EVIDENCE OF BURNING
In a movie, this would be the place: The pockmarked road from truck tires tilling thorough bramble. Lavender sprung up like stray hairs among browned-out winter weeds. The moon-carved shutters, half-stolen by vandals, filtering damp, gray-golden light. My sister climbing the gnarled tree in the front yard, paper flowers in her hair, a nose unlike mine, and deep, crescent-moon dimples; half-sister. Best sister.
This house is log-built and monstrous, and like all things I am attracted to, abandoned. My mother tells me it’s the Jane Wyatt estate, built in the 1930’s by an actress who returned from her life in smoky New York to Crossville, Tennessee, to reclaim the land she was born on. Down yonder are the ruins of her grandfather’s home, the home of her youth. My mother brings us here, my sister and me.
Two stories and fourteen rooms, emptied out glorious. Glass windows blown to shards, and wires sprouting from the weathered mortar between cherrywood planks. A gorgeous grand staircase, the banister ripped from rusted nails. The built-in cabinets are still intact, and my sister makes a game of stuffing her spry bones into them, emerging unexpected, with a laugh. The air here does not feel haunted.
Earlier in the year, the Crossville Chronicle ran a story with the headline: “Crossville’s Lady of Fame.” In the accompanying picture, an old woman stands by a framed painting of the log mansion. She holds a black-and-white picture of a woman with dark hair pinned under a wool hat: Jane Wyatt, young and alive. The old woman: Ruby Wyatt Davis, her half-sister.
It doesn’t take much to become a “Lady of Fame” in a town as small as Crossville, the place my parents and eleven-year-old sister have newly settled after moving from a town in Texas not much bigger. Texas, the homeland I left quickly, my footprints marking the front yard with ashes on the way out. In places like these, all it takes to be Somebody is to be gone.
The gone-er, the better. Jane went to Nashville, then Kentucky, then New York. I went to Seattle, then Kentucky, then—well, I’ll go somewhere else, probably. Who can say? There’s still time. You get better at being gone the more you do it, and women like Jane and I have a lot of practice.
Jane’s sister remembers Jane’s absent years through fond gifts: letters, one printed with a stamp from Grand Central Station. Silver pieces from her travels to China. Anyway, these things are all lost to time now.
I think of my own sister and a drawing she made in second grade that hangs on the wall in my office. In crayon, three crude sketches of landscapes with the captions “Texas,” “New York City,” and “England,” and underneath, her explanation: My dream is to travel the world because my sister travels and she inspires me to do this. It’s a reminder that there is a reason to keep exploring, keep living wild. That the wandering part of me, though sometimes contentious in my family, is something good.
Being gone was never a choice for me. It was an impulse, a deadly lust for disappearing, a flame tangled into my DNA. Some people feel an obligation to their roots. Jane rerouted the same well-water from her grandfather’s house to flow through the pipes of the log mansion. When my mother assumes their house will be passed on to me when they’re gone, I tell her I would never choose to live in Crossville. The truth—an obvious one based on everything she knows about me—but it upsets her. Maybe I’m not old enough yet. I’ve never lived in New York. I’ve not yet tired of being a ghost, a voice on the telephone, a letter with a stamp from Grand Central Station.
Take three crooked staircases to an attic room with a crouched sliver of roof, the windows pouring open. I trace my hands over a charred plank, evidence of a forgotten arson, some teenager’s sour-apple-Smirnoff-Molotov-cocktail. Evidence here, in the shattered glass and weathered floorboards, of a burning.
When Jane was in Kentucky she married a man. He was an alcoholic, and she divorced him. She must have loved him, but he must have loved drinking, drowning, more; a love unattainable. When I moved to Kentucky, I drove in as the sun was setting orange and pink over rolling hills bordered by rustic wooden fences. I felt my chest swoon bittersweet and mystical as I thought, This would be a beautiful place to fall in love. And I was right. But how to explain that falling in love is about falling in love with everything, the whole of being alive?
Once we name something, we can never see it the same way again. I named him love and he became it. He named me something I wished to be, and I tamed the fire I always was, smoldered only on the inside. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but I’m trying to say something different now. I’m trying to say that I have always wanted what is unattainable. I was a little girl watching through my bedroom window at night as the pinprick shine of cars disappeared down the highway; I was a teenager wanting blazing bleeding craving so thoroughly it made my core shake and my soul run and hide inside of me for years; here I am now, dousing myself in gasoline and calling it need.
I’m trying to say, I think, that maybe the women I know write with fire under their skin because there is a fire under their skin. Maybe their words were ignited by some man—father or lover—who made them feel the lightness of grief, or tried to drown them in remembering. Or maybe women are born of fire and spend their lives clawing their way back from burning, creating new things to make up for their shame of singeing everything they touch.
How telling it is that women often describe creation, even childbirth, as a kind of obliteration. Love, for me, was a pouring out and reconstructing of self; another obliteration.
Here, I am writing myself out of the record, and perhaps I have always been. This is just another kind of leaving.
Jane Wyatt died at age 93, in the decade before I was born. When I search her name, I find only pictures of an actress more famous than her, twenty years her junior. Now, in a small-town newspaper article, her half-sister remembers her. Ruby Wyatt Davis never left Tennessee. She drives reporters down the pockmarked road to the gutted house. She shows them the way.
I can’t say what is better in the end, what is freedom: to leave and be lost to the wind, or to stay and remember. My hope is that my sister gets the choice. Maybe freedom is in the choosing, in believing, even for a second, that nothing is truly unattainable.
I could tell you that six months after I touched that swath of land and wrote down these words, I left Kentucky, pried my life from the wilding hills and moved to Nashville, the city that hosted Jane’s first escape. In the first weeks of living there, each time I drove the interstate I nearly wept at the skyline, those downtown buildings feeling like evidence of some achievement, a particular aspirational gone-ness. As I tried not to crash my car, eyes glued to that monument of light, a ghost of the child self who once watched car headlights streak across the horizon like stars fleeing the night dipped its corners momentarily back into my body.
Six months after I explored Crossville’s hidden mansion, before that ghost-self faded into commuter’s monotony, the Wyatt estate burned to the ground in the night.
And what does it mean if there were no charred wooden boards to trace with my fingers as I climbed through the ribcage of a grand place wilting in the woods in Tennessee? If I tell you that house had never before hosted a fire. That it was just forgotten.
Erin Slaughter is editor and co-founder of The Hunger, and the author of I Will Tell This Story to the Sun Until You Remember That You Are the Sun (New Rivers Press, 2019). Her writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review, The Rumpus, Prairie Schooner, Split Lip Magazine, New South, Passages North, and elsewhere. Originally from north Texas, she is pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at Florida State University.