The Fire Goddess – A Short Story by Constance Woodring
The Fire Goddess
Herda had a bad day today. She is a mute woman in her 40s. She looks like the rest of us women on the ward. Our hair is kept short to prevent hair pulling and strangling attempts. We wear flowered cotton frocks made by the Ladies Auxiliary volunteers. Herda flicks her tongue in and out so fast. She looks like she is either licking something obscene or sensing the air like a lizard. I often count how many times she does this in a minute. She seems to delight in my devoted attention and holds my hand as she counts with her right hand that has only three fingers.
Herda was set on fire today by the new patient, Bertha Zimling. I can tell you her name because you don’t know her and never will. You know Herda. She’s a famous German actress who lost her voice when her husband tried to strangle her (in a movie, not real life.)
Bertha lit the hem of Herda’s dress and it started to burn. Herda stood there silently looking ahead at the wall. Several of us stood around her watching the flames as they slowly started and then, in a fit, engulfed the bottom of her dress. Soon there were more of us watching. Everyone had their own peculiar way of experiencing this fantastic sight. While Herda remained motionless, the room itself took on an unusually active life. Even for an insane asylum.
Miranda began dancing around characteristically with her dress above her head, showing she had no underwear. Hilda jumped up and down and clapped her hands as if watching circus clowns. Bertha kept looking at the burned-out match in her hand as she tried to strike it again.
I grabbed the matches from her, noting that the match cover looked very familiar.
Ruth, who is usually either screaming or in seclusion, ran up to Herda and began to curse. “Die, you three fingered witch! Die, you are of the devil!” There was no response, and so she got up close to spit in Herda’s face and almost went up in blazes herself.
Sanity has a price. I ran to the nurse’s station to get help. Mike was there alone in the tiny office.
“There’s fire! Quick, Herda is on fire! Here are the matches.”
Mike glanced at me and then continued writing notes. “None of your tricks, Mary. Can’t you see I’m busy?”
Then he smelled the smoke and burning flesh. “Jesus Christ. What have you all done now?” He leaped out of his seat, grabbed the fire extinguisher and headed for the ward.
In his haste, he dropped the metal drum carrying Herda’s salvation. It made a clunking ringing sound when it hit the floor like the bells on the horse-drawn fire wagons I had heard when I was a child. I remember how a wagon had roared down Givens Street, but it was too late. Mr. Mengleheltz’s house had already burned down because his daughter had lit a match to the old rags she saved to make dresses for her dolls. Her dolls never came out to play with our dolls because they looked like ragamutants.
I helped Mike pick up the extinguisher, imagining we were Clydesdale horses at the ready. He drenched Herda with the clear, smelly liquid, and immediately she and the rest of us were lost in grey smoke. I could hear a low hissing sound as her skin blistered. It reminded me of the ham and eggs I fried for Frank every morning. She remained motionless, not even blinking.
Mike gazed at her as if he were seeing a ghost. “I got to call the Goddamn infirmary. Mary, you stand here with Herda. The rest of you get back to bed rest.” In the panic of the moment he must have forgotten where he was. None of the patients were listening to him.
I screamed at the top of my lungs, “All patients who have not been burned to death get back to your beds NOW!” Miraculously, everyone became silent. Everyone except Herda scurried out of the room.
I never saw Herda again. No one ever told us what happened to her. The staff assumed we wouldn’t understand, care or remember. I never realized sanity brings with it such a terrible burden. I know I am the only one in here who had nightmares about poor Herda. For several weeks, I dreamed Herda was in Hell. She was the only silent person in all of damnation. Everyone saw her as the Goddess of Hell, and she was quite powerful in her abilities to withstand pain. Everyone came to her for advice: “How do we get out of here?”
No one used the word “hell.” That was blasphemy and you could never get out then.
The nightmare part was that she never allowed anyone to stop suffering.
No matter how hard we pleaded.