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Felicity’s fire was merely a spark when she was a babe, a useful skill for a girl whose parents were settlers. They had no need of flint or tinder after her first birthday. They liked to show her off to the cowboys who passed through, painting her ability as a gift rather than a curse, especially when she could light blazing bonfires during the howling gales common in the Kansas spring.
True, she did sometimes set her clothes on fire, and once burned down the cabin, but the clothes were made from flour sacks anyway, and the cabin the family built to replace the original was far roomier and sturdier. And as she grew, Felicity was better able to control the fire, so there was no more worry about setting the grasslands ablaze by accident.
Mama and Papa had more children, but none of them possessed Felicity’s gift with fire. They were relieved. One of her kind was enough for the family, thank you very much, and they’d been lucky it was an obedient girl-child. Could you imagine if her brother Jedediah had such a power? He could barely piss in the latrine hole without getting it all over his trousers.
Around the time she turned fourteen, Felicity woke in the night to her bed on fire. She ran outside and the family doused the burning bed with the bucket of water they kept in the bedroom for just such an occasion. Felicity burned for hours in the yard, her nightgown blackening and turning to ash. The fire had never hurt her before, but now it was like a thousand wasps stinging her all at once. She screamed and howled and rolled naked on the ground, desperate to make it stop.
Her family stood around her, throwing buckets of water and blankets over the flames, but the water evaporated and the blankets vaporized instantly in the heat of the six-foot-tall blue flames. They were reduced to putting out the small fires erupting in the grass nearby, waiting for Felicity to stop burning. For hours she wailed and cried and begged for them to help her.
Sometime in the mid-morning, the fire waned, the flames growing smaller until they finally went out, leaving behind a sobbing, soot-covered girl, thick gray smoke drifting up from her body, curled in the fetal position. All around her the earth was black, the grass seared away.
The poor girl was bald, right down to her eyelashes. The top layer of her skin was black and crispy to the touch. Over the next days and weeks, it would gradually peel away, revealing skin underneath as smooth and pink as a babe’s. Her hair would grow back lustrous and golden. Her eyelashes returned longer and fuller. Even her gray eyes seemed bluer after that night.
The family built a special sleeping shed for Felicity after that, far from the main house, in an area cleared of grass. Just in case.
When cowboys and caravans of settlers visited the homestead, Felicity’s gift was no longer what they noticed about her. Whispers began in town that Felicity was a witch. A carnival troupe passed through and offered ten whole dollars for her. Ten dollars was a lot, enough to feed the family for years, but Felicity’s mother refused to sell. Her daughter was, after all, only a child, and she’d seen the look of lust on the ringleader’s ugly face. She might be a witch, but she was still her mother’s only daughter, and her first child.
One night, a cowboy snuck into Felicity’s locked sleeping shed. She burned down the shed with him inside and would tell no one what had occurred, suddenly stricken with muteness. The local sheriff didn’t know what to make of it. A posse of the cowboy’s friends came for Felicity, but when they tried to grab her, she burst into blue flames. One tried to shoot her, but the bullets melted in the heat before they could touch her. Felicity burned and burned until the cowboys gave up.
After that, Felicity did as she pleased. She lived in the woods. Sometimes she would venture to the farmhouse with a skirt full of mushrooms or herbs and would eat dinner with her family. Other times they didn’t see her for weeks. Some nights, her brother Jedediah would look out the window to see a bright blue spot glowing in the trees: his sister Felicity consumed by fire.
Desperate for help, Mama wrote to a faith healer advertised in the Farm & Feed catalogue.
Three months later, on a cold October day, Reverend Hightower stepped onto the farm. He was a tall man dressed in austere black, with a tall black hat and a huge black horse. He looked less like a faith healer, Mama thought, and more like a demon hunter.
Felicity emerged naked from the woods to greet him. Her lustrous hair was a matted tangle full of sticks and leaves. Her beautiful skin was caked with mud and crisscrossed with streaks of blood. But her eyes, her eyes were bright blue, fierce and full of fire.
Reverend Hightower promised he could take the fire from her. Mama wept with relief. Papa sent the other children to fetch buckets of water and soaked blankets, because he was a practical man. Felicity knelt before the Reverend, her head held high.
The Reverend walked around to her back and placed his hand against her skin. Flames erupted where he touched. He gritted his teeth and did not pull his hand away. The family watched in wonder as he burned while uttering a strange prayer in a language that sounded like Latin but wasn’t Latin, not any Latin Papa had heard, and he’d spent his formative years in Catholic school.
When Reverend Hightower finally pulled his hand away, the fire came with it. Felicity screamed, long and low, the sound a cow makes when she loses her calf to wolves. The Reverend clenched his fist and the fire consumed his hand. He released a shout of agony as his skin blackened and peeled away down to the bone, but the fire died.
Felicity curled in on herself, collapsing to the ground. Mama ran to her, wrapping her arms around her precious baby girl and pleading with her not to die, yet Felicity breathed no more. The sound Mama made was so terrible the air seemed to waver and shrink back from her sorrow.
Papa’s hands went to the Reverend’s throat, but Reverend Hightower was gone. What stood in his place was a creature out of myth, a thing in the shape of a man, but with eyes of burning coal and a mouth full of needle-teeth. The thing disguised as Reverend Hightower laughed and executed a bizarre, boneless jig, mounting the horse that was now a skeletal nightmare. The sound of the demon’s rasping, grating laughter hovered over the farm long after his silhouette had receded on the horizon.
The family buried Felicity in the forest. Every October, Mama and Papa woke in the night to see something bright in the trees. The ghost never came to the house, and she disappeared when Mama ran to her.
After Mama and Papa passed, it was Jedediah and his wife who saw the blue fire between the branches.
Jed wasn’t surprised when one of his daughters had the spark.
Interview with Sarah Hans, Author of “Take the Fire From Her”
What inspired your story?
My story was inspired by an image of a demon on a fiery steed. He was wearing a tall black hat like a pilgrim. It made me think about who might summon such a creature, thinking he was going to be a helpful reverend, only to find he was actually a demon.
What’s your favorite gothic story or poem and why?
Right now I’m really in love with Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and A Human Stain, by Kelly Robson, but of course I love a lot of Poe, as well. I’m a teacher in my day job and teaching “The Tell-Tale Heart” to my eighth graders is always a joy.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been telling stories my whole life, writing since they first taught me letters, and was first published in a book of poetry written by children when I was in middle school. My first paying gig, however, was way back in 2011.
Do you have a theme you return to time and again?
I tell a lot of stories about abused women and supernatural creatures. I love historical settings, as well.
What are you working on now?
I’m in the process of editing my first novel, Entomophobia, which is in contract with publisher Omnium Gatherum, and writing a second novel called Paradise Hollow that I’m pitching as Anne of Green Gables meets Dagon.
What else would you like people to know? Where can people find you online?
Sarah Hans is an award-winning writer, editor, and teacher. Her short stories have appeared in over twenty publications, but she’s best known for the multicultural steampunk anthology Steampunk World, which appeared on io9, Boing Boing, Entertainment Weekly Online, and Humble Bundle, and also won the 2015 Steampunk Chronicle Reader’s Choice Award for Best Fiction. You can read more of Sarah’s short stories in the collection Dead Girls Don’t Love, published by Dragon’s Roost Press, or on her Patreon for just $1/month. You can also find her on Twitter.
You can contact Sarah via email at sarah.hans [at] gmail [dot] com, or visit her on Facebook.