Jeff Burt’s work has appeared in Storm Cellar, The Nervous Breakdown, Agave, Wayfarer, Clerestory, and Graze, with subjects as various as homelessness, the High Plains, and edible grains. He won a 2011 SuRaa short fiction award. He lives with his wife in Santa Cruz County, California.
My earliest known ancestor burned at the stake in Norwich, England, refusing to convert to Catholicism, a protestant wick to the last incinerated gasp. My cancer draws the smell forward five hundred years, and all those around me pray I am the sacrifice that keeps the contagion from visiting them.
I don’t want ash, incense, or a confession to a priest. I want the God of fire, not iconic and held by vestments. I want God direct, enveloping, beads of sweat dropping so steadily from my brow I cannot look out but see a gleaming world finally incandescent, holy. I want to lay my chilled body in the flaming river of baptism and rise with a feverish faith.
# # #
I had a yeast infection in my left lung, a baker’s yeast infection, even though I had not used baker’s yeast since my kids were little, making my own bread and letting the dough rise on the toilet tank in the downstairs bathroom. The last time I remember kneading dough was the day Nixon resigned.
A yeast infection in your lungs, the doctor told me, was deadly. To die by yeast. Sounded better than AIDS, or flesh-eating bacteria. I was treated with DDT. Not exactly DDT, but near enough. It killed the yeast, and in so doing, killed my lymphatic system. One year later they discovered a baseball size tumor stuck between my left lung and my heart, so perfectly placed it bothered neither, but appeared to be growing at such a pace it could either consume my lung or burst my heart; and now that I’ve had three rounds of chemotherapy I think I should have picked the burst heart. Lord knows it had burst enough in my life that one last time would have seemed appropriate.
Amid the awful aroma of my flesh, I tease my memory to bring those pleasant smells of dough rising, the white toilet tank all shiny, the damp white towel draped over the dough in the pan. I remember sitting on the toilet with the door locked and the kids upstairs playing, taking ten minutes of time in the redolence of that bread, the white porcelain punished by scrubbing to shine, the towels hung in thirds, and my youngest child’s yellow ducky set perfectly on its beak with its little rubber butt up in the air. For ten minutes I was a schoolgirl again, stealing quiet time in my grandmother’s house.
# # #
The pastor comes by on Wednesday, making visitations.
He’s a little bit New Age, loves candles and dim sanctuaries, and loves to say “contemplative.” His wife makes wads of money selling insurance and actually owns part of the local bank. Despite that, he’s humble, and even though at times he strains too hard to be Jesus-like, he’s naturally humble, so we get along. He wants me to go through a forgiveness circle, some four-position wheel where the arrow goes round and round, and you start giving forgiveness and by the end, you’re getting forgiveness. But I don’t want to get down on my knees, cause once down, it’s too hard to get up; and I don’t want a circular wheel of any part of religion. I don’t want warmth. I don’t want hugs. I want incandescence. I want to burn like incense. I want incineration.
Every day I walk in the morning for forty-five minutes as I always have, though now I only walk about one-fifth as far. I face east and start with my face in the morning light and wait until I hit Third Street before I turn and limp back home, worse than fatigued. I feel like a drained gas tank—nothing left to run the motor. Nevertheless, the doctor told me that the morning walk could help heal me.
Hank, embattled husband of all things routine, bathes me when I can’t, cooks dinner for himself and then a little later for me because the smell of his food makes me nauseous, especially anything with beef in it. I crave canned dog food, though. He thinks it’s the potatoes, or maybe the salt. I think it’s the fantasy that I could actually woof down anything instead of taking everything in teaspoons.
# # #
My friend Hannah needs a new liver, but won’t receive one because of an enlarged heart. She’s always been in ill health, rings under her eyes, and a yellow sheen to her skin that reminds me of that dull glow of an atomic bomb after the flash dissipates, or the sky after a grass fire toward sunset, all the soot and dust and particles drifting. We laugh about the enlarged heart, because everyone that knows her knows her heart is undersized. Her comments are caustic and cynical, her best words are acidic. But that’s why I like her. Most of my life I have heard nothing but pleasantries and good intentions when face to face, and all of the cutting and severing people do occurs in the hush of the phone or behind the back. But Hannah says it out in the open—always.
She has not let up even though that baseball in my chest keeps pressing me towards death. It’s what swallowing your pride looks like, she says. Or, you always had the finickiness of a cat and now you have the hairball to match. True assessments, both. When my husband convinced me to take the ninety-mile trip to see my old friend, Hannah and I talked politely for about an hour, then I needed a nap and she did as well, so we slept next to each other on the couch in the living room while the men went to admire the quarter horses of Hannah’s husband.
When we woke, the day was so full of sun it brought out the darkest of comments. We laughed and hugged each other for a bit, but I can’t hug for long. Now, Hannah said, you can blame it on cancer, or chemo, but you never liked to hug in the first place. Except your children. True again.
When the men came back, they were happy to have had the break, and we as well. I took six pills and Hannah took four; we kissed but neither of us had any tears for the other. I wasn’t even in the car before Hannah had turned around and toddled back to her front door. But I liked that. Our final meeting had no sense of the maudlin, no moping, and no convulsion of emotion. Straight shots—this was the last time we’d see each other. She was dead, and I was too.
# # #
Hank had enough love for me and our oldest children and that was it; he seemed bewildered by our second, third, and fourth child, as if he had not participated in their creation. He lived without participating in their play, their education, their burdens and joys.
Hank has the weirdest and most charming quirks. He never wanted to put up lights for Christmas on the outside of the house and only did after I bought five strings down at the hardware store. He talked under his breath for days about the cost of watts and kilowatts, but put them up for me anyway on a cold night where he said his knees caught a disabling cold and never worked well again. Most men put them up with ladders, but Hank climbed the roof. Once up, he never wanted to take them down, because on the sides of the house it gave enough light for him to rake leaves, trim bushes, and shovel snow without hooking up a halogen lamp. Our neighbors almost begged that he take them down, but he was resolute. Once up, up for good. That’s Hank. If he gets up to clear the dishes, then he’s not coming back to the table until the trash is out, the recycling gathered, the garage door shut, the outside light turned on, the dog let out and let back in, the books we are reading put by the bed, my pajamas folded on the edge of the bed.
I love him for that. I love that he sharpens the blade of the old electric lawnmower himself with that spinning wheel and sparks flying all over the grass, and his wild stomping to put them out. I love how he tries to negotiate at the Farmer’s Market on Wednesday mornings, hoping to get a quarter off a clump of carrots, or waiting until the very end to pick up a bouquet for half price, that he dusts the top of the light bulbs in the rooms we rarely enter to make sure the dust doesn’t aggravate my senses, taking out his handkerchief and gently unscrewing the bulbs and with a very light touch, wiping in circles.
God sometimes does not try to stretch one’s heart, just leaves it in place so that it can do the best it can do with what it has, and that is what he did with Hank. Hank could love me and love me well, and God just left it at that.
# # #
Cancer does not eat away. Cancer does not diminish the number of cells in the body. Cancer does not erode. It burns. It burns, and chemotherapy is the back burn trying to stop it, to consume the fuel before the cancer reaches it, the doctor’s little firefighting scheme. Cancer burns like a wick, with a small glow that eventually uses the fuel in the body until it evaporates into the air.
I am at stage four, but really I’m about four and three-quarters, if five is death, because my wick has consumed most of my candle, and any day I may drown in the last molten stage or be consumed by fire. That’s how I want to go—not diminished, contracted, shrunken, weakened, lessened, but consumed, my body incinerated from the inside out.
In 1508, Arthur Popplestone refused to say what everyone wanted him to say, after four days of torture, his wife and children thrown into a jail, his land taken away, his cattle sold, and his Bible, written in English instead of Latin, torn into shreds in front of his face and then the first fuel lit at his feet. I think since he was in hell, holding out for heaven was the easiest part. With the flames charring his feet, his skin boiling, he resisted recanting, knowing that at that point fibbing to save his life wasn’t going to work. He was dead, yet he was living, in the very limbo the mistaken faithful had conjectured but failed to prove.
And so go I. I can tell you that every day my feet are in hell and my thoughts are in heaven, even as my scalp becomes more exposed.
So the tumor doesn’t win after all. All the little satellite tumors it sent out—they don’t win either. I push against, I will not recant, I rise from my bed, I shuffle down the hall, I make maple oatmeal that nauseates but I eat it, I read, I make tea that nauseates but I drink it. I write shaky cursive letters to my children. I make lunch for Hank. I shuffle to the couch, I sit, I rise, and all through the day, the tumor begs me to sit, the tumor begs me to drop my head, the tumor begs me to cry out; but I am sustained by the fever, sustained by the fire. I look out and it is autumn and all the maples and sweet gums and hickories and butternuts and aspen have the colors of fire—and as I see the leaves fall, the beauty of the bare trees lifts me. Migrating geese fly.
So I rise, I rise.