Then everything tasted burnt and Mary stopped eating. Her parents noticed, but when they tried to talk to her, she said, "Don't worry about it. I'm dead."
That night while her parents were eating little white flowers in their salads and drinking imported water as transparent as their misguided intentions, Mary dreamed about some other parents who were not hers. One was a true chestnut father of light and one was a stuffed pretender in a red stuffed chair. And one was a mother with a tickly little moustache to keep her brisk and jolly.
One of the fathers was insisting, "We cannot move the earth closer to the sun." And one of the mothers with an addiction to cautious little Marthas and self-deprecating behavior was saying, "Only a flea among elephants. Only a flea among elephants."
One father, who was painting his face the color of the sidewalk, said, "I hope you won't mind if I want to lessen a bit."
Just then Mary's real father was giving away one of those handshakes that leave you convinced you will never need another automobile and thinking, "I am the boy back home who has never grown up." Mary's grandmother was poking her cane between the bars of his cage and he hadn't even noticed.
Chump Chump the Roly-poly Little Hedgehog was visiting Mary's neglected rock garden when a piece of overcooked bacon flew out the window and landed smack on the end of his nose. He gobbled it up like a fat green caterpillar and waddled on out to the meadow for his low impact aerobics class.
Mary grew despondent. Mary did not understand why her chin was so flat. Mary welcomed a pause in which a saddened world seemed to offer condolences between each of her sluggish, self-referential movements.
Another one of the fathers said, "Did you hear the one about the American who couldn't stop spilling out words because speech was free? Oh how quickly he learned to say nothing and keep right on talking."
Just then Mary was imagining herself as a man and thinking, "I am the kind of man who meets the gaze of women and holds it to the moment of desire or embarrassment. I stir interest. I stir anxiety. I achieve. I am noticed."
Mary's real father continued outlining his uselessness and put the pages in a bright red box marked "Priest Fodder." Finally he turned away, looking for some reluctant heaven in the clouds, and that was the moment when something might have killed him.
Mary's mother said, "The weaker one always loves without reserve," and Mary's father, who endured despite himself, said, "Because he does nothing, the follower is mistaken for God." Tiny voices kept floating across his tongue. One of them sounded like Mary's childhood.
Mary listened carefully this time and thought, "It sounds like death, but I'm ever so sure it means love."
The flames climbed her robe. It had been such an honor to light the cautious fire.
Richard Lee Ives lives on the Pacific Coast of North America.
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