Atop this mound of charred rubble at 4040 Park Heights Ave. in Northwest Baltimore, there's a little book. The charred rubble is what's left from a horrible fire on Christmas Day. The little book is what's left of faith.
Firefighters say the blaze started when a frayed wire short-circuited under a living room rug. That's how professionals explain things, with the precise language of technicians. They talk of electrical wires and third-degree burns and smoke inhalation, but no one has answers about the business of belief.
Somebody in this house believed in prayer, but the fire on Christmas Day hit with such ferocity that there was no time for it. Gilda Robinson, who lived in this row house for 17 years, was resting in her upstairs bedroom when it hit. It was shortly after noon. Her boyfriend, Donny Troy, and her nephew, Kevin Coley, were next door in Coley's house when they heard a voice cry, "There's smoke next door."
"We were on our way over to see my aunt when we heard the yelling," Coley said yesterday. He sat in his darkened living room with his wife, Charlene, and their two little daughters, with presents under a tree and everyone still looking stunned.
"It all happened so fast," Coley said softly.
"And then," said Charlene Coley "everything was gone. One moment there was smoke, and then the wind hit it, and the fire just rushed through the house."
"I ran upstairs to see if we were hit," said Kevin Coley, "and Donny went next door. He got Adrian out, but he couldn't get my Aunt Gilda."
Adrian is Gilda Robinson's son. He's listed in serious condition at Francis Scott Key Medical Center's burn center today. Donny Troy's in critical condition at Sinai Hospital. When Kevin Coley went outside on Christmas Day, he saw his aunt being carried to an ambulance with an oxygen mask on her face. She's at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center now, in critical condition, with burns over 40 percent of her body.
And yesterday morning, in front of her home, you saw the charred leftovers of her life: a red sweater here, a couch and a rug there, and lots of stuff too badly burned to know exactly what it used to be.
The pile took up almost the entire yard, and you could still smell the stench from the fire and still see vagrant traces of smoke wafting out of the bottom of the pile. On the street, people walked past with their hands jammed into their pockets to avoid the cold, and their heads down to avoid the thought that this could happen to anybody.
As you sifted through the big pile to look for traces of a life, you came upon a book. It is called "Poems of Faith." It lay there charred around the edges, and frozen into a weird contortion from the cold and the firefighters' hoses, but it was still readable.
And you remembered: This happened on Christmas Day, when some feel closest to their notion of God. Now three people lay in hospital rooms, and their home was gone. And so you stood in the little front yard and began sifting through the book and looking for wisdom beyond electrical wires and short circuits and the language of technicians.
There was a poem called "When Trouble Comes and Things Go Wrong," which read:
"Let us go quietly to God
When trouble comes to us.
Let us never stop to whimper
Or complain and fret and fuss.
` Someone inside the house might
once have taken strength from such a poem. But that was before the blaze. You put the book down now and wondered: Where was God on Christmas Day?
It's the ancient question we all face in moments of pain. Yesterday morning, Kevin Coley shook his head at the timing of the fire.
"Why Christmas?" he asked. "I don't know. Why do these things happen any time?"
He said he was starting a collection for his aunt and her son and her boyfriend. Everything they'd owned was gone now, and Coley talked of a clothing drive -- a woman's medium, and man's medium -- with the items dropped off at his house, 4038 Park Heights.
"They'll be starting from scratch," he said. He glanced at his daughters, playing quietly at the base of a Christmas tree in the living room, their faith in all that this holiday symbolizes still apparently intact.
So you returned to the front yard next door and looked again for the poem about belief in times of trouble.
"...And waste no time in crying
# On the shoulder of a friend
But go directly to the Lord
For on Him you can depend.
For there's absolutely nothing
` That his mighty hand can't do
! And He never is too busy
To help and comfort you."
On Christmas Day, God worked in strange ways. But maybe that's what faith is all about: You believe there's meaning to life beyond our comprehension, or you don't. You believe there's a divine plan, or you don't. You place yourself in God's mercy, or you don't.
On Park Heights Avenue, the book of poems said there used to be someone who had faith. And now, on the day after Christmas, in the wake of a horrible fire, only that person knew if faith was still alive.