The Fire Bringer

In sixth grade our class project was an interview prompted with questions like: Ask your grandparents what they remember about Pearl Harbor; Ask your parents what they did at your age; etc. I imagined my grandmother helping me build a story to enthrall my classmates, a scene existing somewhere between Laura Ingalls and The Waltons. So I asked her, Helen Sayre, of Crain Hill, Tennessee, “How did you meet Granddaddy?” I expected, Ah darlin’ we met at a dance. He walked me home. I expected a story interspersed with her own inquiries like, Sugar you want some cake while we talk? And You wanna see the first valentine your granddaddy made me?

Instead, she said, “There’s two kinds of men in the world. The ones that make you warm and the ones that keep you warm. If you plan on getting married and staying that way, Amy Jo, you’d do well to ponder the distinction.”

Thinking she did not understand, I repeated the question, “But how’d you meet Granddaddy?”

“Corn,” she said. “And a side of bacon.”

I laughed. She didn’t.

“This was the Depression,” she said. “The corn he brought was to burn. We’d had no proper wood for a month.” She paused, rested her face in her palm for a second. “Corn burns hot. My own father, your great-granddaddy was a college man. The one thing he never learned though was surviving hard times. Contrary to popular belief, books don’t burn well. King Lear won’t keep you warm in January when the chill off the river creeps in every crack and cranny. Your muscles ache from holding onto yourself so tight. Our good parlor furniture turned to ash quicker than kindling wood. Then here your granddaddy came up the road. That stride. Sack of gold pellets slung over his shoulder.”

“But was he cute,” I interrupted.

“Cute? Lord no.” she replied. “He was a man. Dark and stout as a bull.

“But what did he look like?” I asked with the intensity of having never seen the man I had known my whole twelve years on earth.

“Like he was built of plenty and God’s own bounty. He walked like a man with a place to be. He walked like that his whole life.”

“But what does that look like?” I asked.

“Like heat and food,” she said.

“I can’t write that. Tell me something real.”

We stared across generations at each other. But she would not build the romance I was longing to tell.

“Here’s real for you, honey. His people were Melungeons out of East Tennessee. They called themselves Portagees, but they were mixed folk trying to pass.” She paused. I quit taking notes.

“Tell me something else,” I said.

“He was rural. Heavy boots. Overalls pressed to a crease. Over-mannered in the way country people are trying so hard to prove the opposite. The rough rub of his hands against our China teacups made a hiss, like fat hitting the fire. What did he look like?” She laughed. “Like the end of a plague, we never even saw coming.”

Bacon fat? Plague?

“Seriously, Grandmother. This assignment is for a grade.” I said grade with the gravity that implied police intervention or social ruin if not completed to my satisfaction. I repeated questions pointing to the answers I wanted: What did you wear? When was your first date? Did he ask you to dances or to hay rack rides? I described events to her that I had seen in movies, convinced all old people participated in during their far away youth. I repeated questions until she lost patience.

“Child, I don’t know exactly when I met him. But that night, greasylipped from pork belly and the warmest I’d been since September, that night I decided to marry him.”

I wrote that down, then crossed it out and asked, “Do you remember anything about Pearl Harbor?”

Amy Sayre Baptista’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Butter, Alaska Quarterly Review, Sou’wester, and LUNA LUNA. She is a SAFTA fellow (2015), a CantoMundo fellow (2013), and a scholarship recipient to the Disquiet Literary Festival in Lisbon, Portugal (2011). She performs with Kale Soup for the Soul, a Portuguese-American artists collective, and is the co-founder of Plates&Poetry, a community table program focused on food and writing.