by AJ Fitzgerald
Harvey Holt always noticed that the towerâ€™s top glowed different colors on different nights. It flickered against a flat black curtain of missing stars and a carpet of fluorescent whites. Lights and shapes danced behind its four clock faces.
-Why does the tower glow? he asked his father.
-She lights it up from inside. Her hair is burning.
Harveyâ€™s father could not explain how or when the fire started, or why no one climbed the stairs to help.
-Thereâ€™s a mystery you should solve, he said to Harvey.
Harvey Holt believed his fatherâ€™s story since he first heard it at the age of ten. But his obsession with the glowing clock tower dated to much earlier. Rather than read or watch television, he stared toward it through his window at every opportunity before bed.
At first he noticed the color in the clock faces, and how it changed. Red, orange, yellow and blue were the principals, but he would proudly tell you that he has seen the south face beam green a few times, and purple once too. Yellow, orange, red, and blue always followed in that order. Purple and green appeared in the spots in that sequence you might expect.
By age thirteen Harvey was bored by consecutive nights of red, and expanded his focus. He began to notice that clouds shied away from the towerâ€™s silhouette after sun down, but the cityâ€™s stars huddled toward it like friends hiding from nightâ€™s chill beside a bonfire.
Later he noted the movements of the moon and stars in the sky behind her- those few that were visible through the glow of the cityâ€™s street lamps, headlights and brake lights and flashing blues and reds, lamps and lanterns and of course, the color from the clock tower. They collaborated in circling the clock, as if they were an extension of its arms, a fourth instrument of measurement by which to keep time.
But one star stood lonely above the tower top. It did not budge or dance, shimmy or turn, bounce or oscillate. Always loyal in its vigilance, it never left her side; a tiny white hole in the sparse tapestry of nightâ€™s sky.
-Shouldnâ€™t she be out of hair by now?
-It burns and grows at the same rate, Harvey. Sheâ€™ll never run out.
-What set the fire?
-A birthday candle.
-Why hasnâ€™t anyone tried to help her?
-I bet the doors are locked.
With each new line of questioning, Harveyâ€™s father became more afraid of his sonâ€™s obsession, wished he could take back his careless explanation, until he refused to offer further information about the girl whose hair was burning.
Harvey woke up early on school days so his route to school might lie tangent to the towerâ€™s bottom. Every day he tried its doors, but his father was right. The doors were locked.
As he got older still he passed the tower on his way home from drunkenness. He rattled the door handles and yelled skyward toward the girl he had spent his life coveting. A pair of drunk friends pulled him away each time, and sent him home.
But in one instance, in the absence of daytimeâ€™s suffocating blue hues, influences of alcohol, and friends, Harvey Holt walked to the door of the clock tower, and tried it. By fortune or fate or negligence, it was not locked, and he charged through.
The lobby was empty and eerie. A dusty desk sat in front of him, where a secretary or receptionist may have once been posted to answer the questions his father had long stopped answering. But none of the signs of that sort of labour were present. There were no papers or photographs or pens littering its surface, nor their corresponding outlines in the dust. There was a phone, but without a ringtone. Harveyâ€™s hand left a mark on the handle.
Behind and to the right of the desk was a big wooden door that radiated twilight and warmth. In fact, the lumberâ€™s improbable luminescence was the most plausible explanation for the light he saw by – there were no lamps or ceiling lights, or even a light switch. Upon it sat white paint in the shape of nine capital letters. Between an A and R was a superfluous space, a tiny column of wood a shade lighter and a few years younger in appearance than the rest. Contrary to the authorâ€™s intention, the door now read –
â€˜NORTH STA R.â€™
Harvey nudged it open and ran up the stairs until he ran out of them. On the last landing, he found a door identical to the first but for its alphabetical adornments. The metal handle glowed orange. Harvey tried to grip it but his hand retreated in pain faster than it had advanced. He burned his right hand four times before stopping, and his left hand once too.
Finally, in a stroke of defeated genius, Harvey shed his red plaid shirt, wrapped it around the handle, pushed down and pulled.
There she was with her hair on fire.
His senses were full. Full from the reds dancing on the girls head and reflecting in the metallic clock parts. Full from the buzzing, hissing, clacking and clicking of those moving pieces and a smell that he could not identify. It smelled like rust, smoke, and cake mixed up so that you could no longer tell the difference between them.
Harvey made his introduction with his lips and hers. Fourteen years of waiting, dreaming and romantic fictions led to those few seconds of kiss, until the heat pushed his face away.
Harvey inhaled as he stepped back to a comfortable temperature to admire her. Her skin was the color of pearls, and her dress the color of that dark curtain the moon pulls over the sky at nighttime. The top of it showed her neck and a little below that, to the spot where the shape of her chest began its declaration of her sex. Her arms hung like two pearl peninsulas bracketing a black sea. The dress curved when her figure curved, and the hem of it kissed her ankles.
The gnashing of the gearsâ€™ teeth faded from his attention as he watched her. But she did not watch back.
Harvey watched for a long enough time that he would have lost track of it had he not been able to read the clock faces in reverse. At some point, though he could not recollect or reconstruct her movements, she was not longer staring through the north face but in between the west and north clocks. It was not only her head or eyes- her feet and shoulders now faced northwest.
Then, as the black night turned grey, a spark, a twink of light fell from her hair to the dress, caught and smoked out. In its place was left a little circle of white, a pearl island, the first star in a virgin night sky.
Another spark fell and licked the trim of her dress, and a second star was born.
By now Harveyâ€™s feet had carried him closer and when the third spark fell he caught it. The girl did not move or speak or blink.
Harvey waited for a fourth spark but it did not come. The grey sky turned, she was now facing west, and as yellow sunlight seeped through the glass her skin stole its color. Her hair went out. A bright blank hemisphere assumed the fireâ€™s place atop her head.
The girl turned and looked at Harvey for the first time, in sunlight, looking nothing like she had a few minutes earlier, or like she had for the last fourteen years of his imagination. Harvey whimpered and retreated under her bald stare. He flew down the stairs, to home. The next night Harvey returned to the tower with his motherâ€™s oven mitts. When the first spark fell, he clapped it. When he missed and a thread caught fire, he clapped near it, and the wind blew out the flame like a kidâ€™s birthday candle.
If only there were oven mitts at that fateful party, Harvey thought. To pass the time, Harvey talked. He spoke of puppies past and dogs present, of photographs he had taken and would like to take, of people he knew and would like her to know too. And he asked questions. Which kind was that fateful cake? Did she rush alit from the party, or did everyone else? How long did they try to put the fire out? Did they try?
Through each sentence and question, the girl whose hair was on fire refused to speak or move or blink. She did not turn her head or eyes to face him, though Harvey was aware as the night wore on that she had been turning the whole time like the previous night, slow enough that you could notice the result but not the method.
During pauses in conversation, which coincided perfectly with Harveyâ€™s pauses, Harvey glanced toward the clock face. In those circumstances, time plodded, but when he spoke it ran. These effects seemed so exaggerated that Harvey grew suspicious that it was his own words that powered the clock, in stead of the heat from the girlâ€™s hair or steam or electricity in the traditional sense. He slowed the pace of his paragraphs so that he might spend more time with her.
For the first time in two nights, Harvey smelled smoke. His hand became warm, and at the sensationâ€™s suggestion he looked down to find his right oven mitt ablaze. He threw it off and snuffed the flame out with his shoes.
He threw off the left one too, though only because that hand now felt awkward and lonely in its outfit.
The sparks felt fine in his naked palms, so he returned to his spark catching post, mittless. When a small combustion started on the girlâ€™s breast, Harveyâ€™s hands hesitated to give and take away their touch. His fingers lingered there while she refused to blink or speak. Harvey told himself that she liked it, that in those moments she was entertaining the same romantic hypotheticals he had illustrated for so many years prior. What else might she be doing?
She could be thinking, sleeping, dying or dead.
Harvey left a few minutes before sunrise, that second night. On the third night Harvey arrived early. He realized just before his fingers touched the door handleâ€™s red plaid shirt. He waited, afraid of her baldness, in the staircase until he was sure it was dark. He waited until he was sure that he had waited too long.
Her hair was on fire when the door opened and so were the straps of her dress.
-Iâ€™m sorry! he cried.
He rushed to her and hugged. He embraced her warmth and squeezed the fire out of her until only snakes of smoke issued from her shoulders.
When he let go, he found himself rotated. Their strange waltz had spun them more quickly than he had ever noticed her turn on her own, and the backward clock betrayed an hour much later than the one he expected.
The fourth night Harvey brought a needle and thread to repair the dress. As he sewed he shared with her memories of places he had been to and filled in the empty space beside himself with her image.
He imagined her laughing, speaking and smiling, all actions he invented for her, that he never witnessed her perform. He imagined views shared from mountaintops, conversations had over meals of pasta and wine, and his right arm around her meek shoulders. And then he kissed her. He kissed her but she did not kiss back, her lips did not shake or quiver or split, and so he kissed her until the flames were too hot and his cheeks turned red with burn.
He sewed until his fingers turned red, his nails black, and his palms chapped and bled. By dawn, bits of cooked flesh fluttered from his fingertips like dandelion seeds, so on the fifth he returned with a bucket of water between bandaged hands.
When the first star fell he relieved the bucket of its burden. Her scalp sizzled and boiled, her mouth opened and a scream fled from it. The noise tugged at his love for her, it hurt him to hear it. Harvey fell to his knees and cried.
Harvey could not bear to look at her face so stained with injury, so he looked below it to her dress. Its wet fibers rejected the fiery advances made by the nightâ€™s new stars. Encouraged by this protection, Harvey exited the tower early that night, but left his apologies to accompany her.
The next night he brought sand and when he poured it stuck to her chest, in her eyes and on her lashes and lips. He wiped and blew at the grains but they clung to the moisture on her eyeballs like water bugs to a pond.
On the sixth night Harvey tried it all. He used tears to wet his fingers when his mouth ran dry. He licked the dressâ€™ smoldering specks while his fingers busied themselves with pinching others. He did not speak. He was no longer interested in talking or listening. He was tired of constructing but now obsessed with preserving that image he had built up and fallen in love with.
On the seventh night, Harvey climbed the stairs to find a blue plaid shirt wrapped around the door handle.
The hinges rolled at Harveyâ€™s handsâ€™ suggestion. Framed in the open door was a girl whose hair now burned blue. A shirtless, rookie tailor stood in his place and caught blue sparks in his hands. Harvey rushed and punched. He struck and huffed and wheezed and spit and smashed until his arms fell limp and and the hem of her dress caressed her ankles with a new, sanguine lipstick.
The black dress stood unattended as Harvey fought and now had burning holes where white flesh shone through. The flames were too big by the time he finished, too hot and too blue for his broken hands to put out. Harvey stood and watched as the dress burned and her skin lit until bone broke through and turned dark. The girl whose hair was on fire became the girl whose ashes covered the floor.
If you looked north that night, you would have noticed that the lonely star above the towerâ€™s top was joined in its stillness by all the rest. They huddled even closer to their absent bonfire, and for one half tum of the Earth Harvey’s four clock faces, and the mechanism by which the sky spins around its axis, halted for the wake of the girl whose hair was no longer.
When sunlight peeked through the clock face glass, Harvey Holt’s sobs turned to snores, and he fell asleep beside his inventions: the girl he loved and the man who took her from him.