A Virgin Fire
by Andrea Price Berthot
Audra was fifteen when she first discovered her body was capable of fire. There was a boy named Billy who went to her church – he was seventeen, a senior at the high school – and he was a star. His presence was radiant, magnetic, and it was conceivable that worlds could, and probably would, someday revolve around him. He played guitar in a garage band, drums in the marching band, and excelled at almost every sport the school offered. Audra first felt that pure, white-hot, burning sensation under her skin while listening to him speak during Church Youth Group.
Mr. Scaggs, a shriveled pharmacist whose thin, white skin and hair gave him a countenance so delicate and wraithlike he must have sustained himself only on the pills he dispensed, was the volunteer in charge, but Billy was the true, if unofficial, leader of the group. When he lectured on the Bible he paced around the room like a panther, his frame sharp against the muted-green chalkboard, his eyes blazing beneath the buzzing florescent lights, the heat of his spiritual fervor coming off his body in waves. Audra’s desire for him was so basic and profound that the longing itself was achingly fulfilling. She was meant to burn like this, body and soul. – That year the Youth Group put on a mini-pageant during the Christmas Eve service. Billy was, of course, Joseph, and while Audra had secretly hoped to be Mary, the part had gone to an extraordinarily dainty sophomore who had multiple Junior Miss tiaras stacking the shelves of her bedroom, and Audra was forced to play the wise man bearing frankincense. Her disappointment faded, however, when she knelt down before the Holy Family during the performance and, as she handed her tin-foil-wrapped shoebox to Billy, their fingers touched. Audra felt her skin go up in sudden flames, and when she glanced up and saw he was looking straight into her eyes, his smile brighter than the wiry, electric star of Bethlehem hanging over their heads, the teen queen and the plastic Baby Jesus seemed to disappear.
After sufficient begging, Audra’s parents allowed her to get a ride home from Billy. As the other cars slowly left the parking lot and fresh snow began to fall, the two of them remained in Billy’s golden Pontiac Fiero. He had named it Glory after he saved it from the scrap yard. The wind whistled viciously outside, but Audra was wrapped in warmth and wanting, and heard only Billy’s voice. She wondered if he would touch her again, if the lightning-bolt of his words would collide with the surface of her skin. Then when he took her hand and spoke of the Pentecost, she was thrilled to feel the tongues of fire. When he intertwined their fingers and spoke of the Trinity her Passion gave way to Rapture and she kissed him in Glory.
As the weeks passed, she filled long afternoons in the dim, empty Youth Room and late nights in her own darkened bedroom on the phone with Billy’s beautiful words. The embers that had been glowing within her grew brighter every time his lips touched hers, and it seemed that it would stay that way, just like that, for a long, long time. Billy had always made it clear that sex before marriage was out of the question and he even wore a small, sterling silver purity ring as a sign of his commitment to abstinence. He had given Audra one to wear as well, so she would not be pushed too close to the flames too soon.
But then when they were kissing in Glory one night he put his hands on her shoulders and she knew. She knew like a spider knows the moment it is spied climbing up a wall. He pushed her down, gently at first, but when instinct told her to resist, the single jerk of her body provoked something else in his. The gentleness vanished and he pushed her down, hard.
He didn’t say, “Come on, Baby,” or “I love you,” or “Please.” He didn’t tear at her clothes or claw at her body. He didn’t pant with lusty desperation or spread his hands over her most secret places. His head was back, his eyes were closed, and his burning was not for her. Almost carelessly, he forced her to her knees, trapping her head between the steering wheel and his lap. He unzipped his fly, held it in his hand, and pushed her face toward it.
Overwhelmed by the musty scents of wet cotton underpants and sweat gone stale on the skin, Audra convulsed, straining the muscles in the back of her neck, but he gripped the hair at the base of her skull and pushed her head down even further. She realized if she continued to fight, she could actually choke to death. She closed her eyes and heard him say from a distance, far above her, “Do you like it?” As if hearing himself say it was satisfaction enough. He pulled her head back and said it again. “You like it? You like it?”
Audra’s eyes welled up and she said yes immediately, not even considering it a lie. He didn’t say anything again until it was almost over, and then he mumbled, “Don’t get it on my pants,” so she didn’t.
As he drove her home afterwards he said spring break was coming up soon and he couldn’t decide if he should spend it with his family on a Disney cruise or organize a skiing trip for the Youth Group in Colorado. At the moment he was leaning toward the skiing trip; he had never been to Colorado before. When he pulled into her driveway and Audra stepped out of the car, he smiled magnanimously and said, “Thank you.”
Audra rushed to the bathroom and brushed her teeth so fiercely that she almost gagged again. She placed her hand on her stomach. Part of him was still in there, living and swimming and polluting her. She vomited violently, but there was no real purging.
The next day was Sunday, and during the church service Billy played his guitar and sang a song by a contemporary Christian rock band about struggling as a Christian in the secular world. The stress made the songwriter feel as “scattered as the woman whose body was torn for the twelve tribes.” Audra didn’t recognize the reference but found herself shifting uncomfortably in her pew. After the service Billy caught her in the hallway and pulled her into the kindergarten Sunday School room; it was dim and empty with construction paper animals marching toward a cartoon cut-out of Noah and his laminated ark. Billy gripped both of Audra’s hands and smiled at her.
“Your hands are freezing,” he laughed.
“Great job on the song,” she heard herself say.
Billy laughed again, almost ecstatically. “Great job to you…last night. You said you liked it.”
“I did,” she said quickly, her voice cracking.
“Good.” He cupped his hands around her face and pulled her into a kiss. “I love you so much, Audra,” he whispered warmly, brushing his mouth along her ear.
Desperate to feel the fire again, she pressed her mouth passionately against his. Frantically, near hysteria, she forced herself against him again and again, grinding her body into his and pressing his back against the cinder block wall.
“Hold on,” he shrieked under his breath, seizing her wrists and wrenching her away. “Someone could hear us and come in.”
“I’m sorry,” Audra exhaled miserably, trembling.
Billy laughed nervously. “It’s okay. It’s sweet.” As if to assure her, he kissed her again, first softly, then sensuously, murmuring, “Later, I have something else you can kiss.”
“But you said someone will come in.”
“Don’t worry,” he whispered. “I know where we can go, and we’ll both be very quiet.” Silently, he led her to the supply closet in the corner of the room.
While kneeling before Billy in the crayon-scented closet, Audra felt the fire within flicker out entirely.
The room smelled exactly the same four years later, when Audra found herself dressed in a sensible white gown and sitting on a chair that was too small for her while Billy’s younger sister, Susan, stood behind her, fixing a veil atop her head. Audra was only eighteen, but Billy, who had gotten his undergraduate degree from the local Methodist University a semester early, was eager to attend seminary that spring. She was to get a job as a waitress or a clerk, just to make ends meet while he finished school.
Audra glanced out the small window near the back of the room. “It’s snowing,” she said, the flimsy flakes like ashes against a sooty sky.
Audra’s senses were overwhelmed by the odor of Susan’s pudgy, tanning booth-roasted underarm beside her face. Audra had asked her to be the maid of honor not only because she was Billy’s sister, but because Audra had no other girlfriends. Her friends were Billy’s friends.
the two of them moved into their places before the pastor, Audra clutched her
begonia bouquet and held her breath. As the two of them began to kneel before
the altar on the stain-resistant carpet, she realized she was kneeling exactly
where she had years before offering Billy her tin-foil frankincense.
Involuntarily, her eyes floated upwards, just as they had then, but instead of
Billy’s face she saw the wooden cross above the pastor’s head. She rose to her
feet, dropping the bouquet and gasping almost as loudly as the stunned witnesses
in the pews. She thought she heard Billy saying her name, but Audra turned and
ran back up the aisle, out the front doors of the church. She stopped in her
tracks when the wind hit her face and she saw Glory, parked at the foot of the
front steps, the keys in the ignition, waiting to take them away. Billy’s mother
had lined the walkway with tall bamboo torches to illuminate the procession.
Audra found the tiki torches ridiculous but helped arrange them along the steps
before the ceremony. She wrenched two of the flaming torches free from their
plastic bases and,
carrying one in each hand, flew through the snow, down the steps to Glory. She propped one torch up against the car and shoved the other, flame-first, into the snow to douse it. She unscrewed the synthetic coconut shell, removed the metal kerosene container, and tossed the headless rod aside. People began spilling down the stairs and shouting her name as she emptied the container onto the front seats of the car.
“Audra!” Billy screamed as he flew down the steps, shoving people out of his way. “What the hell are you doing?” As he reached the foot of the stairs, Audra retrieved the flaming torch and brandished it before her like a zealous, raging warrior.
She approached him slowly, her blazing eyes brilliant mirrors of the flame she held before her. “Take it off,” she said calmly, gesturing toward his purity ring. Billy removed the ring, but his eyes were angry. “Throw it in the car,” she commanded, and with a low, violent grunt, he obeyed and chucked the ring through the open passenger door. Audra smiled effortlessly for the first time in years as she backed away from him, and when she tossed the torch onto the damp front seats, her heart, as well as Glory, blossomed into flames.
A few people screamed but most remained silent. Breathing deeply the cool, Christmas air, she pulled the veil from her head and flung it into the fire.
Some people would say that, as she walked out into the night, her flowing white gown seemed to glow against the sky, blurring the edges of her frame and giving her the airy gait of a ghost. But Audra had never felt more solidly flesh as she walked through the bright, sparkling snow, the purifying flames behind her, warm and divine against her back.
Andrea Price Berthot's fiction has previously been published in Room Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, Moondance, and Melusine or Woman in the 21st Century. She had a short story win first place in the 2006 Kansas Author’s Club Literary Contest, and another win second place in the Kansas Writer’s Association’s “Between Fences Poetry & Writers” contest in 2007. She teaches English and Creative Writing in Arkansas City, Kansas, and lives with her husband and her son, Maximus, in the nearby town of Winfield.
“A Virgin Fire” was first published in Room Magazine.