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  • Wren Boy
  • Rebecca McClanahan (bio)

Although my niece was the first to spot the smoke and set events in motion, when I tell the story, I never make it hers. We tell the stories we need to hear. Sometimes they grow to myth, and if any teacher ever told you that myth means not true, she was mistaken. Myths are the truest things we know, the shapes our lives are wrapped in.

So I always begin with “My nephew,” as if the story belonged only to him:

My nephew was playing with his big sister in the pasture outside the family farmhouse. He was only three, but she’d taught him the lessons her kindergarten teacher had taught, including the fire safety litany from last week: stop, drop, crawl. And when she spotted smoke at the edge of the field and dropped to the ground, yanking him down with her, my nephew knew what to do, and quickly they were both belly-flat and squirming across the pasture to the driveway, gravel pebbling their elbows and knees. No matter that the smoke was far in the distance. No matter that the sky stretched above them wide and blue. In their young minds, the world had shrunk to one flaming room, the ceiling snapped shut and doorknobs too hot to touch. They were crawling toward safety, to the farmhouse where my sister watched through [End Page 95] the kitchen window, wondering what crazy game her kids were playing now. When they finally reached the porch, their knees were bloodied, the soft pads of their hands scraped raw.

Their father told the story, too. Perhaps he’s still telling it, but where, and to whom? Storytelling came easily to my brother-in-law, the rhythm and pacing, the cigarette pause, the pull and drag, then a fresh exhalation from the Budweiser can as he popped open another, his head thrown back in laughter. The farm was still alive then, all of us a family, circling the bonfire or the long table whose center broke apart to accommodate yet another leaf, and another. If he is still telling the story—to some familiar stranger at a bar or in the unemployment line or along the highway as he stabs trash with a pointed stick to fulfill some judge’s decree—what truth remains at its center? On a scale of grown-up terror, the smoke in the field signaled nothing, really. Yes, the dropped cigarette had smoldered into flame, but he had extinguished the fire before it could spread.

But if he were to tell it that way, the drama would dissipate too early. Even now, all these years later, after all that’s been lost, my brother-in-law would know enough to enter the story at its center: the fear stampeding across his children’s chests, their small hearts thundering.

Over my desk is a quotation from Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending: “The future is called perhaps, which is the only possible thing to call the future. And the important thing is not to allow that to scare you.” I nod to the words each morning, after I’ve shaken out the nightmares in which my nephew stars: his hair is aflame like the Old Testament burning bush; he is opening his chest and plucking the violin strings of his heart; he is tumbling down a slick mountainside, his newly formed man’s body shrouded in the hooded towel we used to wrap him in after his bath. I reach out, but he is falling too fast and the shroud slides past my hands.

Does he still remember—no, he probably doesn’t, he was too young—that day when he came out of his room after his nap, dragging some stuffed, shapeless thing and rubbing his eyes?

“I don’t want any more mares,” he announced. “Night or day.”

I wondered if he’d dreamt of terrible horses, or if he’d simply taken [End Page 96] nightmare, dismantled its meaning and made it his own, the way he so often did. Like the day I took him to the park and we stood at the edge of the merry...