Episode #16: “They Jump Through Fires” by Gabriela Santiago

September 22, 2015


They Jump Through Fires

By Gabriela Santiago



“They jump through fires, you know.”

We were behind a glass window and at least ten feet off the ground, but Sam’s voice startled the rabbit that had been standing frozen on the asphalt, one large brown eye twitching as it stared up at me. Its ears jerked up and it twisted away, hopping into the underbrush.

I kept looking out the window. “They what?”

“Jump through fires. Instead of running away.”

“Did you read that on Wikipedia?”

She changed the subject. “You going to be all right here by yourself?”

“Of course.”

“I left my number on the kitchen table, if, you know, you need anything—”

“Thanks for helping carry her. You can go now.”


Full transcript appears after the cut.

[Intro music plays.]


Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 16 for September 22, 2015. I'm your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you. Our story today is "They Jump Through Fires" by Gabriela Santiago.

Gabriela Santiago lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, a mere twenty minute walk from a store whose awning reads AFFORDABLE COFFINS in large friendly letters. She is a graduate of Macalester College and the Clarion 2013 writing workshop, and her fiction has previously been published in Betwixt and Black Candies. You can follow her at writing-relatedactivities.tumblr.com. Or you can follow her at @LifeOnEarth89 on Twitter, if for some reason you don't want to follow Katy Manning, but do want to read a retweet of everything that accomplished Doctor Who actor and beautiful cinnamon roll has ever said.


Before we get into the story itself, a little advanced warning: the story is horror and has some description of a decomposing corpse.




They Jump Through Fires

By Gabriela Santiago

“They jump through fires, you know.”

We were behind a glass window and at least ten feet off the ground, but Sam’s voice startled the rabbit that had been standing frozen on the asphalt, one large brown eye twitching as it stared up at me. Its ears jerked up and it twisted away, hopping into the underbrush.

I kept looking out the window. “They what?”

“Jump through fires. Instead of running away.”

“Did you read that on Wikipedia?”

She changed the subject. “You going to be all right here by yourself?”

“Of course.”

“I left my number on the kitchen table, if, you know, you need anything—”

“Thanks for helping carry her. You can go now.”


In Minnesota they let you do open-casket funerals with unembalmed bodies. Actually lots of places let you do that. There’s not much bacteria at all in a fresh corpse. It’s just the funeral homes that will tell you embalming is necessary.

The rabbit did not come back after fifteen minutes, so I made myself a sandwich and ate it. Then I stood in front of the coffin. Funeral home directors do not like it when you say “coffin.” They would prefer you to say “casket.” They would prefer you to say “the decedent” instead of “the body.”

I rocked back and forth on my feet a little and looked at Mikayla’s body.

She had been dead for thirty-one hours and twelve minutes, so the bacteria and enzymes in her body had not started breaking it down yet. Her skin was not discolored and there was no bad smell. There was no good smell either. She did not smell like Mikayla. She smelled like things that were around Mikayla when she was alive like oil paints and tuna fish, and she also smelled like a hospital, but she did not smell like a person anymore.

I touched her skin. It was cold and spongy. I did not like the feeling. I rocked back and forth on my feet, and hissed air through my teeth.

I went to the window again. The rabbit was back. There was another rabbit too. This one had horns behind its ears. Horns on rabbits are tumors caused by papilloviruses. This was discovered by Richard Shope in the 1930s. I had never seen a rabbit with horns before.

Both rabbits froze and looked at me. They had such big eyes.


I went to get the mail. The door was unlocked and I had to close my eyes and count and count and count because Sam always forgot to lock the door. When we were girlfriends I would tell her every day and every day she would forget.

There was a letter from my Great-Aunt Teodora. Letters from Great-Aunt Teodora are very hard to read because she writes in cursive which my eyes have a hard time following. It is also hard because even though she speaks English very well, she has a hard time remembering the rules with writing. It is like the opposite of my problems.

The letter was stamped for overnight delivery, so I took it inside and set it on the table and made a sandwich. I ate the sandwich and then I read the letter. It said she had read about Mikayla on her Facebook and that she was keeping me in her prayers. I pictured her prayers like the big wooden dresser with claw feet in her bedroom, with me bent and tucked and folded into the middle drawer next to her flowery blouses and T-shirts with sequin butterflies, all smelling of baby powder. Baby powder is a calming smell. I went to the bathroom and shook some over my hands; held it to my face.

On the way back from the bathroom, I stopped by Mikayla’s body. Her eyes were closed. They had glued them closed at the funeral home. I let them do that. I also let them close her mouth and fold her hands and plug her anus. Mikayla had said not to let them do anything like that.

Sam had said she looked like she was sleeping, but Sam never saw Mikayla sleeping. Mikayla slept all sprawled out with her mouth open. Mikayla’s body did not look asleep now. Mikayla’s body looked dead.

I went back to the letter. Great-Aunt Teodora had signed it with a long string of Xs and Os. Then she wrote a P.S.: “I remember you were so interested in the Family Folklore so I am attaching a ‘Exciting!’ story I remember from being told as a child. I am thinking of getting it Published!!! Maybe it will help to keep your mind busy and ‘occupied.’”

I tried to read the story but Great-Aunt Teodora does not really understand quotation marks and capitalization so it was even harder than cursive usually is for me. It started out being about how unlucky it is to kill rabbits, and then she started talking about how her mother was called “the Mexican Annie Oakley.” It was making my head hurt, so I put it down.

I did not want to look at Mikayla’s body so I went to the window again. The rabbits were gone.

The reason people sit up all night with a dead body comes from the days before they could know for sure that somebody was dead and not just in a severe coma. These days they were very sure. It was very easy for doctors to explain how a ruptured brain aneurysm killed my girlfriend.


There started to be a bad smell. It was like rotten eggs. This should not have happened for a few more days. Possibly Mikayla’s intestines were hosting abnormally potent or numerous bacteria and enzymes. I opened a window and lit one match from Mikayla’s box of matches in the junk drawer. The sulfur dioxide in match heads deadens the sense of smell. Then I went to look at the body.

There was light green bruising on her skin. This also should not have happened for a few more days.

I worried about being able to smell the bad smell even after they took the body away tomorrow.

One two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven—

I got to three hundred and ninety-seven, which is a prime, and I stopped.

Keeping promises is an important part of being a functioning member of society. If you follow through on commitments to others, they are more likely to entrust you with more responsibilities. They are more likely to reward you. They are more likely to follow through on their commitments to you. This is why keeping promises is important.  [read up through here]

When a person is dead there are no more consequences to keeping or not keeping your promises to them. Mikayla was not going to shout at me or go away for two weeks if I called up the funeral home and told them to take her body away. There was no logical reason not to call them and have them take her body away.

I did not want them to come and take her body away.

The smell was so bad. It was thick in the air like sulfur mud. It stuck in my throat.

I went to the door to open it and let some air in. It was unlocked. I knew I had just locked it.

It was unlocked.

I knew I had just locked it.

I locked it again.

I went to the window. There were three rabbits now. The rabbits were increasing in primes. I rocked back and forth on my heels and hissed air through my teeth and counted one two three, one two three, one two three.

All three rabbits had horns. They had frozen the second I came to the window. They watched me, ears twitching, eyes twitching. It is important for small prey animals to maintain constant vigilance. They must always be watching for predator movements, or listening for predator sounds.

They jump through fires, you know.

I raised my hand and tapped the window. They jumped. I tapped the window again. They ran away.


It was 8:03 pm now. It was getting dark. The coffin made a wrong shape in my apartment. I could not walk around or even think about my apartment right because I would run into the wrong shape there. There were eleven hours and fifty-three more minutes until Sam would arrive with her car to take Mikayla’s body to the graveyard. I turned on the dining room light and sat down to try to read the story again.

This time I understood that Great-Aunt Teodora was talking about her mother being the Mexican Annie Oakley because later in the story her mother was going to shoot a rabbit from almost a mile away. She took the rabbit home and made a stew. All of her children came in and said they smelled something very bad, like caca or roadkill or rotten eggs. They asked what she was making. She lied and said it was an armadillo stew. They ate up the stew, and then their father went to play his guitar at a bar.

It was very hard to make my eyes keep looking at the letters that kept jumping up into capitals. I got out my laptop. I was going to Google “Mexican folk tales,” but then I changed my mind and Googled “rabbits jumping through fires.” This was what I found: a Suffolk gamekeeper reports that “they don’t go out to run with the smoke. They turn round and try to get through the fire… They seem to think… they’ll get out of the scent of it. They jump into the fire.”  This was not about rabbits, though. It was about hares. Both rabbits and hares belong to the order Lagomorpha, but there are several key differences. For instance, rabbits are altricial. Their young are born hairless and blind. Hares are precocial. Their young have hair and can see and take care of themselves.

I clicked on the Wikipedia link for hares in folklore and mythology. In the U.K. there was a lot of folklore about the White Hare who was sometimes a witch taunting hunters and sometimes a ghost haunting her lost lover. Lots of places had a hare-eating taboo like the one in Great-Aunt Teodora’s story. In Kerry, Ireland, there were only two times a year you could kill and eat a hare: Beltane and the festival of Ostara. At other times, eating a hare was like eating your grandmother.

I wondered if the taboo in Great-Aunt Teodora’s story was because of goddesses like the European ones. I decided to try to read it again. I decided that this time I would try reading it out to Mikayla’s body, because that might help me concentrate on making the cursive into words. When she was alive, Mikayla said she liked my voice. She was the only one.

I opened up all the windows and poured baby powder all over my hands and rubbed it all over my face so the smell wouldn’t be so bad. I lit two more of Mikayla’s matches. Then I took the letter into the living room. The moon was shining very bright through the window. I did not turn on the lights. I counted and rocked and breathed in the baby powder and looked at Mikayla’s body. The bruising was purple now. She looked fatter, her cheeks and stomach pressing upward. Bloating does not typically take place until later in the decomposition process.

I looked down at the story and found my place. I started to read:

“After Dinner, Merino (my father) picked up his guitar. He kissed his wife on the cheek and said, “Don’t be letting in any handsome strangers, querida (pronounced KAY-REE-DUH, Sweetheart).” “And don’t you go flirting with those pretty young ladies down at the bar, Mer,” she said. She was joking but not really joking!!! Some of those young ladies had no shame with their lipstick and long blonde hair soft as rabbit fur. And Mer was very handsome, with green eyes like a ‘Movie Star’! And when he played and sang with his voice like an ‘angel’ (pronounced ON-HELL, Angel) she knew all the Pretty Young Things would be falling in love with him. “Don’t be bringing any pretty young ladies home,” she said and her voice was all of a sudden serious so he looked up at her with one eyebrow raised like it was saying what do you mean? “I have a bad feeling,” she said. “My Rosary fell off this morning and the tortillas (TORE-TEE-YUZ, tortillas) all burnt. Lock the door when you—”

Click.

The door.

I turned. I could not see the bar crossing the gap between the door and the wall.

I went to the door and turned the handle. There were five rabbits with papillovirus horns sitting on the doorstep. Not all of the growths were horns. Some were extra ears. The first rabbit had one extra ear. The second rabbit had two. The third had three. The fourth had five. The fifth had seven.

The first rabbit only had one eye. The second had two. The third had three. The fourth had five. The fifth had seven.

I shut the door and locked it. I pulled the heavy couch in front of the door. It made the shape of the room even more wrong and my head hurt and I had to clench my fist and rock, counting by threes this time, three six nine twelve—

I got to six hundred and thought about calling Sam. Sam had a gun. She could shoot the rabbits. But then I would have to call Sam on the telephone.

I did not call Sam.

I walked over to Mikayla’s coffin. Her long blonde hair looked like straw. Her eyes were bulging under her eyelids like frog eyes.

“I am going to keep reading the story, Mikayla,” I said. I said this even though Mikayla was not there. It was just her body. “I was going to read stories to the baby. I was going to use my Barnes and Noble employee discount to buy Stellaluna and The Salamander Room and Where the Sidewalk Ends. You said those were good books. I was going to read them.

“This is how the story goes,” I said. I found my place and kept reading. “When Merino had played his first three songs, he looked up and saw a beautiful woman. She was rubia (RUE-BEE-YA, Blonde) and tall with long, long legs under her very tight red dress. She was watching him with her big Brown eyes while he played. ‘Oh, Señor (SEEN-YOR—”

Mikayla’s eyes popped open.


Eyes typically pop open when the internal pressure created by feeding bacteria becomes too great, though typically not until much later in the decomposition process. Mikayla’s eyes had been glued shut. I could see small bits of glue in her eyelashes, and parts of her eyelashes still stuck to the skin beneath her lower eyelid.

One eye was still in its socket. The other was only connected by the optic nerve and was dangling over her left cheekbone. Most people unconsciously know where someone is looking from observing the whites of their eyes. I had spent a lot of time studying this skill, so I was pretty sure that if Mikayla had been alive, both eyes would have been looking at me.

The release of gas had also opened her mouth and pushed out her tongue. It lolled down across her lips. It was purple and very swollen.

The rabbits were on the coffin now. I had not seen them there before. I had not seen them anywhere in the room. There were seven of them. They were not hares. There were several key differences between rabbits and hares that were immediately visible. Rabbits are smaller, with shorter ears and weaker hind legs. Rabbits do not have black markings on their fur. Rabbits’ summer fur turns grey in winter rather than white.

I did not move from in front of the coffin holding the rabbits and Mikayla’s body.

The rabbits kept looking at me with their big, big eyes.

They did not move except for their eyes and their ears.

Click, went the door behind me.

I counted their ears. I counted their eyes. Their extra ears increased in primes. Their total eyes increased in primes. This led to total numbers of ears that were not primes. Total numbers of ears plus eyes were also not primes. The seventh rabbit had twenty-three eyes and twenty-five ears. It had two horns. It sat on Mikayla’s chest, above her heart.

I reached my hand forward.

Click, went the windows to the side of me.

I touched her face. The skin was blistered there. It sloughed away as I touched it.

Onetwothreeonetwothreesixnine airthroughtheteeth

Click-click, went the door and windows together.

Locked unlocked. Locked unlocked.

The smell of the body was an iron band pressing into my head.

There was a match in my other hand. I lit it.

The rabbit’s eyes all swiveled to the match. Its glow lit up my white-powdered hands.

“I am going to finish reading the story,” I said.

I promised Mikayla that I would read stories to our baby. I practiced by reading to her. Promises are an important part of being a functioning member of society.

I put the match down and picked up the story. I could still feel the place where my fingers had touched Mikayla’s cheek. I did not like the feeling. It was sticky and cold.

I read the story.


“‘Don’t leave me! You said I was pretty, didn’t you? Didn’t you say I had a pretty face? Why won’t you look back at my pretty face, Merino?’”

I was reading the story, and the story was reading me.

Most of the time I did not read stories, because it was very frustrating how most stories were not about the events that occurred within the story. There were empty spaces between the events that occurred within a story, and I could not see the shapes there. Other people seemed to see and interpret these shapes very easily, as easily as I could see the shape of the space between two numbers.

I was starting to see the shapes now.

They were starting to see me.

I was changing the shape of the story, and the story was changing the shape of me. The rabbit from the first act of the story was coming back. The rabbit was becoming the beautiful rubia. Before I read the story she did not become a rabbit. She became a different shape. The beautiful rubia who was no longer beautiful was now pursuing my Great-Aunt Teodora’s father across the Texas desert. She was weeping and screaming for her lost love. Folklore does not typically have a three or five act structure unless its tellers have been influenced by printed or visual media. I was changing the shape.

“‘MERRIIIIIIIIIIINOOOOOOO,’ she called with a howl that was more like a wolf or El Diablo (ELL DEE-AH-BLOW, The Devil) ‘himself.’ Or was it the wind? No it was not the wind. He could still ‘feel’ her eyes on his back as he ran. He dropped his guitar and he did ‘not’ care!!!’”

I was reading the story from the words on the page, but I was also reading them in the slope of the letters. The story was in the shade of the pencil. The story was in the distance between me and the coffin, the number of inches (thirteen). The story was curled in Mikayla’s tongue; it was stuck to her skin with the glue and eyelashes. The moon was telling the story, and the shadows, and me, and we were changing it.

And the story was telling me.

“Her breath was like Hellfire on the back of his neck and he ran from the fire, and the smell like ‘Sulfur’—”

It was telling me in the rabbit’s eyes, and in their ears. They were listening to the story tell me. The story was reaching down my throat. It was writing my cells. It was walking along my DNA. It was finding the beginning, the middle, the end. It was changing them.


I was on the floor, looking up at the ceiling. I was also standing in front of the casket. The rabbits were in a circle around me, looking down at me. There were eleven of them. They were also still sitting on Mikayla’s body in the casket I was standing in front of. There were thirteen.

The roof was gone and I could see the moon. All the doorways in my apartment were filled with fire.

They jump through fires, you know.

My face was wet and I could feel a pressing on my chest like a huge stone, pushing me down, crushing me. I was hollow, echoing. I could hear the wind rushing through me inside. I could hear my voice telling the rabbits things. I could not feel my lips moving but I could hear my voice. It was telling the rabbits about the day I met Mikayla. It was telling the rabbits about how she was the only one who ever said she liked my voice. It was telling them all the things Mikayla was never going to do again, like bounce on the bed or get paint on the floor or kiss me.

The moon was very blurry as I looked up at it. Down, down, down, like a concrete block on my chest pressing me down. Mikayla’s body in the coffin was very blurry as I looked down at it, and the weight was pulling me down, down, down, I was going to fall toward her.

The rabbits were very clear. Their outlines were the only real shapes. There were seventeen outlines.

The skin split down the middle of Mikayla’s body. It pulled away to each side of the coffin. It pulled muscle and fat with it, tearing. I could see the gleam of bone.

“If I were writing a story,” I told the rabbits, “in the next part her flesh would crumble to dust. And her skeleton would stand up. And it would be Mikayla and it would say hello.”

The rabbits looked down/up at me and did not move.

“What are you watching for?” I asked them. “Are you waiting for me? Are you waiting for her? I don’t know what you want. I don’t know what to do.”

Click-click went the fires in the doorway. Click-click went the flames. The scent of ash and smoke was making a spiral in my mind.

They jump through fires, you know.

There was a sticky, squelching sound, like a drain coming unclogged. I looked down/up at the coffin. The rabbits looked too. They moved their heads for the first time. They looked at Mikayla.

The fires leaped higher, the wood of the lintels cracking somewhere inside. Click-click.

From the me who was standing in front of the coffin, I could see a puddle between Mikayla’s legs. It was staining the edge of her skirt. It was her job interview skirt, the pink silk one. She hated it. I reached forward and raised the hem.

The me that was on the floor was holding a bundle in her arms. The bundle was small and soft and still.

There were three rabbit kits between Mikayla’s legs. There were only three ears total, but each rabbit had two ears. The ears were connected. I picked up the rabbit kits very carefully. Rabbits are altricial.

I stroked the blood and placenta from the hairless ears and blind eyes of the rabbit kits on my chest. They fit right into my hands. They were a perfect shape. I did not mind that they had only three ears. I held them close to my chest on the floor and standing in front of the coffin.

They were not moving.

“I will still read you Stellaluna,” I told them. “I will still read you all the books I promised Mikayla. I will explain to you about promises. They are very important.”

Was that a pulse beneath my fingertips?

The smoke was so thick now that I could barely see my hands and my girls in my hands.

The rabbits around me/in the coffin were watching us. I could not see their bodies. I could only see their eyes. The number of eyes went from one to nineteen.

The rabbits’ eyes were black and cold. The rabbits’ eyes were all around us.

Were my girls breathing or were my hands shaking?

“Please,” I said to the rabbits. “Please.”

The rabbits’ eyes were black and cold and there were twenty-three. The rabbits’ eyes were behind us.

I was sweating. The flames were very high. The wood click-clicked as it burned, knots popping open. Doors popping unlocked. I did not know where the doors would go.

My heart was going very fast. I could hear the sound of my heart, and it was clanging against the smell of rotting body and tangled in the choking smoke, around and around and around with the feel of the sweat and the baby powder on my skin, and I was counting by ones and by threes and by primes, and the stone on my chest was still there but I could breathe past it now because of the weight of my girls in my hands.

The fire. Red orange yellow. Leaping. Flames, leaping flames, leaping—

The rabbits were behind us and they were watching us with eyes that never stopped looking for predators. The rabbits were behind us and we could not move back or stay where we were.

I bent my head down to my girls.

I whispered: “We jump through fires, you know.”



END




“They Jump Through Fires" was originally published in So Say We All's 2015 edition of Black Candies.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll have another story for you on October 6th.

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