Under a white hot sun, the young man towering over her daughter yelled at the child until his face burned fire-engine red. Viviane stood too stunned to act as the flames of this stranger’s anger licked at little Nadia’s face.
“Stop your crying for God’s sake!” he screamed. “So what if you lost your stuffed frog? Do you know how many children have lost everything? I bet you wouldn’t care so much for your silly doll if your mother were dying.”
Those words jarred Viviane from her shock like a slap.
“Go to hell,” she spat, placing her hands on Nadia’s shoulders and steering her away from the fever of the man’s rage.
Later that night, alone in her bed, she replayed the scene on the screen in her head and wished she’d been harsher with the stranger. Instead of telling him to go to hell, she wished she’d taken him there.
Soon smoke from her incense clouded her thoughts, and carried her off to sleep.
When she awoke soon after, her life was on fire. The walls melted the air above her burned the floor glowed and reflexively she lept from the melting bed and ran through her bedroom door calling her daughter’s name but before she could make the end of the corridor a hand clasped her arm and yanked her shrieking out of her apartment.
“My daughter’s still in there! Where is my daughter do you have Nadia, Nadia, we have to go back for Nadia!” she screamed all the way to the street where paramedics collected her. Seeing her daughter wasn’t there, Viviane had to be restrained while the EMTs gave her oxygen to feed her sobs and cover her cries.
She fought against the hands that held her while she watched the blaze eat the building alive, and the only clear thought she could manage was that she wanted to go back inside to die with her daughter.
At that instant, a lone man burst out of the inferno through the front door. He was not immune to the flames, but had become one of them. He was empty handed until he opened his protective coat and Nadia tumbled to the ground. She scrambled away to safety as the firefighters gathered what remained of their fallen compatriot.
It was months before he could say “You’re welcome”.
Viviane knew this because she went to thank him in his hospital room every day after leaving work and before picking up her daughter from school. She sat beside him in ICU, read to him through his coma, stifled her cries when he opened his eyes and tried to but could not when the bandages came off.
She spoke to him before he could answer her back, but when he was able to speak he told her of his past.
With each layer of skin grafted onto his raw frame, he told her a little more about losing his parents in a fire when he was nine years old. About that pain. About that anguish. About that anger which sparked his decision to fight fires for a living.
With each layer of skin laid upon his scarred body, Viviane soon understood the rage that protected him from the flames had been consumed by the fire. Because she had seen him rage once, she could see the wrath that burned him inside-out was being extinguished.
With each layer of skin coating his wounds, making him whole, Viviane eventually recognized the man that saved Nadia’s life as the same man that had yelled at the little girl earlier that same day, before the heat had burned his loneliness away.
© Paul Prescott 2013
All photos © Paris Paul Prescott 2013
The first and last photos are of the Centre de secours – Château d’Eau, 50 rue du Chateau d’Eau, 75010 Paris.
The middle photo is La Tour d’exercice (The Practice Tower), by Wang Du and stands in front of the Centre de secours – Champeret, 1 place Jules Renard, 75017 Paris.
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