The first time the county men knock we move east: away from the bedrooms, towards the shabby, sun-fronting den. The dogs follow. The men follow too, on the other side of the walls, their hands moving away the ivy and cupping against the foggy windows. They put an eye and sometimes an ear inside their circled fingers, as if the house were a seashell and we were the churning, restless ocean. The dogs thump and snort, their claws scraping at the murky floorboards. In the east end of the house the ceiling is rotted and blotched. Chunks of it fall down. At night, on our backs, we see the moonlight probing the dry spines of the house, sliding its fingers along the joints.
Every December the oldest one goes out through the northern door and returns with a Christmas tree. Every April we drag her dead tree through the southern door and leave it on the porch. They make a ghoulish row of pine corpses there, a mortuary of holidays. The county men come again. The dogs bark and snarl. The men rap on the door, stand back at a courteous distance, leave notices. They tape these notices on the front door, next to the dollar bills we have pasted there for good luck.
In the spring of the ninth year the weight of the trees on the porch makes the steps begin to sag and she goes out with a mallet and knocks them down. Now there are five perfect steps that drop off into space, into the yawning gap of the basement. Like a mouth with missing teeth. The county men come and peer down over the rim of the pit, trace its periphery with caution tape, paste more notices on the stairs. The notices flutter bannerlike in the wind. The house is an inverted fortress, with its white flags rustling over the cool dark jaw of the crater.
In winter we stoke the fire too high. The flames scorch the stones of the fireplace black, send sooty clouds up to the rafters. The rafters waver and split. Chunks of the ceiling fall down. We throw the chunks in the fireplace. Soon there are huge patches of sky where the ceiling used to be. The sun burns its way into the house, casts its tangled nests of light and heat onto the crumbling floorboards.
We are blazing the house open to the county men. Soon the walls and ceiling are gone, consumed by the fireplace. We are left adrift on an open plateau. Some of us begin to leave, quietly, at night, slinking off the collapsing boards and out onto the land. But she stays. It’s not theirs, she says. Make them fight. She warms herself by throwing the rest of the house into the fire: the splitting doors and the tattered curtains, the broken knobs and faucets that spit and hiss in the flames. The county men wait a polite interval before they surround the fallen house. They circle us with their gun barrels pointing, their boots shaking dirt over the lip of the crater.
We are building a plank. We lay the long board over the yawning gap of the crater. A plank for us to crawl along, a plank that will surrender us to the county men. But then she breaks away, unnoticed, and crawls into the fireplace that bears the last ashes of our dead house, the fireplace that spikes up like a rampart into nothing. She strikes a match. We turn away from the guns, away from the waiting faces of the county men, away from the whimpering hounds. Just in time to see her hunch in the tinder, her skirt alight, her hair smoking, her flaming skin merging with the bones of the house. Laughing.
Barbara Barrow is a fiction writer and literary critic who adores all things feminist, fabulist, and surreal. Her debut novel, The Quelling, will be published by Lanternfish Press in Sep. 2018. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, The Forge Literary Magazine, Cease, Cows, and elsewhere. Follow her online at barbarabarrow.com or on Twitter (https://twitter.com/dustyoldbagz).