Nov 8, 2009

To make a break

When asked he said, of course. He said, oh sure. He said you'd have to be crazy not to be afraid, so of course he was afraid of the fire. He had a little speech he'd give, a standard set of several lines about how it was dangerous and you hoped you never had to. It usually seemed to satisfy.

Floyd looked out the window at where the helicopters made their turns coming down with dangling buckets and dipped into the man-made mountain pond. They came up again, buckets swinging and sloshing, rotor blades chopping an uplift of air. He watched to where the helicopters came from the mountain, a little like ants in a black-dotted line, and he looked and there they disappeared again, going in with water to splash like a giant drop of rain. They disappeared into the smoke that smelled all sour with evergreen sap. The smoke was gray. It smudged out into the sky -- a haze, a smear, an edgeless cloud into which the helicopters were simply silhouettes and then gone into the gray. Oh sure, Floyd said, but he watched the mountain fire and his words were vacant, his mind elsewhere.

When he jumped to fight the fires he felt free. When he jumped he felt clear. He would be hanging there, his hands on the parachute straps and his backpack bearing a dangling chainsaw, an ax, a shovel and some wedges, his fire blanket, water, some spare chains and wrenches and a splash of gas and oil, and he would laugh, it was so crazy, and he would laugh and laugh and feel free. He jumped through the smoke, where he couldn't see, and then came clear and landed on the other side of the fire. He flipped the mesh guard down when he landed, started the saw, clamped the ear muffs over his ears and began to run.

He wore orange into the fire, walking bowlegged in the thick chaps. He felt the fire suck the air and watched it jump between the tops of trees, leap and deeply inhale, immolating everything up there. He watched as the fire reached out to flick his ear, watched as it gathered a gust in a curl and then unfurled burning bits and frags of black and flaming leaves around him, to surround him, and he held up his chain saw and ran, hopping straight-legged out in front of the fire. He ran and revved the saw, then picked a spot to make a break. He began cutting trees, toppling them in way, and he used the shovel to clear out shrubs and grass and get down to dirt. He splashed the gas into the pile and threw a match and sent a fire flaming back, a counter fire, quick and black, and he moved really fast, cutting, hacking and digging, sweat and soot stinging and streaking, and he moved, alone on the other side of the smoke, smiling like a very mad man.

Now Floyd watched from the ground, from the window which looked out across a parking lot and over at the other side of the blocky, brick medical complex. From his window he could see the Emergency entrance, where the ambulances rushed up a little ramp and rushed their wheeled gurneys through automatically opening doors. Behind the complex, in the background from Floyd's window, he could see the hills, brown now in Summer, and the mountains that were always green with fir, spruce and pine. The doctor of the ward didn't ask but Floyd answered anyway, volunteering it, oh sure, repeating what he always repeated about how you hoped but this was the job and, oh sure, it was normal. The doctor didn't ask and didn't answer, but only filled out the form he had on his clipboard, which Floyd couldn't see. Then he watched the mountains until the evening, when they disappeared into dusk and the smoke could be seen no more. He watched until the dark was everything and it was filled just with the frantic ambulance light. Then he lay down on the flat, hospital bed and curled under the light, scratchy blanket, and he sang a song softly to himself.

He could feel the fire on his face. He could feel it in the way each individual hair would singe and the way each bead of sweat would seem to boil in a slowly rolling streak. The fire turned his face red, burnt it like the sun. But he would swing his saw, the chain turning and tearing at brush and biting into branches, spitting out saw dust and a little oil, raggedly leaving stumps sticking up like broken thumbs. He ran to stay ahead of the fire, to keep ahead of the fire and fight it by making a clear space, open space, a safe place. When he ran, hustling always to the edge of the space he cleared, the equipment bounced on his back, banging and rattling as he ran. He watched the line of trees, as he worked, and the line of the fire, the slant of the sun and the possibility of clouds for cover. He always had to watch the wind. It was very important to pay attention to the direction of the wind. That time he didn't though, and he didn't see the fire unfurl to surround him, didn't see the burning bits of brush carried up and over to the other side, catching and connecting until the fire was all around him. He didn't notice when the wind changed, but only when he felt the heat from the wrong side, felt the air inhaled from all around. Then he unfolded the little, metallic-coated blanket they gave him the first day, and he rolled himself in it and laid on the ground. He assumed he would die. He heard the fire, from inside, and imagined it probably worse than it was, and he stayed on the ground, which was lumpy and sloped down towards his head. He was -- though he knew he shouldn't be -- happy, and free. He was smiling, under his fire blanket, and singing out loud about Jesus and the whole world he had in his hands.

He sang his song until he heard the nurse in the hallway. He didn't want her to hear him. She would think he was crazy, singing songs from children's church, and if she came in he would tell her too, oh sure, you have to be scared. She stayed in the hall, though, and so he was silent, curled up in the bed, smiling and thinking about the fire.