Fire Blanket

Clara Chow

My brother and I are sitting in a tea house, talking about fire.

He’s a former fireman, retrained into a software engineer. In university, he had majored in history. I think he’s approached the problem of living via the humanities and sciences; pondered its mathematical, narrative, philosophical, political and physical laws.

I’m writing a book about fires. Metaphorical and literal. About the way human relationships spontaneously combust. How a self crashes and burns.

“There’s a fire-investigation course,” he tells me. “Where they teach you how to look for tell-tale signs of where the fire originates from.”

“How?” I am spearing a matcha Swiss roll with a fork. Over-dosing on fermented tea grown on volcanic rock. We keep getting up to refill our teapots at the hot-water dispenser. The little tea pots are matte ceramic vessels, veined with red-gold iron traces.

“Sometimes, there are V-shaped patterns that indicate that the fire burnt especially hot at that spot,” he says. “They could indicate a possible source, a clue as to where or how the fire started.”

He’s 11 years younger than I am. When he was a small boy, I was already in my teens. Hardly ever home. Burning the candles at both ends: dancing in clubs until dawn then mugging in libraries. We were never very close. As different as chalk and cheese. I am the family hot-head, quick to anger, and he hardly ever loses his temper. In a way, I’m a lot like my mother, whom I find a source of stress. He adores our mother. She had him at 38, after a painful and fraught geriatric pregnancy. He is a source of joy in her life. Possibly the only one.

“But,” he goes on, sipping his tea. “These signs don’t really mean anything. A fire could already have been raging, and then it reaches the fridge. There is coolant in the fridge, highly flammable. It explodes and the fire burns very hot. Doesn’t mean it was the source.”

Our phones blare periodically with alarms sent by the South Korean ministry of public administration and security. A heatwave warning for the north, east and west parts of Jeju. We are in the south of this island created by the eruption of Mount Halla – Hallasan, as the Koreans call it – which he wants to climb. Clouds pass over the tea plantation, the tea museum we are in. They unleash a quick storm and then go on their way.

“Why did you decide to become a fireman?” I say. Was there something in his childhood that made him feel like he was constantly putting out fires at home?

My mother’s volatility, overwhelming dissatisfaction and emotional manipulation; my father’s gambling addiction and financial instability. Their tempestuous yet co-dependent marriage. I do not name these things out loud. But I carry them everywhere with me, lodged like coals, like cooled-lava pebbles, in my heart. An ex-boyfriend once said I was a dormant volcano; he never knew when I was going to erupt. Anger has gone dormant in me, but never extinct.

“No,” my brother says. He looks out the window, at the magpies flitting in the museum garden. “No reason.”

When I was 21, I came home one day from shopping to find a fire engine and an ambulance parked outside our gate. After a huge argument with my father, my mother had put on a crimson dress, locked herself in the small utility room at the back of the house, where our domestic helper – when we employed one – slept, with aluminum bars over the window. She had lain down on the single bed with its stained bare mattress, after swallowing a bottle of pills. Then, with a kitchen knife, she had slit her wrists. My father had gone around the house looking for her, going as far as to enlist the neighbours’ help. This says something about both how needlessly big our house was and how little my father knew about its geography and the terrain of his wife’s soul. Her penchant for symbolic drama.

When they found her, they must have tried to force open the door, which proved anti-burglar strong. They would have broken the glass windows, but been unable to reach her through the squares of the aluminum grilles. With shaking hands, they would have dialed the Singapore Civil Defence Force, my brother’s employers decades in the future. The firemen would have arrived with battering ram to break down the door. The paramedics, to resuscitate and whisk her to the hospital, where her wounds were stitched and stomach pumped.

In the chaos of all that, no one would remember where my brother was or what he was doing. He was 10 at the time. Perhaps he was in his room, his neat little bed-cum-study right next to my parents’ master suite, surrounded by his toys – an array of rubber dinosaurs and remote-controlled cars arranged neatly on wide shelves. Perhaps, in the air-conditioned hum of the third floor, he had not heard the sirens of engines pulling up. The ensuing commotion. Perhaps, he was wearing his pale-blue pajama pants; his favourite Wong Fei Hung T-shirt he had won demonstrating made-up martial arts moves at Tang Dynasty City, the long-defunct ancient China theme-park on the outskirts of town. Perhaps tinny game music was issuing from the speakers of his computer as he navigated space and mobilised troops in Starcraft.

In the teahouse, I don’t bring this up. I don’t ask where he was or whether he remembers. I carry with me the guilt of not remembering and shielding him all those years ago.

Some fires, he is telling me now, are invisible fires. Ethanol or other chemicals that burn without a flame in the atmosphere. An infra-red device is required to detect their presence. Virtually impossible to put out. One simply had to wait for the flammable material to burn up.

I think about how some truths and histories burn bright-white, brighter than the human eye can stand to look at. Some narratives benefit from being wrapped in layers. Framed, reframed, like those illustrations I used to love as a child, where a scene is reflected in a mirror, a miniature version embedded within, and then another one smaller, and so on. Ad infinitum. A story can be wrapped in another story, like how you would drape a warm coat over the shoulders of a beloved to keep them safe. Swaddled like a long-awaited infant in the softest, silkiest quilt, then lowered and placed snugly in an older sibling’s unsteady arms. Or the fire blanket you throw over a burning person – rushing, flailing, screaming and incoherent with horror, a crazed charred figure senseless of meaning or direction; just a wild animal angered by agony – to put them out. To save them from themselves.

The sun continues its west-ward arc over the tea plantation. We are on our third hot-water refill, smacking our lips to the ‘umami’ taste of the expensive tea. Before coming to visit me off the Korean peninsula, he had suggested, over text, bringing my mother. The thought of having my mother in the little house I had rented, where she would no doubt set about arranging everything and criticising my lack of house-keeping skills, made me hyper-ventilate and burst into tears. I told him and he scrapped the idea. Whereupon, I became paralysed with guilt for being a bad daughter. I lay on the floor of my rented house for hours, trying to convince myself that it wouldn’t be so bad to have her visit. What was the worse that could happen? Maybe nothing bad would happen. Round and round, I argued with myself through the night. In the morning, I was exhausted. But sure that I didn’t want to see her. Not yet. Not here.

“There are a lot of false alarms in Singapore,” he says, “Sometimes, by the time we get there, the sprinklers have already put out the small blaze.”

There is a sister between us that we don’t speak to and rarely speak about for a mountain of reasons. When she threatened to kill herself years ago, hacking at her wrists ineffectually with a kitchen knife, as though life-ending techniques and preferences persisted along DNA lines, her young daughter had called my young son. It was my brother who was dispatched to find and stop her. The crisis-management specialist in our family.

“Tell me when you get tired of talking about fires,” I say.

He gives a small shrug to say it’s fine.

We have already tarried too long. The plan is to ride All-Terrain Vehicles and shoot pheasants at a nearby pleasure ground, then attempt to surf at a beach popular with those who like waiting for waves. When my 2000cc ATV gets too much for my weak arms to steer straight, my brother will let me ride on the back of his. Will open throttle to get us both over the muddy ruts and to the top of steep hills. Days later, when I get stuck on Hallasan during descent, night falling rapidly with still 2km of sole-breaking gotjawal rock trail to go, he will find a mountain ranger to send an SOS monorail. He’s one of the good guys, I have always known. The sort who does his job, in spite of fear, crushing heat and the burden of the fire host. The sort who presses ahead, in the line, behind another guy, blind from the fog inside his helmet, on his glasses, the thick smoke enveloping the scene.

We load tea paraphernalia onto trays and return them to the counter. Then we go next door to the gift shop to buy souvenirs for our mother. I pick out a scarf with a summery print of green fields. He gets a small tube of hand cream that smells like pink gardenias.

Sometimes, I think I don’t ask my brother if he remembers the past because we are so different. There is so much time between us, he and I share two separate versions of histories. Might even be on two divergent timelines. I don’t ask him to corroborate my facts about our family because I suspect all he has are contradictory evidence in this pointless fire investigation I’m constantly mired in. And that his lack of verification might make me fall apart like ash. Crumble like a pillar of salt because, like Lot’s wife, I cannot help looking back – examining V-shaped patterns that mean nothing, picking out hot spots that are red herrings as to who or what made me this water-logged mess.

Leaving the tea museum, we tote merchandise in paper bags. We are the lucky ones, I know. The ones who got away relatively unscathed in the world, in life. Ordinary tourists. Elsewhere, wildfires rage in Canada. Floods claim lives on the mainland. We put on our hats and venture back out into afternoon’s pyre.