It was a rainless summer. The sun blazed across the sky each afternoon, scorching the mountain with its arid, desiccating heat, so that each morning when I crossed the field to the barn, I felt stalks of wild wheat crackle and break beneath my feet.
I spent an amber morning making the Rescue Remedy homeopathic for Mother. I would take fifteen drops from the base formula—which was kept in Mother’s sewing cupboard, where it would not be used or polluted—and add them to a small bottle of distilled water. Then I would make a circle with my index finger and my thumb, and push the bottle through the circle. The strength of the homeopathic, Mother said, depended on how many passes the bottle made through my fingers, how many times it drew on my energy. Usually I stopped at fifty.
Dad and Luke were on the mountain, in the junkyard above the upper pasture, a quarter mile from the house. They were preparing cars for the crusher, which Dad had hired for later that week. Luke was seventeen. He had a lean, muscular build and, when outdoors, an easy smile. Luke and Dad were draining gasoline from the tanks. The crusher won’t take a car with the fuel tank attached, because there’s a risk of explosion, so every tank had to be drained and removed. It was slow work, puncturing the tank with a hammer and stake, then waiting for the fuel to drip out so the tank could be safely removed with a cutting torch. Dad had devised a shortcut: an enormous skewer, eight feet tall, of thick iron. Dad would lift a car with the forklift, and Luke would guide him until the car’s tank was suspended directly over the spike. Then Dad would drop the forks. If all went well, the car would be impaled on the spike and gasoline would gush from the tank, streaming down the spike and into the flat-bottom container Dad had welded in place to collect it.
By noon, they had drained somewhere between thirty and forty cars. Luke had collected the fuel in five-gallon buckets, which he began to haul across the yard to Dad’s flatbed. On one pass he stumbled, drenching his jeans in a gallon of gas. The summer sun dried the denim in a matter of minutes. He finished hauling the buckets, then went home for lunch.
I remember that lunch with unsettling clarity. I remember the clammy smell of beef-and-potato casserole, and the jingle of ice cubes tumbling into tall glasses, which sweated in the summer heat. I remember Mother telling me I was on dish duty, because she was leaving for Utah after lunch to consult for another midwife on a complicated pregnancy. She said she might not make it home for dinner but there was hamburger in the freezer.
I remember laughing the whole hour. Dad lay on the kitchen floor cracking jokes about an ordinance that had recently passed in our little farming village. A stray dog had bitten a boy and everyone was up in arms. The mayor had decided to limit dog ownership to two dogs per family, even though the attacking dog hadn’t belonged to anybody at all.
“These genius socialists,” Dad said. “They’d drown staring up at the rain if you didn’t build a roof over them.” I laughed so hard at that my stomach ached.
Luke had forgotten all about the gasoline by the time he and Dad walked back up the mountain and readied the cutting torch, but when he jammed the torch into his hip and struck flint to steel, flames burst from the tiny spark and engulfed his leg.
The part we would remember, would tell and retell so many times it became family folklore, was that Luke was unable to get out of his gasoline-soaked jeans. That morning, like every morning, he had hitched up his trousers with a yard of baling twine, which is smooth and slippery, and needs a horseman’s knot to stay in place. His footwear didn’t help, either: bulbous steel-toed boots so tattered that for weeks he’d been duct-taping them on each morning, then cutting them off each night with his pocketknife. Luke might have severed the twine and hacked through the boots in a matter of seconds, but he went mad with panic and took off, dashing like a marked buck, spreading fire through the sagebrush and wheat grass, which were baked and brittle from the parched summer.
I’D STACKED THE DIRTY dishes and was filling the kitchen sink when I heard it—a shrill, strangled cry that began in one key and ended in another. There was no question it was human. I’d never heard an animal bellow like that, with such fluctuations in tone and pitch.
I ran outside and saw Luke hobbling across the grass. He screamed for Mother, then collapsed. That’s when I saw that the jeans on his left leg were gone, melted away. Parts of the leg were livid, red and bloody; others were bleached and dead. Papery ropes of skin wrapped delicately around his thigh and down his calf, like wax dripping from a cheap candle.
His eyes rolled back in his head.
I bolted back into the house. I’d packed the new bottles of Rescue Remedy, but the base formula still sat on the counter. I snatched it and ran outside, then dumped half the bottle between Luke’s twitching lips. There was no change. His eyes were marble white.
One brown iris slipped into view, then the other. He began to mumble, then to scream. “It’s on fire! It’s on fire!” he roared. A chill passed through him and his teeth clattered; he was shivering.
I was only ten, and in that moment I felt very much a child. Luke was my big brother; I thought he would know what to do, so I grabbed his shoulders and shook him, hard. “Should I make you cold or make you hot?” I shouted. He answered with a gasp.
The burn was the injury, I reasoned. It made sense to treat it first. I fetched a pack of ice from the chest freezer on the patio, but when the pack touched his leg he screamed—a back-arching, eye-popping scream that made my brain claw at my skull. I needed another way to cool the leg. I considered unloading the chest freezer and putting Luke inside it, but the freezer would work only if the lid was shut, and then he’d suffocate.
I mentally searched the house. We had a large garbage can, a blue whale of a bin. It was splattered with bits of rotted food, so rank we kept it shut away in a closet. I sprinted into the house and emptied it onto the linoleum, noting the dead mouse Richard had tossed in the day before, then I carried the bin outside and sprayed it out with the garden hose. I knew I should clean it more thoroughly, maybe with dish soap, but looking at Luke, the way he was writhing on the grass, I didn’t feel I had time. With the last bit of slop blasted away, I righted the bin and filled it with water.
Luke was scrambling toward me to put his leg in when I heard an echo of my mother’s voice. She was telling someone that the real worry with a burn isn’t the damaged tissue, but infection.
“Luke!” I shouted. “Don’t! Don’t put your leg in!”
He ignored me and continued crawling toward the bin. He had a cold look in his eye that said nothing mattered except the fire burning from his leg into his brain. I moved quickly. I shoved the bin, and a great wave of water heaved over the grass. Luke made a gargled noise, as if he were choking.
I ran back into the kitchen and found the bags that fit the can, then held one open for Luke and told him to put his leg in. He didn’t move, but he allowed me to pull the bag over the raw flesh. I righted the can and stuffed the garden hose inside. While the bin filled, I helped Luke balance on one foot and lower his burned leg, now wrapped in black plastic, into the garbage can. The afternoon air was sweltering; the water would warm quickly; I tossed in the pack of ice.
It didn’t take long—twenty minutes, maybe thirty—before Luke seemed in his right mind, calm and able to prop himself up. Then Richard wandered up from the basement. The garbage can was smack in the middle of the lawn, ten feet from any shade, and the afternoon sun was strong. Full of water, the can was too heavy for us to move, and Luke refused to take out his leg, even for a minute. I fetched a straw sombrero Grandma had given us in Arizona. Luke’s teeth were still chattering so I also brought a wool blanket. And there he stood, a sombrero on his head, a wool blanket around his shoulders, and his leg in a garbage can. He looked something between homeless and on vacation.
The sun warmed the water; Luke began to shift uncomfortably. I returned to the chest freezer but there was no more ice, just a dozen bags of frozen vegetables, so I dumped them in. The result was a muddy soup with bits of peas and carrots.
Dad wandered home sometime after this, I couldn’t say how long, a gaunt, defeated look on his face. Quiet now, Luke was resting, or as near to resting as he could be standing up. Dad wheeled the bin into the shade because, despite the hat, Luke’s hands and arms had turned red with sunburn. Dad said the best thing to do was leave the leg where it was until Mother came home.
Mother’s car appeared on the highway around six. I met her halfway up the hill and told her what had happened. She rushed to Luke and said she needed to see the leg, so he lifted it out, dripping. The plastic bag clung to the wound. Mother didn’t want to tear the fragile tissue, so she cut the bag away slowly, carefully, until the leg was visible. There was very little blood and even fewer blisters, as both require skin and Luke didn’t have much. Mother’s face turned a grayish yellow, but she was calm. She closed her eyes and crossed her fingers, then asked aloud whether the wound was infected. Click click click.
“You were lucky this time, Tara,” she said. “But what were you thinking, putting a burn into a garbage can?”
Dad carried Luke inside and Mother fetched her scalpel. It took her and Dad most of the evening to cut away the dead flesh. Luke tried not to scream, but when they pried up and stretched bits of his skin, trying to see where the dead flesh ended and the living began, he exhaled in great gusts and tears slid from his eyes.
Mother dressed the leg in mullein and comfrey salve, her own recipe. She was good with burns—they were a specialty of hers—but I could tell she was worried. She said she’d never seen one as bad as Luke’s. She didn’t know what would happen.
MOTHER AND I STAYED by Luke’s bed that first night. He barely slept, he was so delirious with fever and pain. For the fever we put ice on his face and chest; for the pain we gave him lobelia, blue vervain and skullcap. This was another of Mother’s recipes. I’d taken it after I’d fallen from the scrap bin, to dull the throbbing in my leg while I waited for the gash to close, but as near as I could tell it had no effect.
I believed hospital drugs were an abomination to God, but if I’d had morphine that night, I’d have given it to Luke. The pain robbed him of breath. He lay propped up in his bed, beads of sweat falling from his forehead onto his chest, holding his breath until he turned red, then purple, as if depriving his brain of oxygen was the only way he could make it through the next minute. When the pain in his lungs overtook the pain of the burn, he would release the air in a great, gasping cry—a cry of relief for his lungs, of agony for his leg.
I tended him alone the second night so Mother could rest. I slept lightly, waking at the first sounds of fussing, at the slightest shifting of weight, so I could fetch the ice and tinctures before Luke became fully conscious and the pain gripped him. On the third night, Mother tended him and I stood in the doorway, listening to his gasps, watching Mother watch him, her face hollow, her eyes swollen with worry and exhaustion.
When I slept, I dreamed. I dreamed about the fire I hadn’t seen. I dreamed it was me lying in that bed, my body wrapped in loose bandages, mummified. Mother knelt on the floor beside me, pressing my plastered hand the way she pressed Luke’s, dabbing my forehead, praying.
Luke didn’t go to church that Sunday, or the Sunday after that, or the one after that. Dad told us to tell people Luke was sick. He said there’d be trouble if the Government found out about Luke’s leg, that the Feds would take us kids away. That they would put Luke in a hospital, where his leg would get infected and he would die.
About three weeks after the fire, Mother announced that the skin around the edges of the burn had begun to grow back, and that she had hope for even the worst patches. By then Luke was sitting up, and a week later, when the first cold spell hit, he could stand for a minute or two on crutches. Before long, he was thumping around the house, thin as a string bean, swallowing buckets of food to regain the weight he’d lost. By then, the twine was a family fable.
“A man ought to have a real belt,” Dad said at breakfast on the day Luke was well enough to return to the junkyard, handing him a leather strap with a steel buckle.
“Not Luke,” Richard said. “He prefers twine, you know how fashionable he is.”
Luke grinned. “Beauty’s everything,” he said.
FOR EIGHTEEN YEARS I never thought of that day, not in any probing way. The few times my reminiscing carried me back to that torrid afternoon, what I remembered first was the belt. Luke, I would think. You wild dog. I wonder, do you still wear twine?
Now, at age twenty-nine, I sit down to write, to reconstruct the incident from the echoes and shouts of a tired memory. I scratch it out. When I get to the end, I pause. There’s an inconsistency, a ghost in this story.
I read it. I read it again. And there it is.
Who put out the fire?
A long-dormant voice says, Dad did.
But Luke was alone when I found him. If Dad had been with Luke on the mountain, he would have brought him to the house, would have treated the burn. Dad was away on a job somewhere, that’s why Luke had had to get himself down the mountain. Why his leg had been treated by a ten-year-old. Why it had ended up in a garbage can.
I decide to ask Richard. He’s older than I, and has a sharper memory. Besides, last I heard, Luke no longer has a telephone.
I call. The first thing Richard remembers is the twine, which, true to his nature, he refers to as a “baling implement.” Next he remembers the spilled gasoline. I ask how Luke managed to put out the fire and get himself down the mountain, given that he was in shock when I found him. Dad was with him, Richard says flatly.
Then why wasn’t Dad at the house?
Richard says, Because Luke had run through the weeds and set the mountain afire. You remember that summer. Dry, scorching. You can’t go starting forest fires in farm country during a dry summer. So Dad put Luke in the truck and told him to drive to the house, to Mother. Only Mother was gone.
I think it over for a few days, then sit back down to write. Dad is there in the beginning—Dad with his funny jokes about socialists and dogs and the roof that keeps liberals from drowning. Then Dad and Luke go back up the mountain, Mother drives away and I turn the tap to fill the kitchen sink. Again. For the third time it feels like.
On the mountain something is happening. I can only imagine it but I see it clearly, more clearly than if it were a memory. The cars are stacked and waiting, their fuel tanks ruptured and drained. Dad waves at a tower of cars and says, “Luke, cut off those tanks, yeah?” And Luke says, “Sure thing, Dad.” He lays the torch against his hip and strikes flint. Flames erupt from nowhere and take him. He screams, fumbles with the twine, screams again, and takes off through the weeds.
Dad chases him, orders him to stand still. It’s probably the first time in his whole life that Luke doesn’t do something when Dad is telling him to. Luke is fast but Dad is smart. He takes a shortcut through a pyramid of cars and tackles Luke, slamming him to the ground.
I can’t picture what happens next, because nobody ever told me how Dad put out the fire on Luke’s leg. Then a memory surfaces—of Dad, that night in the kitchen, wincing as Mother slathers salve on his hands, which are red and blistering—and I know what he must have done.
Luke is no longer on fire.
I try to imagine the moment of decision. Dad looks at the weeds, which are burning fast, thirsty for flame in that quivering heat. He looks at his son. He thinks if he can choke the flames while they’re young, he can prevent a wildfire, maybe save the house.
Luke seems lucid. His brain hasn’t processed what’s happened; the pain hasn’t set in. The Lord will provide, I imagine Dad thinking. God left him conscious.
I imagine Dad praying aloud, his eyes drawn heavenward, as he carries his son to the truck and sets him in the driver’s seat. Dad shifts the engine into first, the truck starts its roll. It’s going at a good speed now, Luke is gripping the wheel. Dad jumps from the moving truck, hits the ground hard and rolls, then runs back toward the brushfire, which has spread wider and grown taller. The Lord will provide, he chants, then he takes off his shirt and begins to beat back the flames.*
* Since the writing of this story, I have spoken to Luke about the incident. His account differs from both mine and Richard’s. In Luke’s memory, Dad took Luke to the house, administered a homeopathic for shock, then put him in a tub of cold water, where he left him to go fight the fire. This goes against my memory, and against Richard’s. Still, perhaps our memories are in error. Perhaps I found Luke in a tub, alone, rather than on the grass. What everyone agrees upon, strangely, is that somehow Luke ended up on the front lawn, his leg in a garbage can.