On the day my grandmother started a fire in the kitchen, she talked of holding, which she had been doing for some time. The dispatcher asked my mother if she was sure it was an emergency. It was the morning after New Year’s; the fire station was shorthanded, and the address my mother gave was at least half an hour away. My grandmother sat in her wheelchair and played with the snow under her slip- pers. She clicked her false front teeth in and out of her mouth. When I tried to flag down the fire engine from the nearest road, she hugged me and wouldn’t let go.
On the day my grandmother started a fire, she talked of holding, which she had been doing for some time. She had turned eighty-two in June and had developed a habit of launching into sentences untethered from anything that had gone before. For about a year, she talked of the importance of holding. The left side of her body had been debilitated by a stroke and was wasted and thin. Before the stroke, she had worked a farm her whole adult life. On some days, the right side of her body contained incredible strength; on others, she was helpless. It was hard to say what accounted for the difference. She could move her left arm but had no strength in the hand, couldn’t lift anything with it. She liked to make a joke of it, called it ダメ田・ダメ太郎, a name like “Baddy McBadface,” gave it a voice, a child’s whine, when she would lecture it on the need for grip, the importance of holding. Before the stroke, she was cabled in muscle, drove crated cucumbers and dried persimmons in the back of her white van down mountain roads in every weather, taking the banked corners like a race car driver, hardly slowing down.
On the day my grandmother started a fire in the kitchen, the dispatcher asked my mother if she was sure it was an emergency. The smoke started when a pot boiled down to nothing and sparked into flame. Soon it was in the grease clad- ding the ceiling and the tops of the walls, and there was nothing to be done. The kitchen had been recently remodeled, but the house was older than my mother, and there were no alarms. It was the morning after New Year’s, and my grand- mother had wanted to make お雑煮, a sweet soup that had been my favorite as a child of three or four. We’d started buying fancy crates of premade おせち ever since my grandmother’s stroke. The food was for New Year’s, but the leftovers lasted for days.
The prospect of an accident at the house had loomed like smoke for years. We questioned how long my grandmother could last in this farmhouse on her own, even with the home health aides that insurance paid for three days a week and the neighbors that left gifts of leftover stew on the doorstep, when we lived so far away and could only visit so often. On the morning after New Year’s, out in the snow, as we watched smoke pour from the windows, the kitchen lit from inside like a lantern, I realized that my grandmother was untethered in time, that her strange asides were missives from years I didn’t know. We waited for what felt like hours for the fire engine to come, but it was only thirty minutes. From time to time, neighbors came by to stare mutely at the house and couldn’t seem to leave.
On the day my grandmother sparked the fire, she had been talking of holding for some time, maybe about a year. She had turned eighty-two and had developed a habit of launching into sentences unconnected to anything that had gone before. She said that a child of three or four must be held against the chest, never led by the hand. She inserted this information into conversations about groceries, the progress of the bypass construction over the valley, the unending hold of the Liberal Democratic Party over national politics. On TV, she categorized the drones of various taxi engines, semitrucks, and bullet trains by aircraft type: Sikorsky. Mustang. B-29s flying high, unloaded. In a crowd, when people pack so close together it hurts, if you lead a child by the hand, you’ll be forced to lose them. This is what she said: even bones burn blue. In cars, in supermarket parking lots, my parents had started discussing an arrangement that my mother insisted on calling “apartment living”: a building in the nearest city where every bed had an alarm button and nurses would check in at least twice a day.
She wanted to make お雑煮 the morning after New Year’s as a way of proving she was still capable, that she was worthy of independence. She shooed us out of the kitchen when we offered to help. The kitchen had been recently remodeled with a raised floor so she could sit in her wheelchair and still see into the pot, but the walls and ceiling were older than my mother, and there were no alarms. Where my grandparents are from, お雑煮 is a sweet soup with mochi and a base of azuki beans. The beans have to be boiled for almost two hours. Maybe she lost those hours or added too little water. Maybe she forgot to add any water at all.
My grandmother, on the morning after New Year’s, sparked a fire in the kitchen that burned for some time, maybe for hours. She was eighty-two and untethered from years: on some days, she was as strong as anyone; on others, she was lost. There was no accounting for the difference. In her youth, she coiled red ropes around her back and arms and sang work songs in the mud, plunged seedlings in neat rows with her cloth-covered hands. The songs were about the old myths, when the land was dew falling into the ocean off the point of a spear. Before that, she was a child in Osaka running from flames. She had lived in mud atop the embers of her house in a neighborhood flattened by bombs. After that, she fled to farmland. She developed a habit of unhooking her front teeth from her mouth in moments of anxiousness. They were a bridge and never seemed to fit right. She had operated the winch when my grandparents pulled raw lumber up the mountain to build the farmhouse before my mother was born. A steel hook had come untethered from bark and snapped the coiled cable like a whip. She lost three teeth and bled all over the back of a motorcycle on the long ride to the hospital. She liked to make a joke of the false set, called the ダメ田・ダメ太郎, a name like “Baddy McBadface,” gave them a voice, a child’s whine, in her grip.
On the day my grandmother started a fire in the kitchen, she talked of holding, a real emergency, until there was nothing to be done. The fire station was short- handed, and the address my mother gave was at least half an hour away. We smelled the sugar burning and then the grease. We found my grandmother in the bathroom at the other end of the hall. Outside, the neighbors crowded and crowded in around us. My grandmother sat in her wheelchair and played with the snow under her slippers. Her mood was untethered, like a child’s. After what felt like hours but was only thirty minutes, the fire truck climbed the nearest road, its engine droning, flying low, under heavy load. The flashing lights turned the house red, then blue. I tried to meet it, but my grandmother hugged me and wouldn’t let go. “A child of three or four,” she said. The child was her. Her eyes were terror. Her hands were hooks. There was nothing to be done. The past gripped her and then released her.
“I know I can’t live out here,” she said, her slippers in snow. She was as strong as anyone.
From “House Fire” by Gen Del Raye. Used with permission of the publisher, The Gettysburg Review, Volume 34, Number 3. Copyright © 2023 by Gen Del Raye.