the time my cousin barea accidentally lit her head on fire and now i think she’s hiding something
she was stone cold. the woman has ice in her veins.
around christmastime a few years ago—let’s say 5 years? maybe 6? i don’t know, some time between 2005 and 2010. this morning i referred to something that happened when i was four as “the other day,” so don’t ask me these things—i was spending christmas with my father and his side of the family.
MY FATHER’S FAMILY, A 2005ish to 2010ish RETROSPECTIVE:
my dad, a 6’4 Mister Dad, who just looks like he should be wearing a tweed suit with elbow patches on it at all times
my grandparents, dammah and dappah; dappah lost a thumb in a boating accident and dammah snail-mails me poetry she’s written while walking on the beach
my brother, the straight-A grumpy cat whose two favorite hobbies at the time were video games and not talking to anyone at social functions
my cousin andrew, an eagle scout and general rapscallion
my cousin barea, who loved the color orange, philosophy, and this really sweet blue satin cape that made her look like a young minerva mcgonagall
my aunt terse, a practicing witch (wiccan? i’m not really sure; my young brain only understood that she had a magic wand, roughly a dozen cats, and a moon garden)
essentially every family gathering was like an episode of Leave It To Beaver meets Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
anyway, we all went to church for the midnight service on christmas. my aunt terse sang in the choir, which i don’t think was in fact connected with the church? i think it was like an independent choir for people who loooove chamber music but are maybe a little less interested in sitting through services every sunday.
or like a lot less interested.
or like not interested at all.
so the midnight service is beautiful, obviously, and they hand out candles so that we can all sing along and light our candles for jesus, and the preacher gives this really beautiful speech about how we should all let our own personal marys into our own personal inns, whatever that metaphor is supposed to mean.
so the choir launches into o holy night, which is in fact my favorite christmas song. i love o holy night. i love it like i don’t love any other song in the billy gilman christmas album, which is the only christmas album that i love in its entirety.
i don’t want to listen to any albums that aren’t the billy gilman christmas album. this isn’t a joke. i’m not kidding. billy gilman or fucking bust, do you understand?
i just. i don't think you do.
i don't think it's possible to fully comprehend what 12-year-old billy bilman meant to 10-year-old mollyhall.
“what are boys?” the world asked, and 10-year-old mollyhall said, “BOYS ARE BILLY GILMAN AND NOTHING BUT BILLY GILMAN, SO HELP ME GOD.”
i feel like this guy explains a lot about my reaction to hockey player jack johnson, but THAT’S NEITHER HERE NOR THERE.
so there we were, lil’ 2005ish-2010ish mollyhall belting o holy night with all that her vocal chords could muster. oh man, i am killin it, she thought. the whole church was going to fall quiet just to listen to her sing. boy, she sure was going to make it as a musician one day!
except…..suddenly, an overwhelming smell seemed to reach out and choke o holy night off at its root. it smelled like the way that stubbing your toe feels.
panic, disappointment, and the absolute conviction that your entire life is crumbling around your shoulders and that this is how you die.
i looked down at my hymnal like, yo, hymnal, what the shit? is this your fault? is it my fault? is this what my sin smell like?????
someone tapped my shoulder.
“excuse me,” said a voice, quiet, polite. “beg your pardon.”
i turned around. it was a sweet-looking old man, with big glasses. he pointed over my shoulder and said with what in hindsight is an astounding degree of serenity, “your friend’s hair is on fire.”
“haha yeah,” i said, and then, “wait, what?”
barea’s hair was on fire.
she seemed to be politely panicking, tilting her head to the side to keep the fire away from her face and frantically blowing air out of the side of her mouth. “OH MY GOD,” i said. “OH DEAR SWEET JESUS.”
“please help,” barea whispered.
i stared at her. i stared at the little ball of fire that was steadily climbing up her head. her hair had gotten long, and when she wasn’t paying attention had dipped into the candle in her hand. the flame had not yet engulfed her head but it was definitely … fire. there was fire there. on her head. there was fire on her head.
in the span of about twenty seconds, my brain ran through my options:
stop/drop/roll. PROS: i learned about this in school, so it’s probably legit. CONS: we’re in a pew????? what is she going to do, get up and excuse herself to the ten people between her and the row and then roll around in the tiny little aisle like a sad ping pong ball of flame???? “oh, excuse me, pardon me, yes i’m so sorry just have to take care of this little problem of BEING AFLAME.”
blow it out. PROS: no awkward fire-person pew shuffling. CONS: won’t that….blow….the fire…. toward her face??? i just felt very strongly that we should keep the fire in a controlled area that was not her tender flesh.
holy water? PROS: water definitely works on fire. CONS: is that….legal? like, religiously? will jesus come for me about that later????
anyway, what i did was: i hit her in the head with my hymnal.
IN MY DEFENSE: the fire had now almost reached her scalp, and i was panicking. IT WAS ANYWHERE BETWEEN 2005 AND 2010; WE ALL DID CRAZY THINGS IN THOSE WILD YEARS.
“ow,” said barea. “oh my god, ow.”
"sorry, i’m so sorry,” i told her, a little hysterically. “on the bright side, your head isn’t on fire anymore????”
"that’s true,” barea said, just like—just like totally calm, like, yeah, good point there mollyhall, one point for fire safety!
AND THEN MY FUCKING COUSIN PICKED UP HER HYMNAL AND WENT BACK TO SINGING O HOLY NIGHT LIKE HER GODDAMN HAIR HADN’T JUST BEEN LIT UP LIKE A VERY SMALL AND VERY NERVOUS CHRISTMAS TREE.
“O HOLY NIGHT THE STARS ARE BRIGHTLY SHINING, MUCH LIKE MY HEAD, WHICH WAS JUST ON FUCKING FIRE.”
when the song ended, my aunt terse hurried over.
"oh, mollyhall,” she said, “your shout really touched me. you were so moved by the music.”
“no, aunt terse,” i opened my mouth to say. “i was moved by barea turning into ghost rider.”
but barea just patted her hair and elbowed me in the side. “it was a very beautiful rendition ofo holy night, mom,” she said before i had the opportunity. “my hair caught on fire a little bit, but you sounded so great.”
MY HAIR CAUGHT ON FIRE A LITTLE BIT, BUT YOU SOUNDED SO GREAT.
i write a new will and testament every time i get the sniffles, and this steel-nerved, tequila-blood motherfucker just pats her head like angela lansbury fixing her hair at an awards show. who are you really, cousin barea??? WHAT SECRETS ARE YOU HIDING??
I GUESS YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT PEOPLE ARE MADE OF UNTIL YOU SET THEM ON FIRE.