Buckeye Pyre

By Amy Wright

October 25, 2021

Buckeye Pyre

We circle the farm first, gathering storm-downed branches for the pyre of a fallen buckeye tree like funerary lilies, without mourning the giant whose dark-stare fruit we bucketed at harvest to safeguard the cattle. Half each chestnut sweet, the other lethal. “Only squirrels know the difference,” my grandfather would say. The colossal trunk’s rings indicate its seed found this streambed at the height of the 1918 influenza. 

In the tractor, my father pushes scrap wood to the base of the stump to help it light. On ground, we tuck old newspapers around the roots’ wet feet, like blankets. 

A passing neighbor, a retired doctor now in his eighties, says he has gotten his first COVID shot. One of his professors helped eradicate polio with an oral version of Salk’s vaccine. My mother, who lost a cousin to the disease, got Sabin’s sugar cubes. His daughter—he throws up his hands—thinks she drinks enough orange juice. 

My father douses the kindling in a red wash of kerosene. Even with accelerant, flames catch slowly. Having stood by such efforts since she was a child, Mom says it will take us years of such burns before the charred trunk goes, this root-webbed hillock again greens. 

For hours in the field, foreheads singed, we fold in the fire. In its hunger to spread, the conflagration abandons limbs, which we pitchfork back toward the center blaze, where flames tongue the gnarled pith and ash butterflies flap blackened wings.


Amy Wright is the author of three poetry books. Her nonfiction debut, Paper Concert: A Conversation in the Round published in August with Sarabande Books. Her essays and poems appear in Fourth GenreGeorgia ReviewNinth Letter, and elsewhere.


Picture by Vlad Bagacian courtesy of Unsplash 

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