The one evening it didn't rain the church of Saint-Sebastien caught fire. The clouds were heavy and grey overhead, and the wind would rise and fall as though some ancient dragon were breathing across the Paulitsa Square, but though the sky refused to clear, it also refused to rain.
The women were out, squatting in the doorways and calling to one another, bags of clothes in front of them which they pulled items from, held them up and tsked, putting some back and mending and darning others. Now and then there would be a nearly new vest, or a skirt so patched that it was becoming something new, an original emerging from a cheap knockoff bought with stolen money. Then a voice would rise above the others, crowing over the find, announcing their luck and bounty, and other voices would chime in, dissonant and plaintive, crying words of praise and bleeding just jealousy.
There were men around the square, keeping their distance from the women, who were apt to mock and jeer, brave and confidant together like this. Later on that evening, alone behind closed doors there would be more caution, the offering of sex like an olive branch, an unspoken apology. It would be accepted as tentatively, men acknowledging that they had been identified, stood-out by their wives, that their virility had been somehow enhanced and supported by the apparent humiliation. In the uneasy sweat of coitus it would be forgotten, and as they rolled apart the balance would be restored once more.
There were discussions afterwards of how the fire could have started. There were those who were far away who claimed that they heard the dull roll of thunder and saw the flash of light, that lightning had struck the church tower but that the lightning conductor had been broken and only conducted the lightning down the wooden choir stalls. Those who were close by denied this, of course, and said that the verger had come out towards ten and had been smoking. They told a story where he turned to an itinerant parishioner to answer a question about the omniperception of God and then forgot that he was smoking still. As he returned into the church he discarded his cigarette into the bushes and thus the fire started outside the church and ventured in to bathe itself in the glory of God.
The verger, who was at home that night with food poisoning from eating the fish that his wife had attempted to casserole, denied that story but the Bishop, who was not really a good man, still disbelieved him and caused him to be passed over for promotion for the next two years.
Wherever the fire started, it was first noticed when the Saints' window shattered, coloured glass cascading out from the church walls and softened lead twisting and falling inwards. Flames peeked out through the new exit, their golden and orange heads flickering this way and that as they sought more air, more oxygen, and greater range. The clouds above reflected the light from the flames back down, and the whole church seemed lambent, standing somehow suffused in a glow all of its own. Men crossed themselves, and women gathered their clothes back up, hastily stuffing them in their tired cloth sacks to protect them from the inevitable descent of ash.