The Fire God and the Phoenix
by Maureen Bowden
He stepped out of the flames as I was throwing the last of my torn-up diaries onto the blazing heap of garden waste. His skin was the colour of the earth. His red hair flowed around his shoulders like lava down a mountainside. His body was bare but he didn’t appear to be naked. Clothed in his dignity, he was magnificent.
Crumpling the charred page he was holding in his fist, he said, “You’re burning your life, Johanna.”
I don’t know why I wasn’t afraid. Perhaps I’d gone beyond fear. My despair was too deep. “It’s mine to burn.” It surprised me that I had enough defiance left for the petulance that I heard in my voice.
He shook his head. “It’s mine now.”
“You’re welcome to it. Are you the devil?”
He laughed. “If you like, but don’t call me Lucifer. Your species likes abbreviations and Lucy would be inappropriate.”
I should have been running, howling, heading for the hills, whatever; but I felt calmer than I had since I killed my lover. “Would Luke do?” I said.
“Perhaps, but I prefer my own name.”
“Jacawitz. You can call me Jac.” My mouth went dry; my head spun. He must have sensed my confusion. “You could google me,” he said, “but we don’t have time.”
“No need,” I said. “I know who you are.” In the days when I still possessed curiosity I’d soaked up mythology from the Andes to the Arctic. Jacawitz was a Mayan fire god who usually hung out in volcanoes. Now he was standing in my garden reaching out his hand, beckoning me into a flaming heap of dead branches, the remains of a rotted patio table and a ton of Japanese knotweed.
The smell of something acrid that had found its way into the fire stung my nostrils, making my eyes water, but it cleared the lethargy that plagued me. Memories stirred, stretched, and somersaulted over each other in my mind; flinging my consciousness back to a time before I started to slide into murder, and the urge for self-obliteration.
* * *
I met Stuart when we were both teachers at an inner city Comprehensive school, Brownlow Hill. He was sophisticated, witty and looked like a Rock star. I was flattered that he even noticed me. We sang ‘Angels’ along with Robbie Williams at Knebworth; marched in protest against the Iraqi war; and stood together in the rain outside Vision Express, with collection boxes for Save the Children. We believed in the same principles, became angry at the same injustices and laughed at the same lunacies.
We laughed a lot in those days. I shared everything with him: every certainty, hope, ambition; and little by little he destroyed them all.
It started with my appearance. “Your hair’s a mess, Johanna. Why don’t you get it cut?” He slapped a roll of notes in front of me. “Here, buy some new clothes. Smarten yourself up.” He always had money to throw around: inherited from his father. I had no family. I’d grown up in a care home. His wealth made him appear superior. He wasn’t.
Mandy tried to warn me. “Be careful, Jo. He’s taking over your life.” I should have listened. She was my best friend since Teachers Training College, and we started work at the Hill together.
Stuart hated her. “You’d be better off without that bitch. She’s a trouble maker.” Why did I need friends when I had him? He knew best. He could teach me how to better myself. I should reflect on how lucky I was.
He undermined my work with the kids. Mandy and I ran an after-school club in the canteen. It gave them somewhere to go, and it helped us to win their trust. I loved it, until the day he burst in, bellowing. “Are you planning on coming home any time soon, or what?” In the silence that followed something inside me started to die. I was too embarrassed to continue with the club after that, and Mandy found someone else to help.
I lost my self-confidence and started to rely on Stuart to make my decisions for me. I did my best to please him but I usually got it wrong. He’d say, ‘Do you think you could manage not to burn the toast, this morning?’ or ‘I thought that shirt was supposed to be ironed. Can’t you do anything right?’ He would sulk, slam doors and stay out all night without explanation. I would lay awake, feeling sick, waiting for him to return. I was aware that he was destroying me but I felt powerless. I was afraid of his displeasure.
He had an affair with Rosie Bleasedale, a seventeen-year-old pupil. Her parents found out; he was sacked and banned from teaching.
“She didn’t mean anything to me, Jo,” he said. “She led me on, and I’m only human.” That was as close to an apology as he came.
He had his future worked out. Part of his inheritance was his father’s house in rural North Wales. He’d been renting it as a summer let. “I’ll take it off the Letting Agent’s books and we’ll move in,” he said. “We don’t need to work. The old man left me plenty to live on. We can get away from this dump.”
I couldn’t stay at the Hill. The whispers and sniggers were more than I could bear, so I went with him. Mandy handed me her phone number before we left. “Call me when you’re ready,” she said.
I hoped a fresh start would help us to recapture the early days, so I suggested we go to the Glastonbury festival the following year. “I’ve moved on from that,” he said. “It’s time you did, too.”
That night I read all my diary entries since the day I met him. What scared me the most was the change in me, rather than the change in him. A different person had written about those good times. I’d become a stranger to myself and there was nothing I could do about it.
With nobody to whom I could turn, I took refuge in my books. He caught me one day, giggling over ‘Soul Music,’ which had been my favourite Discworld novel since I was a kid. “Oh, not that Discworld rubbish,” he said. “It’s about time you threw the lot in a bin liner and took them to Oxfam.”
I’d learned by now not to argue. If I did he wouldn’t speak to me for three days and I’d have to be the one to apologise. I didn’t obey him, though. That night I wrote in my diary, “I’ve stopped being scared of him. Now I hate him.”
I didn’t plan to kill him, but it was too good a chance to miss. He was balanced on a wobbly, woodworm-infested stepladder while he cleared the leaves from the gutter along the edge of the roof. The base of the ladder was wedged between two bricks to hold it steady. I kicked them away and shook it until he fell, screaming, and cracked his skull on the York-stone paving slabs he laid last year.
He twitched, then lay still. I stood, shaking, as an army of ants emerged from between the bloodstained slabs and marched across his chin.
I stepped over his body, walked into the house and called an ambulance. “My partner’s fallen off a ladder,” I said. “I think he’s dead.”
“I’ll talk you through the resuscitation procedure while you wait for the ambulance,” the operator said.
“No, no.” I couldn’t keep the note of hysteria out of my voice. “I can’t touch him. The ants are crawling all over him.” She didn’t try to persuade me but she stayed on the phone until the paramedics arrived.
They made sympathetic noises, and told me the police would have to make a report. They put Stuart’s body in the ambulance and they left. What if the police guessed I’d killed him? If they found my diaries they’d know I had a motive.
A mound of garden waste stood on a patch of gravel at the side of the lawn, waiting to be burned. A wheelbarrow full of weeds stood alongside it. I fled into the house, pulled the cardboard box containing my diaries from under the bed, carried it outside and tipped it into the wheelbarrow. I spread the weeds over the top, added a couple of spades full of nettles out of the hedge to deter anyone from delving, washed my hands, and waited for the police.
I showed them the ladder, the bricks, and the leaves in the gutter. They shook their heads, tutted and said there would be an inquest, but it was merely a formality. They saw only a grieving woman, but it was myself for whom I was grieving.
A female police officer made me a cup of coffee. She said, “Is there anyone who can come and stay with you for a while?”
“Yes,” I said. “I have a friend.”
After they’d gone I rang Mandy. “Stuart’s had an accident,” I said. “He’s dead, and I don’t know what to do.”
“Give me the address,” she said. “I’ll be there tomorrow.”
She arranged everything: the death certificate, the funeral director, all the official stuff. She rang our solicitor, who insisted on speaking to me, but she stayed close, as he droned on about Grant of Probate and what not, then she translated it into real language. Stuart had left everything to me in his will, including the house.
“Put the place in the hands of an estate agent, Jo,” she said, “and come back to the Hill.” She squeezed my hand. “We’re understaffed and everyone still talks about how good you were with the kids. You’d be welcomed with open arms.”
“I couldn’t do it. I’m not that person any more.”
“You will be. Don’t let him win.”
She couldn’t stay for the cremation. The funeral director found a clergyman from somewhere or other and I was the only mourner.
The next day I called to the Chapel of Rest to pick up the ashes. I threw the urn in the back of the car and drove to a car park near the local cattle market. The bleating and mooing of the doomed animals was carried on the wind, along with the smell. They’re your funeral choir, Stuart, I thought, as I tipped his ashes into the ditch that ran alongside the road. After returning the urn I drove back here, to my own cremation.
I lit the fire, threw in the weeds from the wheelbarrow and began to feed my diaries into the rising flames. “This is my life,” I sobbed. “I don’t want it. You can have it.” Jacawitz heard me, and he came to collect.
* * *
“Come with me, Johanna,” the fire god said.
I clasped his outstretched hand. “Will it hurt?”
“Not for long. It will soon be over.” He smiled. “There’s nothing for you here. You belong to me.” There was something about his voice, and the expression in his eyes, that reminded me of Stuart.
Recalling Mandy’s words “Don’t let him win,” I pulled back my hand. My scorched fingers stung, and I was glad. The pain proved I was alive, and I wanted to live. Looking for his figure in the flames I saw only dead wood, shrivelling and crumbling into nothing as the fire burned itself out.
I sat cross-legged on the gravel beside the still-smouldering embers, and I decided to call Mandy, tomorrow, to tell her I was coming home. I’d accept the first offer for this place; we’d have a night out to celebrate, and Save the Children could have the rest. Jacawitz was welcome to my old life, but the new one was all mine.
The evening breeze was cool on my back. I breathed in the scent of honeysuckle, the melting sun slipped behind the roof of the abattoir squatting on the horizon, and I rose from the ashes.
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Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian, living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had eighty-two stories and poems accepted for publication by paying markets, and Silver Pen publishers nominated one of her stories for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize. She also writes song lyrics, mostly comic political satire, set to traditional melodies. Her husband has performed these in Folk clubs throughout England and Wales. She loves her family and friends, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Shakespeare, and cats.