Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Madonna of the flames

She appeared first in the furnace.  I was preparing glass, a high-boron mix, and when I turned round to check on the furnace there she was.  She was stood in the flames, which licked at her blue shawl and her iridescent skirt without burning them, staring at me intently.  I dropped the steel dipper I was holding, and it clattered to the floor.  Instinctively I looked down for it, and when I looked back up, she was gone.
Of course, I wrote it off as a hallucination and went and had a cup of tea and a couple of chocolate biscuits before I carried on making the glass.
The second time I saw her was as I was driving.  I had to head north, and the air-conditioning in the car had broken just in time for summer's heat to descend fully.  The mechanics had sucked air through their teeth when they looked it over, and when their boss finally named a price I nearly choked on my tongue.  There was no way I could pay that at the time, but there was a shipment of glass that needed delivery and was COD.  So I bit the bullet, packed up the glass, and went to deliver it.
Going north I had to drive through the grass-lands, and as always at the start of summer there was a controlled burn going on, so that when the grass became tinder dry later on it couldn't go too far.  Smoke lifted into the air on the horizon, and here and there it seemed like it was snowing; powdery white ash fell around the car and I had to turn the windshield wipers on to clear it off.  Then I came to a point where the fire was near the road, and a wall of reddish-orange flame rose up to the left.  I looked over at it, marvelling at its ferocity and single-mindedness, and loathing the additional waves of heat it sent my way, and then I stamped on the brakes.  In the onrushing path of the wall of flame was a woman.
She was short, maybe not even five feet, dressed like a nun.  She had a blue shawl, and an iridescent skirt that reached down to her feet.  Long brown hair fell down to her mid-back; she was facing away from me, watching the wall of fire.  I opened the door of the car, not thinking at all, and was about to run out to her and pull her away from the fire when she looked over her shoulder, and her gaze stopped me dead.  The memory of seeing her in the furnace came back like a stroke: a warning twinge and then full-on immersion.  I staggered and dropped, bouncing on the melting asphalt like a shop mannequin, and when I recovered, perhaps only minutes later, she was gone.  The wall of fire was closer though, and the wind was pushing it towards the road, so I had to clamber back into the car, pray that it would start (it did) and then hightail it out of there, pushing the engine as much as I dared, watching the temperature gauge until the road turned away from the fire and I could heave a long, hot sweaty breath again.
I put that one down to heat-stroke.  It had to be some kind of madness that had made me stop on the edge of a fire-storm and try running into it.
On the way back, the glass delivered and the cash sitting heavy in my pocket, I stopped to pick up a hitch-hiker, a slip of a girl with long brown legs and a shaven head.  I figured she was probably a lesbian, or at least trying it out while she was in college, and she'd be little trouble.  She looked me over when I stopped, despite me being the only car on the road for miles, evaluating me.  She finally got in, crossed her legs primly, and started telling me about her family and her eight large, bodybuilding, rugby-playing brothers.  I played along, inventing a brother who only had one leg after his time in the wars and who kept finding bad internet dates.  After a couple of hours we were laughing and friendly, though she stayed on her side of the car and I was too hot to think about anything other than how much I was looking forward to getting the air-conditioning fixed.
Then she leaned out of the window and lit a cigarette.  As she held the match to the end of the tightly-rolled white tobacco tube it seemed like the flame flared up, forty feet high like the burning off of gas from a well, and when she looked back round at me I recognised her stare, her eyes.
"I am the Madonna of the Flames," she said, and her voice wasn't a voice at all, but some kind of hole in reality.  Her words were shaped by the absences, it was like the polar opposite of speaking, and it hurt my head.  "I am choosing you."
I let the hitch-hiker out at the edge of town; she said that she wanted to walk from there, but I had spotted the blue car half-hidden in the bushes, and figured she had a lift all sorted out already.  The Madonna of the Flames remained with me, invisible but impossible to forget.

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