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  Table of contents Issue Twenty THE FIREPLACE

by
CLAY MCLEOD CHAPMAN
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T

he thought of tossing our baby in the fireplace first popped into my head a month or so ago. Around September, I’d say. Autumn was on its way, so—one lazy weekend, I figured I’d go ahead and get a leg up on winter and finally clean out that chimney. Get the flue all prepped for our first fire in our new house.



We were still only five months deep into our domestic bliss back then, so—no crisp nights curled up around the fire just yet. But before we even bought this place, all the way back when Chrissy and me first took a tour of the house—before it was ours, before it was anyone’s, really, lingering within that liminal space between seller and buyer, all those hopeful families wandering about its rooms, like ghosts inspecting every nook and cranny in some spectral attempt to decide whether or not this is the house we all want to haunt—I remember waltzing into the living room for the very first time and locking eyes onto that inglenook. Its thick brick. The oak beam reaching across the top. Its swan-necked ironworks looked like the blackened ribcage of some prehistoric beast burnt to its bones, the charred chest cavity the only remnant of its primitive existence left behind. Whatever it had been.



Check out the fireplace, I said. Bet we’ll save a fortune on our heating bill with that thing.



Was that an offer I just heard? Chrissy whispered, hoping not to alert any of the other prospective homeowners that we were interested. ‘Cause if it was, I can go find the realtor…



Down, Simba… Take it easy.



I hadn’t banked on the owners accepting our bid, to be honest. We were low. Well beneath the listed asking price. I did it for Chrissy—but I knew there was no way in hell we’d ever get a house like this. Not on our annual income.



I mean—come on. An 1855 Victorian? With five bedrooms? Hardwood floors? There’s no way we could call this place home. Not with that fireplace beckoning. We’re talking the original chimney here. Nearly two hundred years old. The oldest part of the house at this point, I bet. The rest may have been remodeled over the years, but its brick bones remained, a spinal column of red clay holding this home upright.



We were crazy to’ve come to the open house. But Chrissy had begged to check it out. Outright begged. She’s always had real estate lust, spending her Sundays sifting through every last email alert agents send her way.



It felt wrong, being here. Playing house like this. Getting her hopes up like this. Watching her eyes widen the deeper into the house we went, deciding which room would be whose—this one’s ours, this one will be the baby’s—I knew, I just knew we were cruising towards heartbreak. She kept rubbing her belly like there was a genie in there, ready to grant her wish.



Don’t do this to yourself, hon, I warned her. Don’t get yourself all worked up.



But the owners saw something in us, I guess. Our family-to-be.



Me, Chrissy.



And Colin. Nothing but a bump in his mama’s tummy back then. He still had a few months in the oven to go before—Ding! Baby’s served…



I’d never cleaned a fireplace before.



Never had an actual fireplace to clean—so. There you go. First time for everything, I guess… I am a man who now owns a fireplace, therefor I have become a man who must scrub it.



Chrissy had been feeding Colin in bed, so I had the inglenook all to myself. Gave us a chance to get to know each other a little bit better.



It had a molded shelf embedded into the rear wall with a hinged spit-rack. (A grand ol’ rack!) Had to date back to when this house was originally built, all those years ago. Turn of the turn of whatever century. They must’ve roasted enormous joints of meat back then. Could’ve fed a whole coven with what they cooked on there, I bet.



Kneeling before the hearth, I pulled the fire dogs out to scrub the floor. The grate weighed a ton. Took both hands just to tug that iron giant’s ribcage out. Broke a sweat before I’d even started scrubbing, taking this metal-bristled brush and scraping at the interior walls. Swipe the soot away.



I was inside the fireplace now. On my hands and knees. Working on the rear wall. Tight, circular motions. Wax on, wax off… The grime never seemed to go away, though. Ten minutes of brandishing that brush over brick and it looked like I was just sweeping circles in the soot. This nibbling-on-tin sensation settled into my teeth. I could feel the steel bristles all the way up in my jaw, like chewing aluminum foil. Skrchskrchskrch. Throbbing right through me. My bones.



An exhale spread over my spine. I swear I felt somebody’s breath drop down my neck.



No one was behind me. The living room was completely empty.



Then I felt again. This time on my temples.



Glancing up, I felt a stray draft creep across my cheeks.



The chimney flue had been left open, that’s all. Just the wind, as they say.



Then something shifts.



Up there.



I couldn’t see very far up, couldn’t see much of anything—but my eyes tightened in on a pale shape centered within the brick funnel. A gray nimbus hovering in the darkness.



A baby.



I saw a baby. Trapped in the shadows. Its fetal form was curled into itself, crammed in the sooty womb of the flue. Its pale skin was covered in a layer of ash.



I reached up to touch it.



See if it was real.



That’s what people do in these situations, yes? If you see something that shouldn’t be there—you poke it. Who cares about common sense? I’m staring at a baby stuck in my chimney, for Christ’s sake. Of course, I’m going to touch it.



The pressure from my pointer was enough to dislodge the infant from its floating position and fall onto my face with a hefty exhale of soot. I turned away from the plummeting bundle just as it dropped, so impact was actually on the back of my neck. I felt the softest thud, punctuated with a puff of ash before it tumbled onto the bricks below.



I was breathing in way too much soot, coughing uncontrollably now. There were a solid three seconds of blurred vision. That cloud of ash slowly dissipated, clearing away to reveal—



A possum.



It must have been trapped in the chimney. Must’ve crawled down and got itself stuck, months ago, starving itself to death up there. Its body was petrified, all its fur having fallen away, leaving behind its withered skin, covered in soot. Nothing but a mummified thing now.



Just a possum.



I figured it was best to get our little squatter out of the house before Chrissy saw it. She was not a fan of our furry four-legged neighbors, so I escorted the crispy critter by its shoestring tail, giving him a proper burial in our trashcan amongst all the dirty diapers and coffee filters.



When I came back in, I could smell dinner cooking.



Buttery pork belly.



The halls were filled with it. My mouth was watering by the time I found Chrissy in the living room, bouncing Colin on her knee like a bucking baby bronco.



What’s cooking, good-looking?



Nothing as far as I know… Had my hands a little full here.



What’s up with the smell? I’m starving.



Chrissy gave me a look that would be put into constant rotation soon enough, hereunto categorized as—What the fuck are you talking about?



Sure enough, the oven wasn’t on. Our kitchen was still a work in progress. Most of our appliances hadn’t found a cupboard yet, still living within their moving boxes. A dozen cardboard nested dolls claimed any and every inch of free space. All our cutlery and dishes remain stacked in quick-pickable piles along the countertop for easy take-out meals.



Not that the smell was coming from the kitchen, anyhow.



It was in the living room. From the fireplace.



Bacon fat frying in the pan.



You practicing for Santa or something? Chrissy asked. You’re all covered in soot.



I was cleaning the fireplace, I said. More to myself, but Chrissy answered anyway—Hate to break to it you, hon, but… I think the chimney won.



The house feels cold now.



Has for months. I’ve futzed with the thermostat and nothing seems to lift the chill. Every room I walk into, it feels as if I’m plunging into the tundra. My breath spreads out above me when I’m lying in bed. I’ve had to bundle up like it’s the middle of winter, two or three layers thick, pulling out the parkas from their moving box, just to keep from freezing. In August. It’s actually warmer outside than in. Chrissy looks at me like I’m nuts, which is the new norm now.



I could really use your help here, she muttered. Can you take Colin? Just for a minute?



What do we know about the house?



It’s old, she shrugged, irked at me for not spotting the immediate problem at hand. I know that… Could you just take him? Please? I’ve got to start thinking about dinner. What’re you hungry for?



Colin was nothing but baby fat. Gripping him, I felt my hands sink into his sides. That plump swell of his pudgy tummy filling in around my fingers, like cement sealing us together.



Squishy brick and mortar.



When Colin was first cleared to come home from the hospital, I had given him the grand tour. This is your room, I whispered. Most were still overwhelmed with moving boxes back then, the walls eclipsed in cardboard. Our plans for unpacking before Colin was born were quickly hijacked the moment Chrissy’s water broke. Not that we minded. We had our nest now. We had all the time in the world to settle in. Make this place feel like home. This is where your mommy and daddy sleep… or where we’re gonna try to sleep, as long as you let us. And this…



This was the living room.



The hearth’s flooring had a thick cast-iron plate, surrounded by a brick enclosure. The entire house would embrace a fire, the heat circulating through the halls and swelling up within each room like the chambers of a heart filling up with blood. And on the spit-rack, roasting on the iron, a sizzling victual. Its delectable aroma filled the house. Grease dripping off the shank. Hits the hearth in this thin dribble. Each drip sizzles against the iron plate, bubbling over—Hsss.



Hsssss...



Hsssss…



Chrissy’s noticed I’ve been avoiding the living room. I turn in early now. Wrap myself up in a duvet and call it a night.



What gives? She asked. You avoiding us?



She asked if I wanted to light a fire. As if that would solve all our problems. Just tossed it out there last night, completely casual, like it’d popped into her mind—Hey. How about a fire?



The fuck did you just say?



Jesus… Don’t snap at me.



What did you say?



A fire, she fumed. All I asked was if you wanted to light a fire.



Her breath smelled like peat. Decayed plant matter in her mouth. I could even see bits of turf in between her teeth. Tongue covered in earth. They would harvest the peat from the bogs, carving out thick, sodden bricks, leaving them out to dry under the sun before bringing them inside and stacking them up in the inglenook. Those bricks burned slowly. The softest kind of kindling. Smokeless. Endless. Eternal flames. It would warm the house for days and never die out. Warm its halls with dead vegetables and decrepit sedges, the pocosins and moss, compressed within the muck and mire of a thousand years, the bones of beasts long forgotten, lost to the bogs, the boreal peatlands slowing down their decomposition beneath our feet, now a fire, a gorgeous fire, methane flames blooming in a beautiful blue, dancing about the hearth like will o’ wisps. Like the northern lights. The aurora borealis in our living room.



Forget it, she muttered. You’re the one who’s always complaining about how cold it is.



I went to bed instead. Curled up into a cocoon of my duvet and tried to hide.



The house is only growing colder. Colder. Winter is nearly here. We’re going to have to light a fire before long.



But I’m afraid what’ll happen when we do.



What kind of kindling we’ll need.



Colin woke us up last night, crying. It was late. Had to be three or four in the morning. I could hear him wailing from his room, his voice drifting down the hall. Chrissy rolled over and mumbled for me to check on him. I pretended to be asleep, but that didn’t fly.



Your turn, she mumbled, nudging me with her elbow. It’s your turn…



A jolt of cold shot right up my legs the second my bare feet touched the hardwood floor. My ribs seized, locking onto my lungs, like an iron grate gripping at the air in my chest.



Colin wasn’t in his room. Nothing but moving boxes everywhere. I could hear the soft pads of his fingertips grazing against the cardboard of one—so I opened it. Only I found a shriveled possum curled inside. Its withered pink tail looked more like an umbilical cord to me.



The crying’s coming from elsewhere. A different room in the house.



The living room.



I felt warmer the further down the hall I went. A gentle breath brushed against my skin.



Drawing me in.



Warmer…



Warmer…



The fire’s blazing. Our first fire in the house.



It’s so warm in here.



There’s a woman standing by the hearth. Her back is to me. For a moment, I think it’s Chrissy—but no. This woman is much older. I see leaves tangled up in her gray hair. She turns just enough for her chin to reach over her shoulder. Her face is a dried riverbed of wrinkles. The one eye I see is fogged over. It’s all milky to me.



She’s smiling as she stirs.



There’s a pot on the fireplace’s hook. It’s simmering. I can’t see what she’s cooking, but the pot boils over. Each drip sizzles against the iron plate along the hearth.



Hsss...



Hsss...



Hsss…



The woman holds out a wooden spoon to me, offering me a sip.



The broth is salty. And sweet. Like nothing I’ve ever tasted before.



Butter on my tongue.



So I ask for more.



   
   

 

endmark



Clay McLeod Chapman is the creator of the rigorous storytelling session The Pumpkin Pie Show. Publications: nothing untoward, rest area, miss corpus, and The Tribe trilogy—Homeroom Headhunters, Camp Cannibal and Academic Assassins (Disney). Film: The Boy (SXSW 2015), Henley (Sundance 2012) and Late Bloomer (Sundance 2005). Theatre: Commencement and Hostage Song (w/ Kyle Jarrow). Comics: Edge of Spider-Verse, The Avengers, Amazing Spider-Man, Ultimate Spider-Man, American Vampire, Vertigo Quarterly: SFX and Self Storage. He is a writing instructor at The Actors Studio MFA Program at Pace University. Visit him at: www.claymcleodchapman.com.



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