‘This is not necessarily a ‘light’ read, but if you’re interested in beautifully written literary fiction, are interested in people and what shapes them to become who they are, or even just want to read something that is structurally interesting in terms of how it all fits together, then I highly, highly recommend The Ripening!’ – Goodreads Review (John Wigglesworth)
Tillie was in bed, drifting off to sleep, holding onto Bleek. The dogs started barking, the sound reverberating off the window and waking her. The dogs were always chasing things in the night—images from their dreams. She drifted off again.
Then she was awake. Wide awake. She heard someone pounding on the door downstairs, and a man shouted, “For Christ’s sake woman, don’t you know your house is on fire?”
Mama shrieked, “Dad, get Tillie.”
Heavy boots sounded on the kitchen floor. The screen door squeaked and slammed shut several times. Another unfamiliar voice shouted, “We need lots of water. Alan, start pumping. Lloyd, start a bucket brigade. Murray, get the goddamn hose!”
Tillie could smell smoke, and it scared her. Headlights leaped across the bedroom wall, chasing the dark away, and tires ground on gravel. Cars pulled into the yard. Their doors slammed. More shouts. Voices yelling. She couldn’t understand what they were saying.
Tillie wanted to sleep again, but the door opened, and smoke float- ed into the room. Her grandpa stood there, coughing, a halo of light surrounding him. He was wearing only his dark trousers and white undershirt. The black suspenders cut into his shoulder, his gray hair stood straight up like a rooster’s comb, and his eyes bulged, red crowding out the white. He said, “Get out. We don’t have time to waste.”
Tillie held back. All the rooms she had lived in since she was born marched in front of her. One had no windows—only a grimy skylight. Another had cockroaches. They crawled out of every crack. None of these places ever felt like a real home. Not until she and her mama had moved to the house on Harold’s farm that Tillie had grown to love, especially its big pantry. Shelves were filled with sealers of food she had helped to can: chickens, beets, dill pickles, beans, and sauerkraut. They never needed to worry about going hungry here.
Tillie didn’t want to lose all of this.
Grandpa said, “Get a move on!”
She dove under her pillow, grabbed Bleek, and followed her grandpa. The smoke was getting thick now, and she coughed, waving her arms around, trying to push it away. Grandpa stopped in the kitchen and grabbed Rich from Mama. Then he took the kids to the car and put them inside it. He said, “You two wait here. Don’t leave till I come get you!”
They both stared out the car windows, screaming. Smoke hung over everything. Harold appeared suddenly and then floated into the house on a wave of smoke. Mama flickered in and out of view, still wearing her bathrobe and slippers. In the barn, the cattle kicked against the walls. And the chickens screeched louder than when Tillie had accidently ridden Smokey into the hen house. The dogs crouched at the edge of the yard and barked constantly.
Neighbor men and women rushed into the house and grabbed clothes, dishes, and furniture. They dropped them in the yard and went back for more. The flames now were lashing out and taking large bites from the roof. It looked like a dragon was attacking the place. Sparks sent shooting stars into the night sky, but Tillie couldn’t tear her eyes away from the fire. The flames changed shape, reminding her of clouds and all the images they made. It was beautiful. Though she was screeching, and tears ran down her face, the scene thrilled her.
Then the fire was over, and Tillie didn’t feel excited any longer. The flames had swallowed the house, not leaving much behind. Just some charred clumps. Rich had fallen asleep, but Tillie couldn’t stop staring, waiting for their house to appear again.
Smoke still filled the night sky, and its smell was everywhere. It followed them for months. Everything they rescued stank like smoke. Tillie felt as if she’d been roasted over a fire. It took a long time to get over the shock of seeing their home destroyed and how quickly things can change.
She has published poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction in over 165 venues. She also has published three novels: Fling! (2015), Curva Peligrosa, (2017), and Freefall: A Divine Comedy (2019). A sequel to Freefall, The Ripening: A Canadian Girl Grows Up, will come out in October 2021. Her poetry collection All This was published in 2011, and her poetry chapbook No More Kings in 2020. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco’s Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning and blogs at http://lilyionamackenzie.com.
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