The Not So Sacred Fire

Holy Fire Hazard

By Laura Schiller

It happened on my eighteenth birthday, which, now that I think about it, does not reflect very well on my level of maturity. If I were superstitious, I'd see it as a very bad omen. But really, I shouldn't be worried – this sort of thing happens to me all the time.

"Good morning," said my mother, looking up from her crossword puzzle (which she is oddly addicted to). "Happy birthday."

I received a hug, a bunch of flowers, and a card in short succession. The card showed a duck swimming in a clear blue lake and the message 'Swim proud and free' , handwritten by Mom (Sometimes I worry that reading too many years' worth of Hallmark kitsch is rubbing off on her) and signed by both my parents. If anyone needs to be told to 'swim proud and free', it would be my clumsy, insecure, overly dependent self – so the card was really very appropriate.

I had pie for breakfast, an indulgence I give in to only once a year. I had asked for an apple pie, which is why I was surprised – but not displeased – when I found several strawberries among the filling as well as apples.

"What are those doing in there?" I asked. "Not that I mind. It tastes great."

"Oh, they had to go," said Mom.

Whenever Mom says a certain food item in our kitchen 'has to go', it ends up becoming part of a culinary masterpiece – and that cake was no exception.

Suddenly I remembered something missing, dashed up the stairs and, after braving the wilds of my dust-infested, messy hole of a closet, came back with a slim white cardboard box. It contained the candle I had received at my baptism a few months ago (Yes, I'm a recent convert to Christianity. At my age too.), which the minister had suggested I light on my birthday to remind myself of certain spiritual truths. I placed it in a holder on the breakfast table and Mom lit it for me; it was a beautiful thing, tall and white, and gave me a warm fuzzy feeling to look at even though it also made me nervous.

The thing is, I'm a little pyrophobic – anything hot and fiery makes me uneasy. Flames, open ovens, even spicy food – you name it. I can't even strike a match; I mean, the sizzling noise it makes and the way that flame suddenly pops out is scary! But it's so beautiful I can't help looking at it – therefore, fire and I have always had a sort of love-hate relationship.

Anyway, birthday or not, symbolic candle or not, I wanted my breakfast and I wanted the comics and advice column from the newspaper. Both at the same time, as usual. I dug up the comics at the bottom of the newspaper pile Dad always scatters on the table and blissfully, carelessly, began to eat and read.

The first thing I noticed was a tiny crackling noise. Then a little puff of heat. A scorching smell. Then just as I had got to the overworked husband's letter in Annie's Mailbox, I looked up.

The top right corner of the paper was on fire!

I gasped.

I stared.

I coldn't move.

It was the deer-in-the headlights phenomenon. Do something! my brain screamed. Put it down! No, the tablecloth will catch fire too! Grab the teapot, the milk jug! Anything! I simply couldn't – I might as well have been turned to stone.

Suddenly the chair opposite me moved back; there was an irritated sigh and the smoldering sheet was plucked from my hands. I fell back into my chair, limp with relief.

My mother strode into the kitchen with the thing in her outstretched hand, tossed it into the sink and doused it with cold water. I followed her and had a glimpse of some charred black scraps of paper breaking off at one corner.

"Too bad," I said wistfully. "I wasn't even finished yet."

Mom sighed and shook her head. "You're not exactly an emergency person, are you?" she remarked wryly.

"No." (And that wasn't even a real emergency. Heaven help me if I'm ever in one of those.)

"Must you commit the most famous cliché of absentminded people?"

"I didn't do it on purpose!"

And in my defense, I could also have said – though it didn't occur to me at the time – that my absentmindedness is the fault of her genes. That time she forgot her purse at the cinema is a family joke.

Suddenly I saw the funny side of the story and burst out laughing. Mom grinned at me, I blew out the candle, and the rest of my birthday went off beautifully and without incident.

The way I see it, this story – which is quite true except for some changes in the wording of the dialogue – has two things to tell us.

Number one: Becoming eighteen doesn't mean you can't make a fool of yourself.

Number two: Even sacred fires should be handled with care.