by Tegan Day
“Because you can’t set fire to water.”
“No, you can’t set fire to water.”
“Why would I want to set fire to water?”
“You wouldn’t, ’cause then I’d be right.”
Harriet sighed. It was things like this—things like not being about to set fire to a simple bowl of water—that really got to her these days. It was getting late for the Ability to kick in, she was almost eighteen. Most girls were already there—causing spontaneous fires whenever they wanted, but not her. It didn’t help that she was the older sister to a prodigy. Marian got the Ability when she was seven: white sparks flying from her tiny fingers when she laughed, charred and melted dolls’ heads piled into their ashen pram. Her parents were so proud. Harriet was proud too, but she’d been thirteen at the time and expecting her day was about to come. Things were different now. Marian was advancing quickly and this water-on-fire thing was just another trick she’d have mastered in a week’s time, leaving Harriet with nothing but a bowl of lukewarm water clutched in her jealous, useless hands.
Harriet stayed outside until dusk and the stones of the patio began to cool beneath her. Living under several of Heathrow airport’s transatlantic flightpaths had it’s advantages; advantages such as the engine’s roar drowning out her thoughts at regular intervals, stirring up miniature ripples in the shallow bowl of water that was still in front of her. As the sun oozed towards the horizon and the sky turned an overwhelming shade of orange, Harriet felt a large, cool hand on her back.
“She doesn’t mean to do it, you know. She’s just trying to impress you.”
“She knows I can’t do it.” To Harriet’s disappointment her voice sounded strained and teary rather than irritated, which is what she really was.
“I know. She’s still learning too though.” David brushed his daughter’s short hair away from her eyes, and let his fingers drift into the water bowl. “It takes a long time to learn control like most people have.” As he lifted his fingers, tendrils of water followed them into the air, twisting like fragile, glassy snakes. His Ability was not so potent as Marian’s, but the male Ability rarely was. Water was a quieter medium. Harriet could remember her closest friend, Charlie, touching the side of his glass at lunch and all the water inside it flooding towards his finger as if gravity had moved by ninety degrees. Such a simple thing, and yet Harriet had always found water manipulations to be more beautiful, maybe because they were simple.
Her father held a bright orb of water an inch above his palm, letting the fiery light of the sunset illuminate the liquid. It was better than lighting a fire on the surface, thought Harriet, this is how things ought to unite.
“Are you hungry? Mum’s cooking.” Mum’s cooking. Lighting the gas hob with a snap of her fingers. Boiling water in the palm of her hand. Last week she’d torched the surface of a crème brulee with her bare skin, and Marian had tried to help and burnt it.
“No, not really.”
“Okay.” With a flick of his wrist David caused the water to twist and arc, falling silently back into the bowl, the surface perfectly still as if nobody had disturbed it for hours. “Come in when you’re ready.” She heard him open the kitchen door and disappear into the house, silently wishing he would stay and hold the water again, just so she could see the lovely way the light caught it. She looked over to where the Sun was sinking behind the rooftops of her neighbours. It would feel like nothing else to have even the smallest fraction of that power in her control. She reached out towards it, imagined the fire was there in her hand. She gripped it, tightened her fist and pulled it towards her, but when she opened her hand it was empty and cold.
“What are you doing?” Marian’s voice was shrill, judgemental and so unwelcome that Harriet could feel a sob rising in her throat. It was humiliating—her baby sister was looking down on her like she was a freak. Knowing that she was.
“Go away.” She whispered, and continued to watch the sliver of sunlight shrink between the chimneystacks, her fingertips in the soothing water bowl.
“Why?” Marian demanded. Harriet heard a clap and turned to see flames dance around her sister’s hands. She started singeing buds of lavender from the bush by the door.
“Don’t do that.” Harriet snapped, irritation flaring at the pointless destruction.
“I’m just practicing. Maybe you should practice.” Marian sneered. “You should at least try.” Harriet ignored her, but she heard another clap and a crackle. “Try.” Marian repeated, clapping again, sparks flying as she began to chant. “Try.” Clap. “Try.” Clap. “Try.” Clap. She advanced on Harriet slowly, taunting, her tiny pink hands crackling with white-hot flame. The anger was rising in Harriet’s chest, frustration with herself, with her patient parents, with Marian and her hot, ugly gift. She could feel the heat from the clapping and the sparks on her face before she lost control. Without ever deciding to, her hands were out of the bowl and stretching towards her sister, clasping over the flame as if to starve it of air.
They both froze.
Where the fire had been a second before, Harriet’s hands now grasped her sister’s tightly. Around their hands, an orb of clear water spun, the currents visible on the surface and their skin visible beneath, the pace slowing like a globe that has been spun on it’s axis but is running out of momentum. They were both fixated on it for an impossibly long moment, and finally Harriet looked up to her sister’s face. The water dropped to the floor, splashing their ankles. All traces of the fire were extinguished. Marian began to cry.
Tegan Day is a gap year student from the UK and is looking to study English Literature at uni in 2015. Writing is a hobby for her at the moment and in her free time she runs a dry and humourless poetry and literature analysis blog which can be found here: http://committedchameleon.wordpress.com/ She’s new to flash fiction writing, but so far thinks it’s pretty cool.
Tegan writes, “This story was inspired by the medieval notion of the four humours. The ‘magic’ in this story is based on a reversal of the typical characteristics associated with men and women—men being traditionally hot and dry and women being cold and moist. What I’ve done is essentially a literal interpretation of that brought into the modern day. The twist is that not everyone fits in with expectations based on their sex and its the cause of some familial conflict.”