmer’s home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, was firebombed by the KKK. Of all the skeletal structures perfect for burning, your father’s leaning scrape of a house in Pelahatchie, Mississippi — over 100 miles from that original fire — was somehow perfect.
More than 100 people gathered to watch the conflagration. For a movie! So exciting! I kept thinking, Who was Vernon Dahmer? The only Dahmer I knew of was Jeffrey, serial killer. It was 1999. I was still a kid, see, even at twenty-two. What did I know of memories? What did I know of things, erased?
While the film crew prepped the house for burning, there was a moment when I wished I had seen the inside of the house before these strangers trampled through hanging curtains that would, in an hour or so, be ash. But it was too late then. They’d roped off the onlookers.
You weren’t there. Even if I had asked you what the inside of the house looked like, you would have said it was too long ago to remember. Tonight, almost twenty years after the filming, I asked why you didn’t go that night. I don’t remember, Michelle, you said. Your voice carried the weariness of someone tired of interrogation, although I had only asked one question. It was as if the question bordered on too personal. Father, you and I are good at banter. Not so polished at speaking about the heart, mind, spirit, soul. Still, there is love in our banter. But tonight, I almost crossed a silent line until I quipped, I’m just going to make up the reason you weren’t there, and you laughed and said, That’ll work. We were back to status quo. Where questions too personal remain unasked and unanswered.
It was a party. A movie filming in Pelahatchie, Mississippi! I leaned against a tailgate. A straggling piece of metal scraped across my arm, drawing blood. You were not there that night. You were watching reruns of Bonanza. You were contemplating how you felt to have your past erased. To have a part of yourself extinguished like a star, dying. But that’s me talking today. In 1999, I didn’t even think to ask why you weren’t attending. What did I know of memories?
What did I know of blood? Of a 1966 firebombing? Of Vernon Dahmer, dying? Of his children, escaping that inferno, too young to understand their father’s sacrifice. What did I know? I was a child, even at twenty-two. Especially at twenty-two, blissfully unaware of anything outside myself.
It was 17 years after the film crew left Pelahatchie. That’s how long it took for me to think about those children, how ten-year-old Bettie must have been forced to grow up that night, must have had her childhood ripped away from her. And there I was in 1999, childish, selfish.
How those children must have missed their father, grieved their father, perhaps never really known their father. How Bettie must have thought her father would escape the fire with her as he handed her over to her mother for safekeeping while he went back inside to distract the attackers, to fight the fire, to fight the men who had come to kill him.
The Dahmers lost everything in that firebombing. Their house, possessions, car, their grocery store business next door. Today I think of Bettie. Did she mourn her room, a favorite dress, stuffed animals? Had her father given her a tiny trinket box that played music when it opened?
Father. Her father. Her ache. Her loss. Her hand reaching for his as he turned back inside to fight.
What toys, what trinkets had he given Bettie? Martyrs have intimate moments, too, do they not?
Did Vernon Dahmer have a moment like you, Father, of walking by a store-front window and spotting a yellowed-glass giraffe, so simple in its see-throughness, so small it could be swallowed up by the palm of a child’s hand? I remember when you gave me that giraffe. I had fallen off the monkey bars and busted my lip and Mother brought me home and I sat in your lap holding on to that glass giraffe. It was the first gift I recall that passed directly from your hand to my hand.
Did Bettie, years afterward, think about trinkets her father had given her? Did she, in a clumsy moment, break them? Was she sorry, so very sorry to no longer have them to remember him by? Or does she simply miss him—the father, the man erased from her life. After the firebombing. After the fire.
Michelle McMillan-Holifield studied poetry at Delta State University in the Mississippi Delta. Her work can be found in Boxcar Poetry Review, PIF Magazine, poemmemoirstory, and Silver Birch Press’s Nancy Drew Anthology, among other journals. She recently completed a writing residency at Wildacres in North Carolina.