There's no sweeter stench than the scent of a burning baby.
Grace raced across the yard, her steps hastened by the cries upon the wind.
"Somebody help me," she cried. "My grandbaby's trapped inside the house."
She grabbed a large branch and began to beat against a window. It broke away and released a menacing gust of fire that licked the edges of her hair and sent her reeling backward in a choking fit.
The anguished cries from inside the house escaped through the broken pane, hanging upon the wind.
It was a wild and airy sound, a wailing that trailed off into a whirlwind of echoes. In the midst of the biting-cold night, the house was engulfed in a blizzard of flames.
Polo stood out front, drenched in sweat, flinging buckets of water. The fire became more savage with each bucket he threw. Grace found her footing again and began beating her house with another tree branch.
"Mama, it's not slowing down," Polo said, out of breath. "It's getting bigger. The water's making it worse."
"Just keep trying. It's got to be stopped."
The cries of the baby were deafening.
Polo threw away the bucket and grabbed a tree branch. He followed his mother's lead and began to swat at the fire.
Grace lifted her nose, catching the scent of the wind.
"Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God." She fell to her knees in exhaustion.
The haunting cry was like a lingering note in a dirge. Then it faded into the night and was never heard by Grace or Polo again.
Grace raised her head and listened to the sound as it waned. Silent tears fell onto the dusty earth. If not for the gentle shaking of her shoulders as she dropped her head into her hands, Polo would not have known she was crying.
"My grandbaby is dead."
Polo dropped on his knees in the dirt beside her, trying to make out her words as she sobbed into her soot-stained palms. He thought she was asking about his sister. He wrapped his arms around her in a tight embrace.
"Mama, Ophelia's all right," he said. "She's out there by them fir trees."
Ophelia stood in the shadows of the woods, watching the fire gut the house. In the dazzling glow of the flames, she had seen her mother and brother trying to get to the baby and calm the blaze.
Grace's sobs grew heavy as the soot from her hands now covered her face. Her long black satiny hair hung loose and tangled around her head. Polo held his mother close, rocking her in his arms.
The fire raged on before them, consuming the house.
"Mama, we couldn't do nuthin'," said Polo. "The baby was 'sleep when we went next door. It wasn't nothing burning in the house. The stove wasn't even on. The baby was 'sleep."
"How we gon' tell Ophelia about the baby?"
The look of terror and questioning in his mother's eyes frightened him.
"I think she already know. Look like she came from out by the barn. That's why she standing by them trees."
"What was she doing over there?" Grace asked. She was almost hysterical.
"I'on know, Mama. She always be in the barn." He rocked his mother faster. "She ain't crying or even coming over here to ask 'bout the baby. I'on know, maybe she in shock. I guess she already knows he's dead."
At those words, Grace fell onto her son's chest and began to cry again.
As the two held each other, the wooden porch collapsed, and the entire house folded in on itself.
Polo's girlfriend came running from across the field.
"I could see it from my house," she said. "I could see the flames just shooting up into the sky."
Polo ignored her, rocking his mother. Coolie ran next door to Polo's uncle's house for more water. She returned, hurling the bucket so hard, the entire thing flew into the flames.
"What are you doing?" Polo cried. "The house can't be saved, it's already gone."
"We gotta put the fire out," she said. She ran next door for more water. Her short, curly hair was sticking to her face and neck in sweaty ringlets, and her peach-colored skin was flushed from the heat. She ran closer to the house. The fire licked at her, rushing up the front of her skirt.
She screamed and danced around in a frenzy.
Polo let go of his mother and leaped upon his girlfriend, throwing her to the ground. The fire on her skirt was extinguished as they rolled in the dust. Smoke rose from the hem in a funky puff.
A car approached in the distance. Grace's husband, Big Daddy, sped toward them in his bright yellow '59 Ford. Before he had turned the engine off, Big Daddy and Grace's brother, Walter, were dashing out of the car, running to the house. Within seconds they realized there was nothing either of them could do to save it.
Big Daddy rushed over to Grace. Walter stood rooted, staring at the fantastic flames.
"What happened, baby?" Big Daddy said in his booming voice.
Grace's sobbing grew louder.
"We was all next door just sittin' around, like we've done a hundred times before. Hamlet was in there. We didn't want to disturb him since he was 'sleep. The next thing you know, it's this fire. My baby's little boy done died in there."
Big Daddy grabbed his head and dropped to his knees beside her. He wrapped his tree-trunk arms around her and released his muffled cries deep within the security of her shoulder.
Walter stood above them. "Ain't nuthin' we can do but let it burn out," he said. "It's too far gone now."
He wanted to hug and comfort his sister, but Big Daddy and his overpowering strength were in the way.
"Where's Ophelia?" Big Daddy asked, choking back tears.
He looked around for his daughter amid the fire and smoke. Polo and Coolie pointed in the direction of the trees. Big Daddy turned to see Ophelia facedown in the dirt, her hands digging deep into the earth. Her body was wracked with sobs as they all watched her, alone in her pain.
From the porch next door, Sukie looked out. She glanced at her husband, Walter, who was still staring down at Grace and Big Daddy. She looked at the burning house, now a frame shrouded in the brilliance of the fire. She noticed Ophelia in the thicket of trees, covered with dirt and leaves as she grieved in the darkness.
Sukie shook her head.
With a slow turn, she sucked her tongue and went into the house to mop up all the water Polo and Coolie had wasted.
Copyright © 2001 by Lolita Files