Explaining a House Fire to a Five-Year-Old
Don’t walk in pretending you’re okay;
it has been too long since you played
make-believe to be good at it.
Kneel down, be steady.
Look at her eyes, caught between blue and green
in the April light. Don’t hide the tearstains and red rims of yours.
Be patient; let her ask what is wrong.
Choose your words well;
Keep it simple. The house burned down. Watch
it flicker across her face and wait for her response.
When it comes—adult-like and tearless—
she asks if her favorite doll made it out alive.
Give her the half-smile she’ll grow to hate,
with one corner pointed down,
that she will learn to think of as pity.
Don’t tell her about her father, how his body blistered
beneath the flames, that they raced to char his bones.
Don’t tell her about his cigarette, left lit on the couch
as whiskey drowned him in sleep.
Try to forget how you almost left her there that morning, how
her small lungs would have filled with soot, and the way the grit
would scratch against her throat as she struggled to breathe.
Remind yourself it was only an abandoned box of fireworks
heard screaming from inside.
Chelsey Harris is currently studying Poetry at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. She is also the Senior Co-Editor of Grassroots, the campus Undergraduate Literary and Arts Magazine.