FIRE NEXT TIME

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Sarah was the bookings manager for a pop group called the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. The lead singer had been a student of anthropology, and he had decided that the power of the Shaman could be harnessed for profitable ends. Accordingly, the high point of his act was when he painted his face into a white mask and set his headdress on fire, proclaiming himself to be “The God of Hell-Fire.” Swaying and crooning, with flames coming out of his crown, he often induced hysteria in female fans. Occasionally, Arthur would accidentally set fire to the drapes or to his hair, and it was the task of Sarah to douse the flames and to quell any panic among the crowd. As this was in the days before Health and Safety, it was a fairly straightforward job.

Sarah tired of being the general dogs-body and fire-watcher, and looked for another post: she thought her hands had been scorched quite enough. But she never forgot the excitement of those early concerts. Arthur had been on to something; there was no doubt about it. The swirling robes and impassive face beneath the flaming crown dominated her imagination, and the purifying and stimulating power of fire was undeniable. Fire became a ritual in Sarah’s life. A little blaze to celebrate the beginning of something: a large blaze to mark its end. Intellectual projects, love-affairs, hopes, wishes, houses, plants: nothing lasted forever, but the fires she lit helped her to give form and structure to her feelings.

Every place she lived in had to have an open space where she could have a fire-pit. Sarah became known as “the Flame Lady.” Neighbours would see her plod down to her secret place, where she could burn those things which had given her joy or pain. She realised that she was using the bonfires to measure out time into bundles. Time, she thought, is a fire too: it burns us, it turns rosy flesh to ash. The rising and the setting sun is a fire.

It was time for her to go. Some tribes would hold a potlatch, to give away all the possessions of those that had gone into the sun. But Sarah decided she would burn everything she had owned: the jewellery, the pottery, the books, the paintings, the clothes. The smoke rose upward. Finally she laid herself on the pyre. It didn’t hurt, and she had waited so long for the flames. The next day, her neighbours raked through the ashes, and found a few scraps: a couple of teeth, the fly-leaf of a book, part of a blackened picture-frame. But there,there in the middle, they saw something gleam, and they lifted it out. It was a tiny golden figure of a woman, about three inches high. She wore a beatific smile, and was warm from the fire. Those who carried the figurine away thought it would cool down in time. But it never did. Never.