When my mother was young, she was a ghost melting from place to place. At twenty, she fell in love with a man who had flames for hands and set fire to everything he touched. She was enamored with his destruction, and he fell for the one thing he could get close to: the after-image of a girl.
He used to burn forests for her, start wildfires to catch her attention. Nothing ever made her as happy as a fire. The uncontrolled, the body-less. The untouchable. It was her. All her in a light and a burn, a quivering tiny sun that was ever hungry and always dying.
That man was not my father, or so my mother said.
In an eclipse, I saw the image of him once, in an imprint in my mother's shut eyes. Her ghost eyes, her pictures on the wallpaper when I looked through her. He was implausible. A real impossibility. And yet I am my mother's daughter, and maybe that man is my father. I draw to the fire, drink from its light like a hummingbird.
At twenty-one, he had burned most of the buildings my mother haunted. And after each burning, she would run away with him, run to someplace where ghosts and flames could be peaceful- if only for a little while. Not long after, she would find herself tied to another place. Another set of walls to haunt, with windows to look out, and carpets and curtains and chairs and fireplaces. How she loved the fireplaces.
He would sneak in through the old, rickety windows at the back of the house and take her away. By the river bridge downtown, to an empty field waist-deep in midnight fog, to the forest where they would light up the sky like morning had come again. And again and again. He had arson written on his bones, carved deep into the smooth white architecture that held him aloft. Held him steady and fiercely burning.
I imagine there was a time when my mother was not a ghost, but a girl. I think of her in colour, with a voice that is not a background echo, with warmth and sadness and anger and frustration. I imagine my mother the way someone imagines a projection into reality. I ask her to tell me about my father, but my father is gone and irrelevant.
Perhaps my father is ashes in the ground, in the wind, buried beneath a young, new forest somewhere close. But the man with flames for hands is not gone, and he is perpetually building and burning a house inside my mother’s head. I watch as the smoke soaks the room, and makes her even more invisible.
The ghost that is my mother does not speak. She is a set of images, and the constant memory of hands that burned. Wooden fences and scarecrows caught alight, mailboxes, bushes, and sometimes me, caught in the torrent of flames watching blank-eyed like a dummy. A statuette about to crack in the kiln.
When the room fills with smoke, the scorch marks on my mother’s flesh begin to show. His handprint over hers, soot across the side of her jaw, the black carbon stains on her lips. As the smoke empties out the cracks in the windows, my mother disappears. I stare at the flames on my fingertips, and throw more kindling into the fireplace.