Burning Down the House

Submitted into Contest #209 in response to: Write a story about someone going on a life-changing journey.... view prompt


Coming of Age Sad Teens & Young Adult

This story contains sensitive content

Discussions of family breakdown and abuse.

As the upper floor of the old farmhouse yielded its secrets, I was near to overflowing with excitement. I turned to my brother, who, lacking experience in adventuring, was wont to throw caution to the wind in his explorations, although I observed that he arranged matters to the best of his ability, given his tender years. Of such was our journey to the ends of mortal longing. Alas! It was not to be!

“Will both of you get down here?” yelled a familiar voice. “You know you’re not allowed up there! What will happen if one of those rotten floorboards gives way suddenly?"

“Coming, Mom!” I yelled back.

Mom was back at the picnic table when we reached the bottom of the stairs. She was washing our lunch dishes in propane-heated well water.

As I hurried to the picnic table to help her, I saw Dad standing nearby on a narrow road between two hay fields. The beautiful birch trees that lined that road were choked with tent caterpillars. He used a rag soaked with kerosene on a very long stick to burn those nests, the caterpillars falling everywhere. Those poor trees! They were suffering so much!

"That's not the way to do it! They'll just crawl right back up there!" Mom barked.

"No, they won't. Half of them are dead," replied my Dad.

"You should have gotten rid of the caterpillar eggs. Then you wouldn't have this problem!" yelled my Mom again.

Then she turned her attention to me. “Dry those dishes! After that, get more well water. Your father wants to try some stupid pills to make the water safe.”

The way she talked about my father made me feel sad. It reminded me of when a farmer wanted to rent our farmland for his hay crop. Because my Dad didn't know any better, that farmer got an amazing deal on the rent. Then he called my Dad a name, "Hobby farmer," I think it was. He was rude and wasn't friendly after he got what he wanted.

“Race you to the well!” yelled Jeffrey after drying the dishes.

Jeffrey could never win a race against me after I went into puberty. Uncle Daniel said pubescent eleven-year-old girls always beat boys their age, Jeffrey being my fraternal twin. I hated words like pubescent. Only nineteenth-century words from Anna's diary made it onto my word lists!

I tried to tag Jeffrey at the well, just so he would know that I had beaten him in the race, but he dodged me and dove for the bucket hanging from the crossbeam, clanging it on the well wall to annoy me.

“I got to the bucket first!” Jeffrey sneered.

Ta ta," I replied, wagging my finger and speaking with my uppity adult voice. "You should well know the race is won at the well, not the bucket, dear chap!”

He made a face. Then, over the well wall, he went, so far down that he could have tumbled in.

I was jolted back to reality. “Jeffrey! Do you plan on living for a while?”

JESSICA!” Wooh! Wooah! It's like a cave in here, Jessica. The water is soo far down, all black!”

Then, hardly noticing his scraped knees, he popped his head back up and jumped to the ground.

“So cold. Do you think it's air-conditioned in there?”

"What will Mom say when she sees your scraped knees?" I demanded. "You didn’t bring anything to put the water in!”

“Dummy!" he replied, holding the bucket high. "We’ve got what we need right here!"

“You’re the dummy! Untie that bucket from the rope, and we'll never be able to get any water ever!”

I made a face. Tongue out, with a stupid “duh” look, so that he knew what I thought of him. Then, two fists were all I could see. Jeffrey was going to pound me out. 

Lucky for me, I heard a car pulling up. A “shush” got Jeffrey’s attention. Someone was talking to Mom. Then, after a minute or so, Uncle Daniel ambled up to us, an aqua-tank in his hands. 

“Here you go, you two pirates! Your mom wanted you to have this.”

I was so happy to see him! He smelled like fresh air and sunshine as I hugged him.

“Impetuous!” he shouted.

“Not thinking before acting!” I answered.


“A living thing that is condemned to die!”


“How someone acts around others!”

“Oh, that’s my smart girl! Here, let me help you, Jeffrey.”

He steadied the rusty pulley while Jeffrey lowered the metal bucket. It swung on the rope and banged against the rocks all the way down, hitting the water, making a faraway sound like a distant rowboat oar splashing in a pond.

“It's at least a fifty-foot drop. Are you strong enough to lift it?” Uncle Daniel asked.

Jeffrey nodded as the pulley began bending away from the crossbeam, so much so that I thought it might snap off.

“That’s my tiger! That worn-out pulley needs lubrication. I guess no one takes care of this well anymore." he said. Then he smirked. "At least now you two can cross off using a well from your bucket list."

I laughed. Jeffrey didn't get the joke. "Uncle Daniel. we’re here the whole weekend! You go to university! Maybe you could fix the pulley!” I shouted as I held his hand and skipped all the way back to the picnic table.


After supper, our campfire lasted well into the night, way past our bedtimes. There was a lot of old firewood around. Some of it rotted, some not, but all was ready to be burned. Under a starlit sky, Dad went on and on about his dreams for the farm. He described how he would build a theme park featuring Glooscap, the indigenous warrior of the Wabanaki peoples from Atlantic Canada and the Northeastern United States. While the campfire crackled and cast fiery embers and shadows about us, he told stories of heroism and betrayal, of how Glooscap overcame his enemies with his cleverness and magic.

Our evening was magical, and I was so happy. I got to sit next to my favorite uncle. Jeffrey was sitting next to Mom. And for once, Dad and Mom weren't fighting.

As we toasted marshmallows on branches we had pulled off poplar trees, Dad kept asking if we wanted well water to drink. Nobody went for it even though he had used his special pills. Uncle Daniel joked that we would know soon enough if the water was safe to drink since there were no flush toilets on the farm, with only an outhouse that hadn’t been used in years.

After listening to Dad's stories for a long time, I stood up and excused myself to go to the outhouse.

“You’ll need a flashlight; outhouses are spooky at night!" joked Uncle Daniel. "You never know what might be in that potty hole!” Then he made a sound like a wild animal. Everyone laughed when I dropped down to the ground right away.

It was then that I noticed that Uncle Daniel was peeling his marshmallows. He would pop the brown melted crust into his mouth and then cook what remained again in the fire.

“Why do you do that?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s the cooked brown part that you want to eat, not the goo," he replied.

I tried peeling my own cooked marshmallow but forgot to blow on it like Uncle Daniel did, so I nearly burned my fingers. As for the outhouse, I refused to use it at night and was bursting by morning.


Mom made a "best of luck" breakfast for us: scrambled eggs, delicious smelling back bacon, and instant coffee, which I wasn't allowed to drink. She had forgotten to pack the decaf. There was cereal, but we had to eat it dry or with orange juice because Dad forgot to buy milk. Anyway, the new cooler wasn't doing a great job of cooling; supposedly, it would run off an outlet in the car. Dad was afraid to plug it in. Something about the car battery being run down. Such was my luck on our first full day of camping.

"It's 2007!" Dad protested when we all complained. "No one uses ice in their coolers anymore!"

By that point in the morning, I could have used a whole portable bathroom if he could have bought me one. Not being able to take a shower bummed me out. I felt icky all over. Jeffrey didn’t mind. He had to be dragged into the bathroom at home. But Mom didn’t want to hear any bellyaching from either of us. She said to take a sponge bath, which I tried to do in our tent. That was a colossal failure.

While I was upset about doing without things, Jeffrey was off with Dad, torching caterpillars. Later, Jeffrey and Dad would plant hundreds of red pine seedlings that the Nova Scotia Forestry Department gave out for free. Boys. Their only problems were boredom and girls calling them stupid.

After working so hard at breakfast, Mom collapsed into a hammock that she strung up between two of the birches nearest our campsite. I thought she would pick a huge fight with Dad. But she didn't. Then, Uncle Daniel showed up with the milk that Dad forgot.

“Where did you eat breakfast?” I demanded as I took his hand.

"McDonald's," he replied with a sheepish look.

"You didn't take me to McDonalds?" I moaned, pretending to be upset. "Where did you sleep?"

He pointed to an orange tent a little way off, a “pup tent,” he called it, which I thought was hilarious because I imagined little puppies spilling out if we were to go in it.

“Are you still reading Anna’s diary and making word lists?" he asked after we put the milk in the cooler and entered the farmhouse.

“Sure, it's right here.” I went to a small table near a window where I had left it. “I’m about halfway through, August 19th, 1889, to be exact.

“Anything that you don’t understand?” he asked.

“There’s one part of this diary I don’t get,” I said. “Anna's cursive writing is hard to read in August."

“Maybe she was upset,” he suggested.

“She never said she was upset.”

“People back then didn't always write about their feelings.”

“Here it is,” I said. I showed a sentence to him by a window so that he could read it with me:

I was feeling so poorly. My husband had been compelled to pull down our cabin because a surveyor of lands had declared that it stood on crown land.

Then I turned to another page from the following week and read it with him:

I prayed to God for relief that my husband might put up the stick. But as I can attest, I am a miserable sinner, deserving of that which should still come my way, grief poured out upon grief, as I pray the rosary, “Holy Mary! To thee do we cry poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, weeping and mourning in this valley of tears.”

What does put up the stick mean?” I asked quite innocently. Uncle Daniel turned away from me and didn’t say anything for awhile, looking out the window.

“Maybe you should stop reading that diary. Why don’t we go for a drive? Or better still, I’ll take you out for an ice cream cone. Would you like that?” he said.

I loved ice cream, and anything Uncle Daniel wanted to do was always fine by me. But I wasn’t getting what I wanted. So, I had Anna say something.

“I must remark, young Mr. Daniel,” I said in a mocking sing-song voice. “That you exceed someone else’s expectations for your demeanor. For what I expect is not what you contrive to proceed with!”

He laughed, and that made me happy. But soon, tears won a battle with the laugh lines about his eyes. He turned away from me again.

“Jessica, I'm here to try and help. This is hard to say, but I know all about what’s going on with your mother and father. Families must find a way to cope when things go badly.”

I had no clue what the word "cope" meant. It wasn't on my word lists. I wanted to see his face. I needed to do something.

"What did Anna do?” I finally asked because I didn't know what else to say.

He turned to look at me and wiped his eyes.

“Oh, I think Anna stayed with her husband, prayed a lot, and dreamed of a better life than this one.”

I frowned. “That’s just stupid!”

My words hung there momentarily; then Uncle Daniel put this foolish grin on his face.

“So says a wet behind the ears ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD!" he shouted, getting louder and louder until he thundered at me.

I shrieked, my feet going as fast as they could out of the farmhouse and into the field. When he finally did grab me, I screamed again, falling into the hay that was still so wet, the sun not having burned the dew away. I rolled around in sheer delight in that cushiony tall grass, only to discover why people yelled uncle, which I had to say over and over, or he would have tickled me half to death.


By Saturday evening, there was so much rain that we gave up on camping. Without a working cooler, we couldn’t cook meals. Mom threw out all the food we had brought when we got home.

“The last stupid thing your father did was to buy that farm!” my mother said a month later after Dad left us for good. “I never wanted it! Jeffrey nearly drowned in that well, and that old farmhouse was such a hazard!”

I fought with my Mom about how she treated Dad, but it was useless. Everything I did was useless after Dad left. Our house was being sold. Mom got a new job, and Jeffrey and I were in a new school because we moved into a condo. Now, we were selling the farm. I wished so much that Dad had stayed with Mom as Anna did with her husband, even if they fought constantly.

Then, wouldn't you know it, we weren't the only people that were suffering? Dad got a call from a poor family that wanted to live in the farmhouse. He explained to them that it was condemned and that the roof leaked. But then he got to thinking. What if squatters decided to move into the farmhouse? No one would want the farm then, and selling it might be impossible. So, he called the Kentville Fire Department to ask them to burn the farmhouse down.

It was a chilly September day when we gathered at the farm. I had just finished reading all of the diary. Anna's life was much better by winter as her father and husband had half-finished a house on a section of her grandfather's farm. In her words:

We hardly believed our good fortune, for an answer to prayer was so far from being believed I could scarcely comprehend it.

Uncle Daniel couldn't be with us. I wanted to show him this good news about Anna getting the farmhouse, but he was in British Columbia to get his master's degree. He did send me an email, though. He had a strange request that he thought would be for my own good. It was so strange that I wondered if I could bring myself to do what he suggested. Would Anna's good news have changed Uncle Daniel's mind about what he wanted me to do? It was too late to be emailing him now.

Some firefighters doubted whether the house could be set up for a controlled burn. There was some concern that the fire might spread to the hay fields. But since the hay crop had already been harvested, they decided to proceed. All was well when the flames finally exploded the windows, and the walls went up in smoke. Clutching Anna's diary, I thought I might cry thinking of all those sacrifices that Anna and her husband made for that house and how much it must have meant to them, but when I saw Dad crying, my tears wouldn’t come. Mom was happy, and at least Jeffrey had a great time getting as close to the fire as possible and then yelling that he wasn't cooked yet.

The heat was unbearable once the roof caved in, and I imagined the whole world could be on fire. It seemed to me that there wasn't enough water in all the world, let alone the well, to put it out. There was no fire hydrant, so it was well water or nothing. The fire chief said, “We'll give it a good drenching at the end.” After that decision, everyone, even the firefighters, watched it burn.

When the firefighters left, I was alone in front of the smoldering ruin of what was once Anna's dream. Dad and Mom started calling me from down near the highway, waiting for me, their cars with their doors open, lit up like little flames near the traffic.

It was then that I started to cry. I will live as well as I can, Anna! I said to myself. Then I laid Anna's diary on the hot ash, sobbing uncontrollably as short, sharp flames consumed it.

August 01, 2023 02:25

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Nina H
19:23 Aug 06, 2023

You write so beautifully, Joe. You paint such a clear picture with your words. I really enjoyed your story.


Joe Smallwood
23:59 Aug 06, 2023

Thanks for reading it, Nina.


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Bruce Friedman
17:57 Aug 05, 2023

Wonderful, warm story, Joe. Great momentum and rich language. A excellent story overall and worthy of an award. I learned a new phrase from you: put up the stick. This caused me to wonder about your nationality. There was only one Britishism that I caught: going to university. "Americans" would always say "to the university.' I was wondering if you are Canadian?


Joe Smallwood
22:51 Aug 05, 2023

Hi Bruce, Yes, I am Canadian. I'm glad you liked "Burning Down the House." Like your story that I critiqued, I could have put the creative nonfiction tag, if the main character was a boy. But I wanted to try writing from the perspective of a girl, just to try something different. So most of the story is true to life. Writing it came easily. Speaking of which you really did pay 400 dollars for a civil war diary? Or something close to that? Wow, so interesting. Anyway, got to go. I'll follow your work. Should be interesting!


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Mary Bendickson
02:54 Aug 01, 2023

Lots of family dynamics. Lots of changes happening. Lots more to sort out. Lots for an eleven-year-old.


Joe Smallwood
11:48 Aug 01, 2023

Thanks for reading, Mary.


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