Extracts torn from forgotten books
Fire is Life
by Matthew Stott
The Fire is Good. The Fire is Life.
Dorothy was chosen to die when she was barely a full day old. Her parents had recounted the story of her choosing many times to her over the years. All of the babies born within the allotted time were gathered in one room so the Leader could find the special one. That is to say that all of the female newborns were gathered, as of course boys were not eligible for the fire. On this occasion there were three tiny, wailing girls to choose from. The parents gathered and waited and offered their good lucks to each other, whilst in reality they wished it only for themselves. To have their daughter chosen for the fire, well, there could be no greater honour on the Island.
‘Jean has the flame on her,’ said Leela, Jean’s Mother, proudly. ‘Look, look just here.’ She lifted the blanket from her slumbering child to let the other parents see the red smear that shone out on her chubby and otherwise pale left leg. ‘That’s a sign if ever I saw one. Born for the fire she is, I just know it!’
The other parents nodded and offered their congratulations, and then chattered behind the Mothers back, whispered that to their eyes it was more an indistinct smudge than a flame. ‘She’s clutching at straws that one. Deluded herself. I’ve seen it happen. Sad really,’ said one of the three father’s present.
This was the second time Leela and her husband had found a child of theirs in the running for selection. This was, as far as people could tell from the available records that ran back 143 years, unique in Island history. Leela’s first daughter had been one of two eligible girls that day, three years ago, and had not been chosen. It was obvious that this second chance mattered to Leela to a somewhat fevered degree.
Dorothy’s own parents were named Maya and Howe, and she was their first child. To have your first-born be in contention was seen as being doubly blessed.
The gathered parents waited for hours, Leela having sudden giddy bouts of joy that had irritated Maya increasingly. At last, as it began to darken outside, the Leader entered and even Leela fell silent and still.
He wore black robes covered in twigs. His hands and arms, up to the elbows, were painted a dull red. A hand carved mask depicting a hugely smiling Sun, wooden flames wiggling out all around its circumference, was pulled over his face. He said nothing to the parents as he entered, either by way of greeting or to explain what would happen next. The parents instinctively stepped back as far as the small room would allow, some holding each other, some on their knees, arms reaching for the heavens. Maya says she was one of those who dropped to their knees, though Howe remembers it differently.
The Leader stepped from one cradle to the next, his breath heavy, rasping against the wooden mask. As he came to Leela’s child, he reached out one large hand and traced the outline of the red birthmark. He lifted the child before his face, moving her closer, breathing her in. Maya had been sure that all was lost. The Leader had made his choice; perhaps Leela had been right about that birthmark after all. But the Leader placed the child back in its cradle, and without turning to look at her, plucked Dorothy from her crib with one hand and turned to face the gathered parents, holding her aloft.
‘She is our saviour,’ he said. ‘The fire will know her. The fire will consume her. The fire shall become her. The fire is good.’
‘The fire is life,’ replied Maya and Howe, openly weeping tears of deep joy.
Howe says Leela collapsed and her husband took her from the room. She wasn’t right for the next year, before seeming to snap out of it. Against all odds she found herself with a third daughter in contention for the flame, and that time, up against five others no less, Leela’s offspring was chosen to burn. The girl’s name was Nula and she was to burn two years after Dorothy. Nula was not altogether right, but we’ll get on to her a little later.
The night Dorothy was chosen by the Leader there was an Island-wide party, as there always was in honour of the newly chosen. Music was played in every corner, meat was roasted on open fires, and people danced and cheered and drank far too much.
As the Sun finally rose again, to cheers and drunken hollers, the other Girls of the Flame, dressed in their simple white robes and veils, descended from the school. They wound through the roads like a divine snake, to stand in front of Dorothy’s crib and welcome her officially as one of them. Their teacher and guardian, Ana, took Dorothy in her arms and carried her away from her proud parents. Carried her through the streets and towards what would be her home for the next sixteen years. For the entirety of her short, blessed life.
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