I picked the title The Burning House for my new novel knowing there were other works out there with that title. For instance, Ann Beattie's magnificent short story from 1982, which meant so much to me as a younger writer. I read it again and again and never tired of its pitch-perfect ending, the kind of ending only Ann Beattie knows how to write. It's an ending that both lifts the story and revises everything that came before it, in effect calling upon us to ask, on the deepest level, what do we know? Then last night, I came across another Burning House, in Craig Morgan Teicher's brilliant and elliptical Cradle Book. It's funny to think of how my Burning House parallels Craig's, even though one is a novel and one is a compressed piece. The emotional alignments are there, and it would be fun as a student to write and think about the two of them in tandem. Even more compelling to think of all the verbal burning houses flung out at different places and times, all speaking in the darkest tongues to one another, whether they're aware of it or not.
The Burning House
Craig Morgan Teicher
from Cradle Book
He was outside chopping wood when the blaze took hold of the house. He was standing some hundred feet away--a safe distance, far enough to escape the flames--when the fire rose from within and began consuming the wooden walls and then the roof. He had his back to the house, busy with his work, and so he did not see or hear the first flames growing. No, by the time he turned around, it was already too late to save the house.
Of course, his wife was still inside. She had just closed her eyes for a late morning nap--she was tired and a little sick--and a fire had been set in the fireplace to warm her. When the fire seized on some straw nearby, then hungrily spread from rug to curtain to chair to wall, she was thick with sleep.
You may be wondering what he did next. Did he run into the burning house to save his wife, whom he loved as much as most husbands love most wives? Was he already too late? Perhaps, if he ran back inside, he would find his wife dead and he would die in that fire too. Did he run away? Did he drop his knees and wail onto heaven? Is it true, as is said, that a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush? Or, is it even possible that, beneath the inward cries of his dreams and fears, he was happy to be rid of his wife, finally free to choose a new life, a new name, a new fate?
These are all very pressing questions, and there are many more that could be asked. Perhaps, someday, we will find answers amongst the rubble.
But you may be wondering, too, whether now, while the fire rages, we should waste our time with questions. But if we fail to ask now, when will we? Isn't one of our houses always aflame?