Prompt 151: Tested in Fire
Ashley C. Ford on snakes and searing memories
As a kid, I often spent summers in Tunisia. My family and I stayed in the desert outside of Gabès, the town where my father grew up. The landscape was breathtaking—cracked golden earth scattered with olive trees, the Mediterranean Sea only a few minutes’ walk away. The water was thick with seaweed; still I insisted on a daily swim.
We lived in a rustic house, two stories with a domed roof but no electricity, no washer or dryer. Every few days, the women and girls would gather outside and wash our clothes by hand in big basins. It quickly became my favorite chore. I liked the tactile nature of it, my hands in the water, the satisfaction of wringing out the garment and hanging it on the line. I liked being with my mother, my grandmother, my aunts, and my cousins. With our hands busy, we could be silent, or make idle chitchat, or if we wanted, tell stories. It felt like we were alone in the world.
Besides water, the other inescapable element was fire. Summer in Tunisia was broiling hot—so hot we only went out and about in the early hours of the morning and after the sun went down. Otherwise we would escape the heat by lying on the cool tile floor. Inevitably some uninvited guests from the natural world made their way in to escape the heat, including scorpions. My cousin showed me how if you surrounded the creature with lighter fluid, then set it aflame, the scorpion would prick itself to death rather than die by fire.
It’s a strange memory, and dark, but also poignant. As humans, fire is deeply woven into our psyches—for its beauty and its usefulness, for its power to destroy, to reveal, to renew. Long before I understood what metaphor was, this moment felt like it held some lesson, one I’m still unpacking.
I was reminded of this a few days ago, when I was reading our June book club pick, Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford. In it, she tells a story that reads like myth—with a tangle of snakes and a blazing fire. We’ve excerpted the scene and have a prompt inspired by it on the power of fire and the things it can reveal.
P.S. Our book club and our upcoming Studio Visit with Ashley C. Ford on June 27 are part of our paid subscription that helps sustain the Isolation Journals. You also get access to our monthly writing group, the Hatch, and to our video library of past events with extraordinary artists like Jon Batiste and Elizabeth Gilbert. Subscribe now to join us!
151. From Somebody’s Daughter, by Ashley C. Ford
I leaned over the hole and saw a garden snake. No. Two, three, four… They were in some sort of a knot, though not stuck together. They moved quickly and deliberately over and around one another. They were not fighting, and they did not seem to be trying to get away from us or anything else.
“What are they doing, Grandma?”
My grandmother stared into the hole.
“They’re loving each other, baby.”
She reached into the bag, poured lighter fluid into the hole, then lit a match. The grass in and around the hole burned, and then, so did the snakes. My first instinct was to reach in and throw them as far as I could, to safety, but I hesitated when I remembered their bite; I waited too long to do them any good.
The snakes did not slither away or thrash around as they burned. They held each other tighter. Even as the scales melted from their bodies, their inclination was to squeeze closer to the other snakes wrapped around them. Their green lengths blackened and bubbled… They did not panic, they did not run. I started to cry.
“You’ll have to go back. We’ll both go back home. Your mama misses you.” My grandmother reached over and grabbed my hand, both of us still staring into the hole. “These things catch fire without letting each other go. We don’t give up on our people. We don’t stop loving them.”
She looked into my face, her eyes watering at the bottoms.
“Not even when we’re burning alive.”
Your prompt for this week:
Think of a memory related to fire. How did it impact you then? What meaning do you forge from it now?
A Conversation About Finding Your Voice
We’re excited to be hosting Ashley C. Ford for a Studio Visit on June 27 at 1:00 PM ET. Ashley is joyful, bold, and a top-notch literary citizen. She has forged her own path, crafting both her life and her career on her own terms by asking for what she wants.
Ashley is constantly reinventing herself in the most inspiring ways‚ hosted podcasts and TV shows, writing feature stories for major publications, and recently publishing her debut memoir, Somebody’s Daughter.
We can’t wait for this conversation about finding your voice—and what to do with it when you do.