Diaries: My Sister Who Died in the Fire

Photo by Craig Myran Photography (copied from Flickr)
Photo by Craig Myran Photography (copied from Flickr)

She died in a fire that happened last winter. How terribly strange I have thought, to burn in the cold. It was a snowstorm, but the snow fell light and slow and could not act as water does to subdue the inferno. I remember how that evening was bright, because the clouds were white and caked the sky from tip to tip. It felt like God had granted a night-light to guide me home. I was working the late shift to cover for a sick friend. Ordinarily I do not work at night, because my eyes have trouble seeing in the dark, even with my headlights on bright. But that night I drove home without straining to see the road. It felt like I was in a place unlike this world, and perhaps like another, in which a constant glowing comes when we need it. A world that cares for pain and fear. Where nature’s only instinct is to wrap its arms around us.

Since that night, I have lived my life by the sky. Living by, as in following the dictation of. The rule under. A slave to. This mastery, of course, is my own creation. I cannot say in full truth that I believe the sky acts like any man would, making threats and following through, or promising pleasures and delivering them in-hand. But I enjoy the belief that I am being told when, where, and how to act by some greater power. Perhaps because after she died in the fire, I have been unable to reckon with the fact that she led herself to the trailer before it burned down. Sat herself on the couch, became too tired, forgot about the kettle, and surrendered to sleep. And how she could have been anywhere else in the world.

My sister and I moved home in our mid-twenties because our father was sick. Living in the house we grew up in was too difficult, so we split a nice trailer with just enough room for us to be comfortable. We signed a lease for ten months, expecting a long and slow death. After only two months, our father died. I planned to move back to the city in the ninth month. The fire happened somewhere near the seventh.

The sky was bleeding tonight. Bleeding reds and blues and tangerine. I walked around the lake for an hour while the sun set. It felt very selfish when I would stop walking and watch the sky trying to understand how the colours above reflected so evenly into the water. The sun was no longer in the sky after the first half hour, but the clouds clung to their blush – a clinging I could understand and have felt before. The way we nervously grasp at warmth or love or money when we know it’s running out. “Please, don’t go,” the sky said to me, so I stayed despite the drop in the temperature. To keep my fingers warm I put them up to my lips, so that any time I breathed it would push warm air around them. After only a few breaths my hands were colder than before. A cold that sunk into my bones. I imagined the skeleton of my hands as dense icicles. With each breath the outside would melt, only to be frozen again, harder and colder. Farther from warmth. “Please,” the sky said again, “only a while longer.” I turned to leave but was hit by an invisible fright. A fear worse than any cold. I was certain, in my stomach, my heart, my head, that if I left when the sky told me to stay I would die. I had become so afraid of death. Each night I woke up and expected the roof to suddenly break and fall upon me. I have imagined the weight of the plaster, and I have imagined being unable to move or breathe. That same horrifying trap my sister must have felt in the trailer. So I returned to face the sky and the lake – to the reds, the blues, and the tangerines. The beautiful sky that I felt selfish for watching. Selfish perhaps because it was so beautiful, and that beauty made me feel better about myself and my life. Better about the world where my only given sibling was taken away. When I finally returned home it was very dark. I spent the rest of the evening in front of the fire trying to recreate the colours.

Everyone in the neighbourhood was struck by the event. They filed out from their trailers, many unknowing there had been a fire and that it had been burning for hours. They followed the smoke to the site. By the time they huddled just far enough so the flames could not hurt them, the fire stopped and the structure of the trailer was black and frail. Snow still came down, and the flakes which fell on the trailer turned to water and made the soot shine like oil.

I was one of the last from the neighbourhood to come upon the scene. Since the sky was so bright and kind, I allowed myself to enjoy the ride home from work. At one point along the highway, I pulled to the side of the road and lay in the snow. Looking up, catching snowflakes on my eyelashes, I was certain life was inherently good, and that it would be good to me.

I cut her obituary out of the newspaper, not knowing what to do with the clipping. I would keep it. I had to keep it. Doesn’t everyone in mourning need a record of those they lost? If not for the sake of truth, then as a reminder they are dead. I once heard someone say that to save an obituary is to make a loved one die. Without that piece of paper they are allowed to live in heaven, the dust of them floating through the air, smiling, watching, laughing, crying. All the things we do.

I read her obituary, then I read her diaries from high school. They were still hidden under her bed at the house we grew up in. On the bottom of a green box with stars on the lid. There was such a striking divide between my sister in the obituary and my sister in these notebooks. The difference made me sad – not because one depiction was bad and the other good, but because there was so much to her. It reminded me of looking at the two sides of the sky, and being able to see where one part begins to end, but does not. It only transitions to new textures, new shades, until you are looking at something completely different, but within the same sky. What magic, I thought, sitting in the house we grew up in. Her notebooks on my lap.

A junk truck came from the city to haul away the debris from the fire. The trailer never looked so small. Almost like a dollhouse that had been ruined by naughty girls at play. After everything was gone right down to the floorboards, I walked the small perimeter of where the rectangular trailer once sat. This is the living room, I said to myself, passing the far side where I could see the neighbour’s lemon tree and plastic swimming pool. This is my bed. This is hers. We keep the remote here. We keep the tequila there. This is where we brush our teeth.

My neighbour, not the one with the lemon tree but the one to the other side, told me there is nothing we can do with suffering except to suffer it.

The sky was bright for a very long time immediately after her death. It was a terrible cruelty to see the sun melt away the ice and snow. Then to watch as the ground cleared way for sprouting buds and flowers and bright yellow lemons on the lemon tree. And the clear days were followed by clear nights. I kept with me the feeling that her death had been a type of sacrifice for the world. That because of her, we could see the stars at night and trust the perennial sage to flush purple like springs before. I was deathly afraid I would be next, until the first April rain caught the town in a fog for six full days. The weather has changed very much since the initial grief. It has been bad and it has been good. The sky sometimes shines and on other days is dim. Now, a little over a year passed, I still look upward for a command, and I feel the world is telling me to move forward and forget. But I have kept the clipping of her death, although I know it means each time I look at the paper I kill her once more. I do not know why I keep it, and look at it so often. Perhaps because I am forced every day to live under the sky, hoping one day to discover something fair that will make it all easier. I think I catch it some evenings, that glimpse of an answer – a tiding of reassurance that her death was not life rearing its hammer. In these moments I am hopeful and safe, but then as quickly as it came it changes with the light. The colours blend, are pushed to the lid of the sky, fading from coral to pink then to nothing at all.

Jahla Seppanen

About Jahla Seppanen

Jahla Seppanen was born and raised off the grid in Madrid, New Mexico, USA. She received her BA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Last year she completed her first novel. Jahla enjoys Puerto Rican rum and listening to the Ramones. Her stories have been published in Fourteen Hills, The Bookends Review, Niche, Used Gravitrons, and Turk’s Head Review.

Jahla Seppanen was born and raised off the grid in Madrid, New Mexico, USA. She received her BA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Last year she completed her first novel. Jahla enjoys Puerto Rican rum and listening to the Ramones. Her stories have been published in Fourteen Hills, The Bookends Review, Niche, Used Gravitrons, and Turk’s Head Review.

Leave a Comment