Creative Nonfiction: Fire on the Land

Shay Belisle is originally from Maui, Hawaii where she grew up eating mangoes and bathing in an outdoor bathtub in a ginger thicket. She has traveled the world and currently lives in Berkeley, CA where she works as a personal chef and is a degree candidate for her MFA in Creative Writing at Mills College. Shay is also the Creative Nonfiction Contributing Editor for the forthcoming issue 14 of 580 Split. Her work has been published in various literary journals including Forty Ounce Bachelors andThe Writing Disorder.

Fire on the Land 

In the deepest caves of memory I see my father in flames dancing between heavy clots of smoke, his bare feet pounding a calloused song that harmonizes with his coughing, swearing, and calls for help to Lord Krishna and “the mother fucking Maui Fire Department.” His face is red and pouring sweat. The brown hair at his temples clings in stringy wet strands to the sides of a blistering face. Cut off jean shorts smeared in earth hang from knobby hips, and below the frayed material scratches ooze small droplets of blood.

His knees are high as he leaps deer-like over a bed of leafy, star-shaped plant starts. The garden hose arcs behind him, a pole vault propelling him towards the flames. Precious water—the color of his longing, the taste of which there is never enough—spills from the mouth of the hose, splattering on dry earth, on tufts of fairy grass, on the roots of grateful, coughing trees. He places his thumb half over the opening of the hose and water thrusts forward like a fractured sword fighting the dragon flames that threaten to leap over the barbed wire fence and devour my father’s plants—his babies; his world.


            Yet in my memory I am also high above the flames, swirling in ashy air. The children have gathered from all over The Land and we are on a wooden platform, dancing in a circle and chanting, “Radhe Radhe Radhe Sham, Govinda Radhe! Sri Radhe!” We sing out, expelling the smoke from our tender lungs.

“Louder!” Radhe calls out. I picture her strumming a guitar, eyes half closed, lost in the bliss of kirtan. A halo of frizzy blonde curls surrounds her cherubic face. The instrument, which only exists by my mind’s invention, vibrates against her round stomach and the platform bounces as we sing louder, the tempo builds, and we dance faster and faster. “Govinda Radhe Radhe Sham, Gopala Radhe Radhe Sham!”

I want to add tambourines, cymbals, and perhaps even a harmonium to the scene but even in my memory, which is slippery and fickle at best, there are only our child voices, our bare, dusty feet against the wooden platform, the buzzing sound of a helicopter chopping up the smoky sky and dropping load after load of water scooped from the sea, and my father’s shouts as he dances between the flames.


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