Read Those Who Favor Fire Online
Authors: Lauren Wolk
“I suppose we are,” he said, his eyes on his son. It was three days before he held his daughter for the first time.
Kit was six years old when his mother went sailing one evening and died in a storm. By the time he was ten he remembered very little about her except that she smelled like oranges.
Holly also remembered her dead mother. But she remembered more. She remembered her mother coming into her room each morning, gathering her up into soft arms, and carrying her down to the warm kitchen. It was where Holly spent her waking moments, watching her mother halve a dozen fragrant, heavy oranges, squeeze their frothy juice into a tall, iced glass, and place it on the table for her husband. It did not seem to bother Kay when Chad failed to comment on her thoughtfulness or even scolded her under the solemn gaze of their cook. “Just look at your hands,” he’d say, not touching them. “You look like a grocer.”
As long as her mother was alive, Holly knew she was much loved. She was not old enough to understand or fret about her disfigurement. When she looked in the mirror, she smiled and babbled and made faces like other children. When her mother tucked her into bed at night, Holly offered her cheek, usually the damaged one, for a kiss just like any other child. And when other children asked her how she’d come to have such a face, she was as unabashed as her brother was when asked how he’d purpled his thumbnail.
“It happened before I was born,” she always said, then went on to more important things.
It was Holly’s mother who taught her to love her crooked face, her
smallness, her weakness, her vulnerability. Her mother even managed to make Holly’s frequent illnesses enviable. She’d prepare elaborate picnics and carry them up to Holly’s bedroom, read her dozens of books, sing her hundreds of songs, lie next to her in bed and tell her about the hours before she and Kit had been born.
“There was lightning but no rain,” Kay remembered, “and at one point a full moon. And in the morning there was fog.”
Holly did not speak to anyone except Kit for weeks after her mother was killed. She was only six, but she suspected that her father didn’t like her very much. And although she had always adored her brother and thought that he loved her just as much (for he had always been a willing playmate, always been where she could find him, always called her “jolly Holly”), the weeks following their mother’s death had changed him, reordered him into a smaller version of their father, so that she felt she had lost her brother, too.
What Holly didn’t know about was the cruelty of strangers. Grade school taught her that. Had Kit been with her, things might have been different. But shortly after her mother died, her father sent her off to a boarding school for girls while Kit stayed home with his father and the people who were paid to tend them.
His mother and sister gone, Kit was lonely for the first time in his life. The huge house seemed to have become ugly, and the toys he had played with for years suddenly had the feel of dead things. But then his father took him to the Orient, Africa, the capitals of Europe, to islands of luxury bordered as much by starvation as by the sea. From his father, Kit learned that the world would never be the same for him as it was for most of its other billions. They would die far earlier than he would. They would be hungry, sick, unhappy, afraid. He would be fed, tended, indulged. “That doesn’t seem fair,” he said one day, shortly after he’d turned nine.
“Fair?” replied his father. “Who said anything about fair?”
When Kit was ten years old, he, too, was sent away to boarding school, where a hundred other boys all wore the same blinders with which he had been fitted and where the lessons his father had taught him were reflected in every eye.
It was here that Kit learned boredom, impatience, disrespect. Over the years, he learned how to threaten, how to charm, how, on rare occasions, to retreat. And when, home for his sixteenth birthday, Kit opened the door to his new forty-thousand-dollar sports car to find a
five-hundred-dollar prostitute inside, he learned yet another lesson about privilege and power: that there is little in this world that cannot be purchased.
By nearly any definition, Kit was a spoiled boy. But his attitudes were studied. They were something he practiced constantly and displayed openly, but they had not altogether penetrated the border of his skin. Under the watchful eye of his father, he learned how to do what was expected of him and to hide at all cost the reluctance—at odd times the rebellion—that fought to keep a fingerhold on his heart. He carried his vices like weapons, separate and apart. Not reluctantly, but not without misgivings.
It was therefore with a certain dread that he approached his father the day after his sixteenth birthday, alarmed at what he and the prostitute had done the night before and unsure of what to tell his father. Should he thank him? Should he slap him on the back? He often felt that he knew his father very well, but it was at times like this that his father, their lives, the very clothes they wore seemed indescribably alien.
“Father,” he said, sitting down to blueberry muffins and coffee. “Good morning.”
“Hmmm,” said his father with his cup to his mouth, a newspaper folded in his free hand, his eyes busy with finance. After a moment he glanced over at Kit, who gave him a careful, generic smile. “Is that all you’re having for breakfast?” Chad asked.
“I’m not very hungry,” Kit said.
This time, “Huh.” A sort of surprised grunt. A small leer. The closest Chad Barrows ever came to complicity or an admission that he had delivered up his son to a whore.
By the last days of May 1980 Kit had finished his junior year at Yale and thought he’d learned most of the things his father could teach him. He knew about finance—everything to do with money and how to make it. He knew about politics. He knew how to have things done, quickly and with little fuss, and how to make the world work to his advantage. He had accompanied his father often enough, listened to him always, watched him, copied him, come to know his colleagues and what they had to teach a young man just starting out. He had worked alongside his father, been scolded and, nearly as often,
praised. Together they had planned his future, imagined it, looked forward to it. Everything, for Kit, rolled smoothly along. Every promise, his father said, would come to pass. But then Kit arrived home a day early from college and found that the senior Barrows had been holding out on him.
It was actually Holly who taught Kit this lesson. He had been with her little since their childhood, for they were only at home together during holidays and summer months, which Holly spent in as much seclusion as she could manage. At eighteen, she had insisted on living, during her time at home, in the apartment over the carriage house in which they stored their automobiles, and Kit had taken care never to violate her privacy. And when Holly visited the main house for meals or rare conversation, Kit found her so changed from the small girl he’d known that he had little to say to her. She had become so withdrawn, so serious, so separate from everything that he considered important. While he spent his summers as his father’s apprentice, she spent her days sailing, or wandering in the woods, squandering her hours, scribbling in blank books, keeping her distance. While he welcomed every chance to ally himself with his father’s colleagues and to make for himself the beginnings of a name, she seemed content with her autonomy and her solitude. The occasions when she sought him out were usually as awkward as they were rare, and they always left Kit with the disturbing impression that he had somehow done her wrong.
She had seemed, as a child, such a good and eager companion that Kit sometimes wondered what had happened to change her so radically. But most of the time he did not think about her at all.
On the night of May 20, 1980, Kit arrived home from Yale for the summer, set to present his father with a 3.2 average and a brace of Maine lobsters. When he drove his car into the carriage house, he was surprised to find a strange car parked there. And when he pulled in alongside it and switched off the quiet engine, he was startled to hear music coming from the apartment overhead and then the uncommon sound of his sister laughing. He imagined that Holly had invited a friend to visit and was relieved to discover that she had one.
Feeling better and better, Kit gathered up his lobsters, and, leaving his luggage for others to negotiate, headed for the house.
A cluster of magnolias adorned the stretch of lawn between the carriage house and the main residence, and as their blossoms moved
in the breeze, the trees anointed the night air. They reminded him, suddenly, of his mother, who had planted them. This unsolicited memory unsettled him. It made him feel that closed doors should remain not simply closed, but locked.
Kit nearly walked right into his father.
“Good God, you startled me,” Kit said, offering his hand. “What are you doing out here? I meant to surprise you, and now you’ve spoiled it. Did you hear the car?”
“Kit,” said his father, leaning close. “Welcome home.” His eyes were not fully open. He stank of whiskey and filthy hair, and his hand in Kit’s was shaking. With overwhelming revulsion, Kit realized that the grass at his father’s feet was glazed with vomit. He was then astonished to see his father sit down in the wet grass and settle himself with a phlegmy sigh. Kit stepped carefully out of the soiled grass and crouched down next to his father.
“What are you doing out here?” he whispered. When Chad did not answer, Kit turned and looked where his father looked.
At first he saw nothing extraordinary. The night was quiet but for the waxy chafing of magnolia petals overhead and the lobsters who scrabbled mildly inside their bag. Then Kit looked up toward the widow’s walk that adorned the carriage-house roof. Holly stood there, drenched in lantern light. She was with a man. As he watched, they embraced each other.
For the rest of his life, Kit would remember the sight of his small, imperfect sister leaning tenderly against this man, both of them plain and harmless against the huge sky. But try as he might, he could not ever recall dropping the bag of lobsters, one part of him glad, another tempted to call out some objection to what he was witnessing. He could not remember saying anything, but he must have spoken, for his father suddenly turned to him and said, “Shut up, Kit. It’s none of our business.”
And suddenly Kit became truly alarmed, not because of the scene that was playing itself out on the carriage-house roof but because his father had chosen to watch it from the cover of the magnolia grove, drunk to the point of sickness, to the point of scolding him as if he were a child.
Kit didn’t understand what was happening. Only minutes before he’d been in his tiny car, hair flying, the air cool against his face, and everything had been as it should be.
“I’m going up to the house,” he said, but was again, momentarily, disoriented when he discovered the escape of his lobsters and realized that his father had gained his feet and was staggering off toward the carriage house.
“This way,” he said, grabbing his father’s arm and steering him toward the house, leaving the lobsters behind.
When they cleared the trees, Kit looked up at the night sky and saw the sugary, reddish fog that heralded fine weather. It brought the sky too near and made the vague, hidden shape of the moon look like a fresh bruise. And he did not breathe freely again until he had coaxed his father into the house, where everything was much as it had always been, and shut the door behind him.
When seventeen-year-old Rachel Hearn was voted prom queen at the end of her senior year of high school, a few of her more enthusiastic neighbors began to call her the Belle Haven Belle.
“Don’t,” she said to her father when he repeated this, laughing, his sleeves cuffed with garden dirt and peat. “It’s awful. Next person who calls me that is going to be sorry.”
“Oh, sure. Mr. Maxwell says, ‘Well, hey there, Rachel. How’s our Belle Haven Belle?’ You say, ‘Suck eggs,’ and kick his cane out from under him.” He chuckled at her.
“How would you like it?” She pressed the heels of her hands into the soft dirt around a young tomato plant.
“You’re going to kill that plant, Rachel.”
She dug her fingers down either side and gently lifted the dirt a bit. “You’d hate it,” she said.
“You’re a pretty girl.” He reached into a tray, gently combed apart the tangled roots of the seedlings.
“Thanks,” she said. “But I don’t like all that business. I don’t like to feel dumb, and that’s how I feel.”
“Nobody who knows you thinks you’re dumb, Rachel.” He set out the last of the tomatoes and started on the peppers. “You’ve got to remember that some people around here are getting a little bit worried about the fire. They feel like they’re living with a tiger. So they have a tendency, you see, to celebrate any lambs they come across. Anything good and certain. Presto!” He threw his hands into the air. “The Belle Haven Belle is born.”
Rachel tossed a clot of dirt at her father, which made him laugh some more. They planted seedlings for a while.
At the end of a row, Rachel’s father pushed himself up off his knees and stretched the cramp out of his back. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about going away in the fall.”
She looked up at him from under her hand, but he was backlit by sun and hard to see.
“Your mother and I are glad you’re going to college, and we know that you’re clever and you’ve got a lot of common sense and you’ll be just fine by yourself.” He picked up a watering can and gave the seedlings something to drink. “But you’ve never really been away from here, Rachel. We want you to be careful. You get into any sort of trouble, you just call us. Never be afraid to call us. No matter what’s gone wrong.”
Rachel’s throat hurt. “I won’t,” she said, coming to her feet, trampling a pepper plant on her way to him. His shirt against her face was hot with sun and work, and she was sure that she would remember the smell of it for the rest of her life.
Suzanne and Frederick Hearn knew that with a single word they could keep their daughter with them. “Stay,” they could say, and she would. She was happy enough with the chance to go to college and smart enough to see the need, but they knew she would choose them if they let her. They had therefore been the ones to insist that she leave.