A Mandatory Investigation
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Bonfire"
Originally featured on 04-08-2009
As part of our series "Where the Wild Words Are (Words Gone Wild!)"

To say that Maxie danced around the fire would be an understatement. Actually, no; it would be a lie. To call what she did dancing would almost negate the use of language. She used her body - or, I should say, her body used her - to light the fire on fire. A piece of dry wood can catch on fire and then it stops being a piece of wood, one ember at a time. A fire - in the right environment - can catch on Maxie and stop being a fire, one movement at a time. It’s not a frenetic motion. It happens in leaps and explosions and panicked breaths leaving the mouth like gunshots. It happens in flails and shrieks and then it happens in pauses and long breaths and non-motions, at times in fluid, crawling, rising levitations of limbs like a crumpled sponge expanding to find its honest shape.

Maxie gets so close to the fire her eyelids roast, gazing into it, and sweat pours from her knees and elbows onto the sand. Then she backs up and circles it in spinning revelry. At every point she is looking into the same direction; the fire is both her compass and her wilderness. The wood’s only purpose is the fire, just as Maxie cannot have been born without it. I’m supposed to be watching her.

 

When the sun comes up she is asleep beneath a tree on the bank of the river, where it forks. I’m still supposed to be watching her. She’s on her side, her long body curled around the base of the tree like an extra skin.

 

I’ve never seen Maxie eat.

 

“You’re always staring at me,” she says.

Maxie is sharpening a tapered stick against a rock. At the end of the day, this will undoubtedly be added to her collection of spears. She does not look up - the act of sharpening wood requires her entire concentration.

I shuffle uncomfortably. My hand reaches in my pocket out of habit. I’m conscious of the fact that I have pockets. I cannot stand the thought of Maxie’s disapproval.

She changes the direction of her sharpening motion. Or maybe it's the wind that changes.

I sigh. “It’s my job-”

“I didn’t ask you why you’re always staring at me, I just stated the fact.” Her voice moves through the words at the same pace as her hand shapes the end of the stick.

Maxie has brown hair that sleeps about itself in tangles. Her shoulders are raw and slightly scratched. She wears a necklace fashioned from red and yellow leaves.

“I like watching you.” I sit down and start playing with the grass, trying to forget I have pockets. “I- I didn’t mean that like it sounds-”

“It doesn’t matter what you say, it only matters what sounds you make, and I heard you just fine.” She tenses her shoulder, raising the right side of her body slightly to shield her eyes from the sun that has just bobbed up behind the lean-to.

I look hard at a blade of grass and take two breaths. “Do you mind if I ask…”

She calmly puts down the spear-in-progress and the sharpening tool and sits by me.

My hands immediately retreat back into my pockets. “You’ve been living alone out here for two years and one month, correct?”

She says nothing. Her eyes start twisting invisible light beams into braids.

“Listen. I’m from the legal commission of-”

“Are you going to bring me into custody?” Her eyebrows shift inward without moving up or down. “If you want me to be a criminal or heretic, we can invent a law and I’ll be happy to break it for you.”

“Let’s start by talking. Now, you are the proprietary owner of-”

Her voice sounds effortless, unlike mine. “To start by talking would be impossible; we already started when you started watching me. Are you afraid of me?”

“Of an outcast from society living alone in a shack forty miles from civilization who spends the day crafting her own hunting weapons and all night dancing around a fire? Afraid? No. Curious. There’ve been reported suspicions of…illicit farming practices-”

Maxie slowly stands and walks toward me. I don’t notice that the spear is in her hand until it is in my throat. Before my vision spills down my leg, I see a watery sadness in her eyes.

And then the darkness. And the fire.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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Portland Fiction Project

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