At Five I Burned Down My Grandmother’s Bathroom
The first time I met my new family
I lit a match in the bathroom.
I wanted to make a flame.
It was an accident. Downstairs
the strangers ate and drank.
It spread, from my hand
to the toilet paper, to the
fringed edges of the curtain.
I tried to blow it out
in a panic. It flamed
and grew. The shower
curtain melted. Surrounded,
I shook the knob. The fire grew.
I called out to my new cousin.
Her name was new to me.
Please, open the door! Sirens
came to us. I stood apart.
It was Christmas. The firemen
dragged hoses through the snow,
up the stairs. They questioned me.
I lied like an orphan.
We found this match, they said.
I shook my head, kept
my lie. My Grandmother never
questioned me. She told
my mother to hug me.
Arms touched me.
I ate. I slept in a bed
inside the strange house
that I had burned.
My new grandmother repainted
the bathroom in yellow,
with a flower pattern.
My brother sang Pyromania
at me for years after:
Get up, gather round.
We’re gonna burn this bathroom
to the ground. I kept shame.
Forty years later,
the same yellow flowers
were on the wall, in her shower.
My grandmother was 100.
She forgot we weren’t blood
relations, she said, Jessie,
You inherited my singing voice.
I was hers. Her last day
on earth, in the hospital bed,
she hid behind the stove
in her childhood rowhouse.
She chewed an imaginary food:
Tastes like cherry.
She talked to people
we couldn’t see.
We are going to the icehouse.
She saw people on the other side.
It was her first time going
to the icehouse and the light
was not flame, but growing.
CAVE WALL PRESS, LLC
Jessica Cuello is the author of Liar
(Barrow Street Press, 2021), winner of
the Barrow Street Book Prize; Pricking
(Tiger Bark Press 2016), winner of the
2017 CNY Book Award; and Hunt (The
Word Works 2017), winner of the 2016
Washington Prize. In addition, Cuello has
published three chapbooks: My Father’s
Bargain, By Fire, and Curie. Cuello was the
recipient of The 2018 New Ohio Review
Poetry Prize, The 2013 New Letters
Poetry Prize, and a 2015 Saltonstall
Writing Fellowship. In 2014 she was
awarded The Decker Award from
Hollins University for outstanding
secondary teaching. She teaches French
in Central NY and is a poetry editor for
Tahoma Literary Review. https:
--"At Five I Burned Down My Grandmother's Bathroom" appears in Liar
(Barrow Street Press, 2021) and was first published in an issue of Salamander.