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The fire burned ferociously, forcefully and without mercy. The deep oranges, white-hot yellows and blood-red crimsons shockingly contrasted against the dreary, overcast London afternoon. I can’t say what struck out at me at first, whether it was the way some of the flames licked up towards the dark gray clouds, the reddish glow that surrounded the burning building – an ominous and looming aura of total heat – or the way the dark, suffocating plume of smoke that rose up from the blazing house seemed to seamlessly blend in with the thick, dark clouds above. Whatever the case, these sights, combined with the sound of wind-blown flames crackling against the wooden infrastructure as well as the heavy, suffocating smell of burning wood, rubber, plastic and something else, somehow made me think - and in a way still think - that the horrifying sight of the small home burning in an abandoned neighborhood on the unpopular outskirts of London on that depressing, cloudy afternoon was somehow morbidly and sickeningly beautiful.
It would’ve been more beautiful, however, if the house that was burning up in a red-hot blaze wasn’t my beloved childhood home.
I stood ten yards from the front the burning house, watching and thinking. My torn, smoke-grey rags blew in the brisk wind. At some point I started to walk around the perimeter of the house and at some other point my hair came undone from its messy ponytail, my limp, light-brown hair falling ungracefully against my back. But I didn’t notice nor care. The passage of time seemed irrelevant as I watched – utterly hypnotized – as the house crumbled under the weight of the fire.
I remembered just then what I used to do in that house, all the time that I spent; the days I spent playing, the hours I spent laughing and crying, and the minutes I spent with my parents, two people who were long gone from my mind and subconscious, their presence in my life having only been marked by a few hazy memories that lingered – and still linger - in my innermost thoughts.
I recalled a time in my early childhood when I sat outside in our tiny yard, plucking out grass and poking holes in the mud as children often do. At one point, I spotted a worm wiggling its way out of the dirt and I sat transfixed by the fascinating creature. So transfixed, in fact, that I hadn’t noticed that my mother - a small, lithe woman – came up behind me until she placed her hand on top of my eyes and started giggling, her small, contagious bursts of laughter getting to me until I started giggling uncontrollably along with her. When we calmed ourselves, she gently lifted her hand from my eyes and in front of me - right where the little worm had been – now stood a small hand-sewed doll with long curly red hair, a black button nose, blue button eyes and a smile that proved to be able to brighten up my day no matter what. It was wearing a long green dress and little black shoes and its arms – stuffed up tubes that ended in cute stubs – seemed to be waving out to me, almost asking me to pick it up, hug it and never let go.
As I sat there, fascinated and in awe of the seemingly-magical doll, my mother spoke softly into my ear, “There you are, darling. This doll with keep away the poison of the ashes.”
I turned towards her so I was looking into her eyes. “Promissseee?”, I asked in that childlike teasing voice.
My mother chuckled, “Promise.”
Later that day my father came out to the yard and barbecued three marinated chicken legs. After the sun had set, we sat in the grass, eating, talking, laughing and goofing off as the stars loomed above us.
The memory slowly faded into a different one. I was inside the house, on the couch that stood near the open window in the living room, the open curtains giving way to the orange and reds of the sky as the sun set. My mother sat next to me as I lay on the couch, sleepy from the excursions of the day – which I didn’t and still don’t recall – her soothing voice singing me to sleep. At one point she started to sing a nursery rhyme – a song I would become increasingly familiar with over the years - her voice still soft but with a tinge of fear seeming to loom up behind her as she sang:
“Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down…”
I used to wonder what my mother meant when she sang this song of ashes and falling down but I never got the opportunity to ask her and instead came to except the role that this rhyme would soon play in my life.
The last two lines of the song rang in my ears as my mind left the realm of my memories and returned to the present. I opened my eyes – never recalling when I even closed them – and was greeted with a depressing image. Instead of the sight of a charred house that was up in flames, I opened my eyes to a heaping mound of black and gray ash, the paper-like particles dancing in the wind with the smell of dead fire lingering in the air.
I felt my jaw drop in shock and my eyes seemed to be filling themselves with tears as I walked closer and closer to the wreckage of my beloved home. I heard and felt the debris of the fire – miniscule shards of glass, splinters of burnt wood, and sharp fragments of plastic - crunch painfully underneath my bare feet. My arms hung limply by my side as if my entire body were numb, and my legs felt as if they were on auto-pilot, my feet slowly making their way to inside the hollow infrastructure of the house as if my whole body was in a daze.
But I never made it inside.
Instead, about a yard away from the front door – which was singed off its hinges – was a small, familiar heap of ash to my right. At some point I stopped, even though I don’t remember recognizing the heap of ash for what it was until I came closer.
And that’s when I knew.
The heap of ash wasn’t a heap of ash at all, but instead the blackened, all-too-familiar body of my beloved doll – my protector - the same handmade doll that my mother had given to me all those years ago.
That’s what finally broke me. I fell to my knees - the painful rubbish of the fire digging uncomfortably into the soft skin of my knees and calves – and felt the hot tears race their way down my cheeks before I had a chance to stop them. I picked up the doll – what was left of it anyway – with my trembling hands and suddenly an overwhelming wave of panic and shock consumed me.
I felt my eyes go wide and my body freeze in terror and suddenly the debris was digging painfully into my hips and left ear and I was stuck looking at the wreckage of the burning house from the ground – the ash dancing in the persistent wind, the particles flying in front of my face until my eyes stung.
“We all fall down.”