“The Abandoned Millworks”

When the abandoned millworks caught fire, distant sirens woke the town. The cutting and drying sheds, reduced to spent, black timber, crumpled in minutes, but the dirt in the millyard, hard-packed with wood dust after decades of lumbering, slow-burned. Somewhere underground the fire had found a vein of wood dust and smoldered inextinguishable, spread under the entire town and the riverbank, reemerging periodically in small glowing pockets, smoke rising from cracks in the road all summer long, a banked fire.

The mayor tried to calm the townspeople: Wait. Fire burns itself out. The fire chief offered cautionary advice. Yet people didn’t mind the wait or know what they were waiting or hoping for. The summer passed in a hothouse heat, champion tomatoes and tall corn, swollen late irises and lilies. Water from the cold tap lost its chill. Women pressed with their own hands the hand that explored their breasts, whispering “let me help you” and unfastened the clasps.

The doomsday frenzy was more of a doomsday joy.

In happier days, when the mill ran three shifts six days a week, wood dust drifted over the town, entered their houses and left a fine film of dust on everything. No one minded—“gold dust” they’d called it. The summer the millworks burned, they returned to old habits of dusting everything before they used it, no longer wood, but ash. They wiped their utensils and plates fresh from the cabinet, chairs and benches before they sat down; bartenders cleaned glasses a second time immediately before serving. In happier days—but were there happier days than these? Who can say?

The following spring, an unprecedented number of babies were born in town, for some women late, twilight babies: phoenix babies.

The well water cooled again. The smoke and steam rising from the ground slowed, then stopped. No one remembers for sure—the fire, after a time, was not monitored. Everyone, even the authorities, had grown used to it. Nothing records its final extinguishing or the last day that ash floated like wood dust on the surface of the river, a skin. How easily we forget the banked fire, the perpetual spring, the steamy, overgrown patches and beds. Incredible, even as the ground underfoot burns, people forget—memory, like desire, emberous.

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About Stephen Frech

Stephen Frech has earned degrees from Northwestern University, Washington University in St. Louis, and the University of Cincinnati. He has published three volumes of poetry: Toward Evening and the Day Far Spent (Kent State University Press), If Not For These Wrinkles of Darkness (White Pine Press, 2001), and The Dark Villages of Childhood (Midwest Writing Center, 2009) His fourth volume titled A Palace of Strangers is No City, a sustained narrative of prose poetry/flash fiction, has been published by Cervena Barva Press in 2011. In 2012, he published a translation of poetry from the Dutch: Menno Wigman’s Zwart als kaviaar/Black as Caviar. He is founder and editor of Oneiros Press, publisher of limited edition, letterpress poetry broadsides. Oneiros broadsides have been purchased by special collections libraries around the world, among them the Newberry Library (Chicago), the Beinecke Library at Yale, and the University of Amsterdam Print Collection. Stephen Frech is Associate Professor of English at Millikin University.