“What did I tell you about leaving the stove on?” Ma switched off the dial with a mean flick of her hand.
“It wasn’t on.”
“Was too, I can feel the heat pourin’ off it,” she held her hand six inches from the coil, staring down her nose at Dottie. And Dottie knew that look. That look nailed your feet to the floor, burning you in a cold sweat. That look was justice and trouble.
“Ma, I swear, it wasn’t on.”
“Little girl, don’t you think I can tell when the stove is on or not?” She wrung her hands together, wiping off the heat. One at a time she twisted every dial, on and off, on and off, just for making sure.
Dottie had watched the ritual of dials a thousand on a thousand times. Always before they left the house, or even when they left the room, the stove was checked, checked, checked. None of the other mothers do that. They didn’t have a reason to.
Ma had been eleven or twelve when it happened. There was no being sure on details because Daddy had been the one to tell the story, and he had only heard it second hand himself. Ma never once said a word, but then Dottie never heard anybody ask her. And no way was she going to.
A man had moved into the house with very little explanation. Ma and her sister had only been told to call him their uncle. He was there to help, see? To be their protector and guardian, a regular member of the family. But everybody knew he wasn’t. He was a slippery, wily thing that wound his way into their home. And once there, became a monster.
Here the story goes real quiet.
Officially, some grease had got onto the coils. There was bad wiring. Some careless towel was left unattended by the stove and something just – poof! Such bad luck, they all guessed. Such a miracle the girls, at least, survived. Daddy never quite said it, but then he didn’t need to. Dottie knew it had been Ma.
“You left it on again,” Ma said, her eyes still hard on Dottie, “What did I tell you about leaving it on?”
“The stove was off, Ma, it’s always off,” Dottie rose from the kitchen chair, “We disconnected it two years ago.”
The old woman looked at the stove confused. For all her secret, violet history, for all her survivor’s strength, she had become something fragile nonetheless. She held her hand above the coils with a whimper.
Dottie stood over her mother, drawing her hands away from the range. She was a head taller, with an inherited the frame, cradling her mother like a child. They stood looking at one another, like mirror images on either side of thirty years. But Ma was walking away. Somewhere, inside this smaller, older body. She was walking away.
“Remember?” Dottie said, “It was making you so upset all the time. So we turned it off for good.”
“Mmm,” Ma hummed, the sound coming up from the deep places in her memory, “That’s good. We don’t need nothin’ burnin’ anymore.”