It had started when she was a child, only it was different then. Less of an obsession perhaps, and more of an inquisitiveness. The natural tendency of an inquiring mind to probe and experiment. Yes, that was it. All innocent. All quite pure.

She breathed a sigh of relief. Somehow the suggestion that she hadn’t always been what she had become was comforting. That she could return to a time of innocence, of freedom from the burden life had given her to carry, was almost a joy. If only a little one.

At the age of nine, she had been something of a wild child. Blessed with disinterested parents whose predominant instinct was to opt for a quiet life, her time outside of school hours was virtually her own. She was conscientious regarding her school attendance despite the isolation she felt from her peers. She considered this the price she paid for anonymity in her personal life.

In the Johnson household, exemplary attendance, homework done on time and to an acceptable standard, and classroom behaviour that merited little attention translated into nothing to bother with. No problems to address, so nothing to do. No effort to be made. It enabled the parents to pursue their own self-indulgent interests without recourse to their solitary child.

Thus Josie, regarded as a somewhat unremarkable but good child, passed through her childhood virtually unseen. The hills, woods, and streams surrounding her home were her playground in all weathers and at all times of the day. Armed with bread and cheese and a biscuit or two, she would disappear into her own wilderness and create worlds beyond most human imagining. She built dens and dams, furnished an abandoned hide with items secretly procured from the house, captured and kept small animals in a maze of bespoke and battered cages until they inevitably escaped or died of deprivation. The latter event always caused a degree of sorrow to their little keeper, and this would be expressed in an elaborate funeral ceremony often involving the theft and burial of items of her mother’s jewellery. Nothing too valuable, of course, as an explanation other than loss or carelessness would have had to be sought. And Josie would not have wanted to be involved in that.

In retrospect, it appeared odd to her that the thought of a funeral pyre had not occurred to her sooner.

Surprisingly, she had only once attempted to set a fire in all those cold winter months that she played outdoors. The success on that occasion had been minimal due to the unsuitability of materials used, but nevertheless, she had felt a certain fascination for the curls of smoke that rose sporadically from the steaming mass of grass and twigs. Little tendrils that would fade and renew, weaving patterns through the fingers of her outstretched hand that sought the muffled warmth of her little fire.

But that was all. All innocent. Until she found the picture. Even now she could conjure up the rush of sensation she had felt in her father’s dusty library. It was an exceptionally wet day, too wet even for her to be outside. She wandered aimlessly around the solid old house that oozed durability from every brick. A testimony to the Victorian age that built to last. And into the library where her father sat writing at his desk.

“What is it?” Without looking up.

“I thought I’d look at some books, if that’s all right?”

His gesture indicated that it was. Being quiet while she went about it was understood.

She was drawn to the big illustrated tomes that lined the bottom shelf. Books brought back from the far-flung reaches of the earth by travellers long forgotten. She carefully withdrew a battered volume from the rack and laid it gently on the carpet. Flicking through its glossy pages, the colours and customs of a long forgotten Asia sprang to life. Beautiful illustrations created with a passion that was almost palpable.

She drew in her breath sharply. A flash of vibrant flame danced across the page while mourners wept on the banks of a vast river. A funeral pyre! She could just make out the shape of the corpse, prostrate amongst the tongues of fire that licked and caressed and consumed. An involuntary shudder passed through her as she gazed fixedly at the appalling scene. With her inner eye, she watched it come to life. Heard the wailing on the waterside and the crackle of boiling wood, the spitting of flesh as if spilled into the inferno. And the smell, the stench—!

“Josie! Josie! What on Earth’s the matter?”

It was hard to tell from his tone whether her father was anxious or annoyed. He was leaning over her as she lay crumpled on the musty carpet.

“It was that book, Father! I saw something strange in that book!”

“Well, you know what the best thing to do about that is,” he said, replacing the book on the shelf and returning to his desk. “Now I suggest you find something else to amuse you!”

That had been the beginning, the birth of the fascination. The next little creature to succumb to the inadequacies of her little zoo was despatched in flames. She watched it burn, a mingled sense of reverence and revulsion gripping her stomach. In the end, distaste won and she vomited heartily on the grass beside the dying embers.

But that was only the beginning. Her interest in fire developed over time into considerations of cleansing and purification. She discovered a morbid interest in the burning of heretics and witches. She explored the history of the Cathars in southwest France who were systematically burnt at the stake in order to purge them of their belief in an alternative religion to Catholicism. Did the inquisitors who handed out these shocking judgements really believe that fire cleansed? That the spirit melting out of its human bondage became pure, sanctified by the pure hell of imbibing fire?

They must have believed it. Truly! How else could it be possible for one human being to commit another to the flames.

From her observations, she knew that death by burning was a cruel and terrible thing. Her first experiment had been with a rat rescued still alive from a trap in the barn. The nausea which followed the event made her feel that her own insides were on fire, and such was the extent of her discomfort that she swore it could never happen again.

But compulsions seldom go away, and violence begets violence, dulling the moral sense that dissuades us from depravity. The next victim was an unfortunate stray cat who begged for sanctuary. The self-loathing she felt after each ceremony grew and grew, pushing her deeper into the darkness of her soul.

But not everyone burned. There were men and women who could walk across burning coals without damaging their feet. There were people who could swallow fire. How could that be unless it was really possible to control an element which appeared indomitable? Or unless they had something of the quality of fire within themselves. Could that be possible. Maybe there were others who felt the same affinity to fire as she did, and maybe for a reason. She would have to test it out.

Testing it out lead to a trip to Accident and Emergency, and some very awkward questions. Her father thought that for a 15-year-old girl, whose predominate interest appeared to be the outdoors, lighting a fire in the wood didn’t seem that improbable. Other agencies considered the fact that she had tripped and burnt her hand so badly indicated that she should have been supervised. But there was no third party involved, and as her father voiced an appropriate willingness to keep an eye on her in future, the matter was recorded and forgotten.

Josie thought long and hard about the pain, sometimes recreating it in her mind. Something deep within her remained convinced that she had a pertinent link to fire and that in the right circumstances, it would accept her as an equal. Or if not an equal—because after all, she had little power—at least as an associate.

So why had it burnt her so badly? Perhaps she was just not ready. Perhaps something more of a sacrifice was required to demonstrate the depth of her commitment. With the thought came the instantaneous conviction that she was right. It was a sign. Why would fire in all its splendour accept anything less than a demonstration of the utmost devotion? She felt an unnerving degree of excitement deeply tinged with fear. Fear of the person she was becoming, yet elation that she had been shown this favour. Fear of what she was about to do mingled with an ecstatic surge of self-fulfilment.

She watched the house burn from a distance. She knew the old man was still inside, but that is what had been demanded of her. She watched as the flames leapt up and threw myriad sparks against the blackness of the night sky. Out of the sparks came more sparks, little lights like distant souls bejewelling the darkness.  And one day she would be there at one with the inferno, flaring, dying, and renewing. That was a goal worth pursuing. She felt emboldened, energised by the scene below her, and only when the fire had finally been quenched by the fire brigade did she turn away.

She picked up her bag and walked slowly back to the woods. In the hide, she lit the little gas stove she had found amongst her father’s camping gear. She hadn’t known that he’d ever been camping, but then there was so much she didn’t know. The blue flame smiled up at her, and such was her confidence that she bent over to kiss the blissful light.

The pain was hideous. She fell backwards, cracking her head on the corner of a wooden crate. Her hair was melting onto her skin. She tried to cry out—scream—but a terrible inertia settled on her as the flames from the upset stove crept menacingly around the hem of her coat.

The words “cleanse me, purify me” sealed themselves to the blank wall of pain that washed insensibly over her flaying limbs and gorged upon her greedily long after she lay still.