Tingalayo. Come little donkey, come.
My donkey walk, my donkey talk,
My donkey eat with a knife and fork,
My donkey eat, my donkey sleep,
My donkey kick with his two hind feet,
As our house burned down behind me.
I turn up the volume on a children's CD given to us upon registration for one of those mom & me type classes that Violet and I attended every Friday morning from September to December, and turn around to look out the the rear window of our SUV.
Just over Violet's cloud of curls I can see fire shooting from the roof of our home. The flames are higher now, licking skyward, and smoke billows in every direction. Firefighters have not yet arrived and, for a second, I wonder if the neighbor's house is in danger.
...my donkey walk, my donkey talk,
my donkey eat with a knife and fork...
I force my lips to stretch into what I imagine must be a sickly smile and sing a couple lyrics from Tingalayo, Violet's favorite song. She grins and picks up one of the books that have taken up permanent residence in our SUV so as to keep her occupied while driving. I never imagined they'd be used as a distraction to keep her from witnessing our house burning down.
Tingalayo, come little donkey, come.
Tingalayo, come little donkey, come.
I see a fire truck, no, two fire trucks, turn down our road and reach down to crank up the volume even louder. I get out of the SUV and walk toward our house. Serge is standing across the street watching the flames. We just look at each other, expressionless.
Is this happening?
Smoke is pouring from the front of the house now, from the attic window where I had set up my office. I think of all our family files, birth certificates, marriage certificate, my childhood photos, journals, yearbooks, newspaper clippings, clothing, memorabilia from Serge's time spent in Marah, boxes of keepsakes collected from the first years of Violet and Henry's lives, hard drives, discs with pictures and videos - all of it on fire. I try to remember what I'd left on my desk this morning. My glasses. My phone? My computer? Wait, no. Serge had shoved both computers at me when he pushed me into the SUV with the kids. I look at Serge again and he motions me to get back in the car with the kids.
I walk weakly back to the front of the car as another fire truck races past. The SUV feels like a prison. My house is on fire! My house is on fire! I'm supposed to sit here listening to the fucking donkey song while my whole life turns to ash? There, on the passenger seat, sit both computers. I notice mine is still on, which tells me that not even ten minutes ago I was sitting on our couch trying to explain WordPress to Serge. Ten minutes? That feels like ten hours, ten years, a lifetime ago...
After a glance back at Henry and Violet who are both playing with toys, I open my laptop to see that I'm still logged into Facebook and Twitter. With shaking fingers I type that my house is on fire. I don't know why. For help, maybe? Someone to talk to as my house burns? No matter because my battery dies within seconds of sending out my internet SOS and I am alone again with the donkey song.
Serge returns to the SUV and I tell him I need to see, I need to know what's going on. He silently takes my place in the driver's seat and I walk back to where it looks as if the entire second floor of my house is engulfed in flames.
I watch as firefighters break into Henry's bedroom window and begin spraying water. They are everywhere now, the firefighters. I count five fire trucks before turning my attention back to my house. Flames are shooting from Violet's bedroom windows and the roof above her bedroom. I think of getting her dressed in that room just hours before. Had the fire been burning then? I smelled smoke all morning, but had assumed it was the neighbor's wood burning stove. On really windy days the smoke from his chimney blows right into our house and smells like burning wood. Had I been smelling our own house on fire? Yes, I was, as it turns out. Fire in the walls. In Violet's walls.
After lunch I'd sent Violet upstairs to pick out a book to read. I was helping Serge navigate Babble - it was his first day writing for Dadding - when I heard Violet make a strange noise. I've thought about it a million times - what noise did she make? Was it a cry? No. Was it a scream? No. Did she call for me? I think she called for me in a tone I'd never heard before. Mom. Whatever sound she made, it was alarming and unusual enough for me to run to the back stairs leading directly to her bedroom. At the same time, someone began pounding on our front door. Also alarming and unusual. We used our side door and so did everyone we know.
As I reached the foot of the back staircase Serge opened the door and I heard a man yell, "Your house is on fire! Your house is on fire!" I was hearing this as I ascended the stairs into smoke.
Violet. Violet. Violet. Violet. Violet. Violet.
She was standing there, in her bedroom door, as flames licked the wall not inches from her head. She wasn't looking at the fire, she was looking at me. Waiting. She had been waiting for me to come find her. I scooped her in my arms and screamed to Serge, "CALL 911. THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE. THERE ARE FLAMES EVERYWHERE. CALL 911."
I rushed downstairs carrying Violet. I later learned Serge had immediately scrambled up the front stairs to look for Violet and couldn't find her. How scary those moments must have been for him. All I knew at the time was that Serge appeared in the driveway and already had 911 on the phone. I have a vague recollection of the man who knocked on our door standing there. His wife jumped from the truck they'd been driving past our house when they spotted smoke pouring from our attic. Serge and I had been arguing about HTML coding and our house was on fire. Sneaky fucking fire. In the walls. Could've been smouldering for hours, the fire marshal later told me. Only at my worst moments do I let my mind wonder what would've happened if the fire blazed up at night. It started right at Violet's door.
I turned back to look up at Violet's room and could see flames. I began screaming incoherently. Not my finest moment. Monica! Serge barked at me - the equivalent of a vocal slap to get my shit together because my daughter was watching me.
These were bizarre moments, the ones just after calling 911, before anyone arrived to help. You just stand there, helplessly. Where do you go? What do you do? It was below freezing. I was now carrying Henry. Running around my driveway like a lunatic, feeling like I should be doing something to stop the fire. Maybe I could still stop the fire, I thought. Maybe it's not so bad. Maybe I can get all our family documents out of the attic. It had been one minute, maybe, since I first carried Violet downstairs. It can't be that bad, I thought. As Serge began putting the kids in their car seats in the SUV, I loaded Max and Milo in the back and went back inside the house despite Serge yelling at me to get in the car.
Stupid, yes. I know. I was later severely reprimanded by the fire marshal for going back into a burning house and you can sit there shaking your head at my frantic actions, but, at the time, if you were in the first floor of our house you could barely tell that the top two floors were burning. It didn't feel dangerous. Maybe the fire was just in Violet's room, I thought. Maybe I could contain it with our fire extinguisher? Maybe I could minimize the damage by shutting doors? Maybe I could just grab the box filled with our family files?
I dunno what I was thinking, really. But I ran back inside. The first floor was relatively normal. I ran up the back steps and into the guest bedroom where a staircase leads to the attic where my office was located and everything I've ever saved since birth really, was stored. I opened the door leading to the attic.
Thick black smoke poured around my head and into the bedroom. This is bad. This is really bad, I thought. My body nearly gave out from the realization that this was no little flame up, this was no burned wall that we were dealing with, this was going to be a devastating fire.
I slammed the attic door and ran downstairs closing every door behind me. I was later told that closing one of those doors was key in keeping the entire house from burning.
My journey upstairs took a total of 30 seconds, maybe. Serge was loading the kids into the car. He tossed our computers onto the passenger seat and told me to drive the car down the street facing away from the fire. We need to clear the driveway for the firefighters, he said. He was going to follow me in our white car.
I pasted a happy smile on my face and asked Violet if she wanted to listen to the "The Donkey Song". Never one to turn down Tingalayo, she readily agreed. And so it has become the soundtrack to the fire that destroyed our beloved house in the country.
A couple days later someone posted a link to a story in a local paper featuring photos of our burning house on my Facebook page. Some of the photos show fire and lots of smoke and firefighters wielding hoses - but this one below, it's the one that gets me. There, you can see our SUV facing away from the fire, nose to nose with our white car Serge had parked in front. You can't see us, but we're all there in the SUV, just feet away from fire trucks and firefighters, listening to Tingalayo while our house burns behind us.