Firechild’s Self-Portrait / Cassie Hottenstein

Summer arrived like clockwork: every June, the bright heat would check its watch and settle among vacant Latta, lying across the town’s acres of woods and weeds. The sun stretched high and long, dipping its fingers down to stroke the tips of the tall, yellowed grass. After buses delivered the last sweating students, Latta would instantly fall asleep, preferring to doze away the season in the sun.

I preferred the freedom, the loneliness. I’d exit the bus and wander for miles, tasting sand and sunlight and ruining dinner. To the birds, my name was “Bob White,” which they called long after sunset. I laughed in their faces and never answered. I was trying to find a way to capture the light, to burn away cold night into endless summer. Latta grew thirsty—dry season—and I was going to set it aflame.

Summer was my favorite season; my least favorite was winter, who screamed white until I went blind. I’d wipe the slushy snowfall off my glasses to see an overcast grey looming like nightmares over the trees. Somehow, Latta appreciated the snow, its novelty, sending droves of southern children in dripping denim toppling down hills of ice, laughing until they coughed, candy pink. I never lasted long outdoors during winter, blowing on my hands in front of the patio door, stomping my feet on the welcome mat before entering the welcoming warmth of indoors. I loathed my soggy jeans, my useless mittens, and my frozen hair hanging limp and brown against my corpse-grey cheeks, like I was drowned.

Summer was the perfect time to bottle warmth, to burn away the cold season in a gush of smoke. So I built bonfires, each more imaginary than the last, after Dad put a lock on the gas can. I tried to catch the sun in my glasses, but never made more than a spark. I sacrificed leaves to the thoughts in my head, mimicking their splutters and screams, my voice echoing across the forest. Latta never woke, but the bobwhite quails would hold their breath, watching, wings ready. My shadow stretched like a blindfold over my leafy victims, longer and longer, the sun reaching higher, but never was I satisfied.

I performed daily summer transformations: the edges of my once-brown hair curled and glowed like living embers streaking red in a mound of murky earth. I shone in the sun, charred freckles licking over my skin. But at night, wrapped in a comforter in front of the window screen, I cooled, flame low. Now the birds had my attention: “Bob White,” they trilled at my moon-pale skin, “Bob White,” nodding at the orangeless girl waiting in the dark. Failure was my lullaby. Despite my best attempts, Latta’s summer was bound to end, to give way to wet winter, to drowning.

One morning, my parents drove me past the woods and yellow weeds to a crumbling eco-center hidden on the outskirts of Latta. “Photography Camp.” There were some of my snoozing schoolmates, attempting to catch summer sleep in the metal chairs. No luck. A ranger passed out disposable drugstore cameras and led us along the hiking trails.

There was nothing I hadn’t seen before; I dutifully captured pictures of trees and their hanging leaves. My schoolmates turned on the flash and aimed at each other’s eyes. Every once in a while, the ranger would lower his camera and raise his binoculars, considering the bobwhites at a safe distance. The breeze blew the glowing coals of my hair—in the day, hiding behind the ranger, I was safe from the birds’ jeers.

Then the ranger gave us a surprise: a concrete dam rerouting a river away from the trails. My schoolmates slid down the jagged face, flash first, finding energy beyond their summer sleepiness. I stared at the pooling water below, at the frizz of embers igniting my hair, the orange sun haloing my grubby face. A messy firechild clutching a cardboard camera, here I was, in the water:

“Bob White.” A winter corpse, unfit to coax out an eternal flame.

The dam’s spray distorted my face, deflected the heat of the sun behind me. We were almost snuffed out. The birds recognized this weakness, and continued their chant.

“Bob White, Bob White.”

The sun bobbed back and forth, tapping my reflection on the shoulder. Look up.

“Bob White.”

Above the birds, above the branches, I craned my neck, there, the sun pressing heat against my face. It twinkled in and out of vision, peeking through the topmost leaves, swaying slightly. I raised my camera, growing hot in my hands, and pressed the viewfinder against my glasses.

“Bob White.”

My sight turned pink.

#

The stretched summer days pulled too far, and began wearing thin. Night grew cooler, came earlier. Latta turned in its sleep, green to brown, the woods dropping bare. There were plenty of dry leaves, but most lay unsacrificed as preperations for the new school year began.

The drugstore turned my camera into a thick pack of photographs. One short afternoon, I flipped through the glossy paper, nodding acknowledgement at the reproduced close-ups of trunks and branches and ranger-approved subjects. One pictured the gushing dam, a frozen frame of water rushing white towards the lens, the sun glistening off the spray.

I squinted closely at the next picture in the packet, my vision instinctively turning pink. Here it was, undistorted, burning freely in my hands: the sun. Framed by the highest branches, it fingered the nearest leaves, setting fire and blurring them to shadow. I’d done it. This paper, which I half expected to crumble to ash, was the fuel for my eternal flame. That night, I opened the window despite the coolness, and laughed at the bobwhites freely. Latta sighed in return.

Like clockwork, summer prepared to leave the same way it came. The bright heat packed away and left plump grey clouds hanging behind. The seasons changed per usual.

I found change in my new orangeness. My summer freckles made permanent charring across my skin. My hair curled into embers, discarding twiggy brown for a permanent flushing red. Latta woke: I fanned fires, real, physical flames at town-wide autumn cookouts. The bobwhite quails lay quiet as Latta’s citizens sacrificed meat to the flames, then fished out dripping morsels thick with fat. The smell of smoke and grease carried for miles, over the acres and acres of weeds, and staved off winter a little while longer, melting at the outskirts of town. On the way home, I would sleep in the backseat of my parents’ car, red hair smelling of ash.

I slept peacefully, a bed of live coals, waiting, planning for the day that the school bus would again deliver me to the real sun, the thwarted birds. The photograph found its place in my bedroom, stuck in the crease of my mirror. There was my true reflection, self-portrait: a firechild, reborn.

Latta is aflame.

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