Burning Garlands – Avra Margariti

Our nanny was a pyromaniac when we were younger. After our family car no longer stained the night with exhaust fumes, she would take my sisters and I by the hand, all of us like a garland of paper girls, linked together bigger to smaller.

“I will show you how it’s done,” our nanny would say, smile a conspiracy, a flash fire in the dark.

Her favorite lighter was ornate and silver as a wish. She was in high school, which to me felt like Ganymede.

“I will show you how to unleash the fire of you,” nanny promised. “How to nurture it.”

On nights of such promises, with her hand held in mine, I forgot to count how many sisters trailed behind me through our neighborhood. I forgot how bright, but also how readily, garlands of paper girls burn.

One sister I lost when she, like a little raccoon, convinced her twin to play hide-and-seek inside a dumpster bin with wheels painted olive green and gray with grime.

When our nanny set fire to our street’s dumpster with a flourish of her shadow-puppet hands, one sister clambered out burning, her cowlicked hair a scorching halo. While I huffed and used my favorite jacket to put out the flames, the other twin remained inside, lost among fresh ashes and the black sludge of rotting trash. Her flesh smelled inedible, like the results of our father’s barbecues.

Our nanny sighed, then used her own spit to mold the older twin’s ashes back into her former self. A makeshift golem, she was several centimeters shorter than she had been. Even as we dived inside the bin with flashlights and our own shoveled hands, we couldn’t scoop the rest of her out. It made the younger twin infinitely smug, despite her singed eyebrows.

“Your parents will never know,” our nanny assured the shrunken twin. “We’ll layer old newspaper in your shoes. Besides, you’re still growing. Think of it as another type of growing pain.”

When next we tried to burn our diary entries in a parking-lot bonfire, the youngest sister of us all stepped into the inferno, magnetized by sparks, smoke, mirrors. A little flame-elemental came out in her stead, dressed in her block-lettered, gel-inked secrets. Nanny said the changeling’s resemblance would do for now. So we held hands with our new sister of fire and brimstone, though first we made her wear garden gloves, notoriously bad heat conductors.

Another night, while we pranked the neighbors by setting their plastic lawn flamingos ablaze—viscous pink dripping like molten birthday cake—our nanny stared pensive at the sky.

“I have always wanted to be a flame-swallower, but I’m too busy being a nanny,” she confided in us, or the sky.

“It’s never too late to become a flame-swallower,” I said, wanting to please her. Wanting her to be pleased by me. So we each poured gasoline from stolen jugs down our throats. We held matches over our mouths, dangling like grapes or fishhooks. The sister snug in the middle of our girl garland said aaaah, mouth wide, uvula shining, as if she were at the dentist.

Soon we caught fire from within, dancing like runaway comets on the neighbors’ lawn, while our nanny held the fire extinguisher at the ready. When we started vomiting circus animals of red and orange, she painted diamond-white gowns for us with glistening foam.

We shed charred paper flakes in our wake, all the way home.

“Your parents won’t notice,” nanny promised, tucking us in. “They never do.”

She used tap water to paste our skin back together, papier-mâché creations of hard minerals. Once we went to sleep that night, we burped wisps of smoke, parched throats throbbing.

I didn’t mind. As the eldest, I was used to a thirst I could never name or quench.

“You need to take care of your sisters,” my parents said each night, even as nanny was scheduled to arrive any second. They never once looked in my direction.

So I let myself picture her and I were the parents instead, playing house with a doll mansion full of little paper daughters.

Our local newspaper warned about an arsonist at large, yet our parents never suspected the nanny. Or perhaps they did, but rationalized that self-immolating girls burn enough energy at night to be docile in the morning with no nanny to look after them.

I pictured her in the big high school on Ganymede, solving equations, penning essays. Her fingers in her pocket playing with her favorite lighter, cartographing the engraved silver. My eyes never managed to trace the letters. Determine if there was a secret dedication, her flame in the dark.

Next time we became garlands of girls, I vowed to steal that lighter for myself, place my thumbprint over hers, soot-staining the fogged silver.

I would swallow the flame directly from its source, hoping it would douse my thirst.

Avra Margariti

Avra Margariti is a queer author and poet from Greece. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Best Microfiction, and Best Small Fictions. You can find Avra on twitter (@avramargariti).

Share your thoughts

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.