Fear and Fire

Etti Hazan

© Copyright 2021 by Etti Hazan

Photo of a grease fire in a pan.

I had neither seen nor smelled the fire. I knew it had been there, because I had been told about it. The woman had survived, but her cat had not.

Iíd been told about it when I came home for a school break. I had been attending school in other cities and countries from the age of seven.

In the first hours of my return, our apartment embraced me in its remote familiarity. I opened and closed drawers, prowled the rooms for new books and magazines.

It happened across the street, but the next building over. So our building was not affected in any way.

There was a certain newness to being home, a feeling that lasted half a day or slightly more. The baby had to get to know me again. 

I sat on my bed and felt the bounce in the mattress.
Inspected my junk drawer to make sure nothing was missing.

My parents and younger siblings filled me in on all I had missed. There had been a fire across the street, they told me. I have a new Lego set, my brother enthused. My motherís preschool had hired a new teacher. Two of my siblings would be flying in the next day. There were newly printed photos to go through. 

So much information; one bit stuck. There had been a fire. I didnít notice it creeping up, its tentacles engulfing my brain, silently warning me of a new and present danger: FIRE.

A new fear that was never voiced or consciously acknowledged but made itself known to me alone.

It manifested itself, over the following period, as a silent terror I would live with for months, a year.

My mother would often leave a pot or pan on the stove unattended as she cared for us, hung the laundry out on the porch to dry, answered the phone to counsel someone, welcomed visitors, put her feet up, all the mundane activities related to raising a large family while also holding a communal role.

But see, the pots and pans were no longer unattended, because I attended to them. I quietly walked past the kitchen every few minutes, making sure the flames were where they should be, underneath the pots and nowhere else.

When food sizzled in a pan, I checked more frequently. When liquid in a pot boiled and threatened to spill over, I sought reinforcements before a disaster could occur.

It was a critical job, one had to be on guard at all times.

On the Sabbath,  when the flames were covered for the duration of the holy day, I had to peer under the sheet of metal to check on them. I had to save us from the fire, it was only a matter of time before it happened.

After the break, I flew back to Israel. 

My cousins were independent and often cooked their own food. My cousin R. taught me how to fry an egg, but I no longer lit the flame under the fire pan. R. had to do it for me as I stood in the doorway and flinched. 

My auntís dairy stove was especially treacherous to use with my newly developed fear, because it consisted of an independent double gas burner that was placed on the countertop, a typical Israeli space saving technique.

R. lit the flame, I fried my egg and stood watch. My aunt cooked and I stood watch.

Months later I was home again.

As I walked past the kitchen in my eternal vigilantism, some oil on the side of the pan caught on fire, causing the flame to shoot up a few inches.

ďFIRE!!!Ē - I yelled.

I was vindicated, my hard work had paid off, I wasnít crazy, there was a fire.

My mom came running from her room where she was on a long distance call. She turned the knob and moved the pan. The fire was gone and my mom had interrupted an expensive phone call, for this.

Time passed, and fear turned into fascination.

I was home for summer vacation, and the proverbial time to burn took on a literal meaning.

I pulled out the stubs from the shabbat candles, grabbed a match and watched as the wax melted. I learned how to make the match last longer, how to roll all the wax into a giant ball.  I burned paper and plant shavings from the porch.

Then I started burning lego, and my mom put her foot down as the awful smell of burning plastic wafted down our long hallway.

I was banned from the matches and my fear and fascination faded, making room for new adventures.

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