Fiction: Fires by Rick Bass

SOME YEARS THE HEAT COMES IN APRIL. There is always wind in April, but with luck, there is warmth, too. There is usually a drought, so that the fields are dry, and the wind is from the south. Everyone in the valley moves their seedlings from the indoors to the outdoors, into their old barns-turned-greenhouses. Root crops are what do best up here. The soil is rich from all the many fires, and potatoes from this valley tasted like candy. Carrots pull free of the dark earth and taste like crisp sun. I like to cook with onions. Strawberries do well, too, if they’re watered.

The snowline has moved up out of the valley by April, up into the woods, and even on up above the woods, disappearing except for the smallest remote oval patches of it, and the snowshoe hares, gaunt but still white, move down out of the snow as it retreats to get to the gardens’ fresh berries, and the green growing grasses; but you can see the rabbits coming a mile away, coming after your berries — hopping through the green and gold sun-filled woods, as white and pure as Persian cats, hoppin’ over brown logs, coming down from the centuries-old game trails of black earth.

The rabbits come straight for my outside garden like zombies, relentless, and I sit on the back porch and sight in on them. But because they are too beautiful to kill in great numbers, I shoot only one every month or so, just to warn them. I clean the one I shoot and fry it in a skillet with onions and half a piece of bacon.

Sometimes at night I’ll get up and look out the window and see the rabbits out in the garden, nibbling at whatever’s available, but also standing around the greenhouse, all around it, just aching to get in; several of them digging at the earth around it, trying to tunnel in — dirt flying all through the air — while others of the just sit there at the doorway, waiting.

The hares are only snow-white like that for a few weeks, after the snow is gone; then they begin to lose the white fur — or rather, they do not lose it, but it begins to turn brown, like leaves decaying, so that they are mottled for a while, during the change, but then finally they are completely brown, and safe again, with the snows gone. But for those few weeks when they are still white, the rabbits sit out in my garden like white boulders. I haven’t had a woman living with me in a long time now. Whenever one does move in with me, it feels as if I’ve tricked her, have caught her in a trap; as if the gate has been closed behind her, and she doesn’t yet realize it. It’s very remote up here.

ONE SUMMER MY FRIEND Tom’s sister came up here to spend the summer with Tom and his wife, Nancy, and the to train at altitude. Her name was Glenda, and she was a runner from Washington, and that was all she did, was run. Glenda was very good, and she had run in races in Italy, in France, and Switzerland. She told everyone when she got up here that this was the most beautiful place she had ever seen, told all these rough loggers and their hard wives this, and we all believed her. Very few of us had ever been anywhere else to be able to question her.

We would all sit out at the picnic tables in front of the saloon, ten or twelve of us at a time, half of the town, and watch the river. Ducks and geese, heading back north, stopped in our valley to breed, to build nests, and to raise their young. Ravens with their wings and backs shining greasy in the sun, were always flying across the valley, from one side of the mountains to the other. Anyone who needed to make a little money could always do so in April by planting seedlings for the Forest Service, and it was always a time of relaxation because of that fact, a time of no tempers, only loose happiness. I did not need much money, in April or in any other month, and I would often sit out at the picnic table with Glenda and Tom and Nancy and drink beers. Glenda would never drink more than two. She had yellow hair that was cut short, and lake-blue eyes, a pale face, and a big grin, not unlike Tom’s, that belied her seriousness, though now she is gone, I think I remember her always being able to grin because of her seriousness. I certainly don’t understand why it seems that way to me now. Like the rest of us, Glenda had no worries, not in April and certainly not later on in the summer. She had only to run.

I never saw Glenda in the fall, which was when she left; I don’t know if she ever smiled like that when she got back to Washington or not. She was separated from her boyfriend, who lived in California, and she didn’t seem to miss him, didn’t ever seem to think about him.

The planters burned the slopes they had cut the previous summer and fall, before planting the seedlings, and in the afternoons there would be a sweet-smelling haze that started about halfway up the valley walls, and rose into the highest mountains, and then spilled over them, moving north into Canada, riding on the south winds. The fires’ haze never settled in our valley, but would hang just above us, on the days it was there, turning all the sunlight a beautiful, smoky blue, and making things when seen across the valley — a barn in another pasture, or a fenceline — seem much farther away than they really were. It made things seem softer, too.

There was a long zippered scar on the inside of Glenda’s knee that started just above her ankle and went all the way up inside her leg to mid-thigh. She had injured the knee when she was seventeen, long before the days of arthroscopic surgery, and she’d had to have the knee rebuilt the old-fashioned way, with blades and scissors, but the scar only seemed to make her legs, both of them, look even more beautiful, the part that was not scarred, and even the scar had a graceful curve to it as it ran such a long distance up her leg.

Glenda wore green nylon shorts and a small white shirt when she ran, and a headband. Here running shoes were dirty white, the color of the road dust during the drought.

“I’m thirty-two, and have six or seven more good years of running,” she said whenever anyone asked her what her plans were, and why she ran so much, and why she had come to our valley to run. Mostly, it was the men who sat around with us in front of the saloon, watching the river, watching the spring winds, and just being glad with the rest of us that winter was over. I do not think women liked Glenda very much, except for Nancy.

It was not very well understood in the valley what a great runner Glenda was.

I think it gave Glenda pleasure that it wasn’t.

“I WOULD LIKE FOR YOU to follow Glenda on your bicycle,” Tom said the first time I met her. Tom had invited me over for dinner — Glenda had gotten into the valley the day before, though we had all known that she was coming for weeks beforehand, and we had been waiting for her.

“There’s money available from her sponsor to pay you for it,” Tom said, handing me some money, or trying to, finally putting it in my shirt pocket. He had been drinking, and seemed as happy as I had seen him in a long time. He called her “Glen” instead of “Glenda” sometimes — after putting the money in my pocket, he put an arm around Nancy, who looked embarrassed for me, and the other arm around Glenda, who did not, and so I had to keep the money, which was not that much, anyway.

“You just ride along behind her, with a pistol” — Tom had a pistol holstered on his belt, a big pistol, and he took it off and handed it to me — “and you make sure nothing happens to her, the way it did to that Ocherson woman.

The Ocherson woman had been visiting friends and had been walking home, but had never made it: a bear had evidently charged out of the willows along the river road and had dragged her back across the river. It was spring when she disappeared and everyone thought she had run away, and her husband had even gone around all summer making a fool out of himself by talking badly about her, and then hunters found her in the fall, right before the first snow. There were always bear stories in any alley, but we thought ours was the worst, because it was the most recent, and because it had been a woman.

“It’ll be good exercise for me, I said to Tom, and then I said to Glenda, “Do you run fast?”
It wasn’t a bad job. I was able to keep up with her most of the time, and we started early in the mornings. Some days Glenda would run just a few miles, very fast, and other days it seemed she was going to run forever. There was hardly ever any traffic — not a single car or truck — and I’d daydream as I rode along behind her.

We’d leave the meadows out in front of Tom’s place, and head up the South Fork road, up into the woods, toward the summit, going past my cabin. The sun would be burning brightly by the time we neared the summit, and we’d be up into the haze from the planting fires, and everything would be foggy and old-looking, as if we had gone back in time — as if we were living in a time when things had really happened, when things still mattered, and not everything had been decided yet.

Glenda would be sweating so hard from running the summit that her shirt and shorts would be drenched, her hair damp and sticking to the side of her face, and the sweat would wet her socks and even her tennis shoes. But she was always saying that the people she would be racing against would be training even harder than she was.

There were lakes up past the summit, and the air was cooler, on the north slopes the lakes still had thin crusts of ice on them, crusts that thawed out, just barely, each afternoon, but that froze again, each night — and what Glenda liked to do after she’d reach the summit, her face as bright as if sunburned, and her wrists limp and loose, sometimes wavering a little in her stride, finally, so great was the heat and her exhaustion — was to leave the road and run down the game trail leading to the lakes — tripping, stumbling, running downhill again; and I would have to throw the bike down and hurry after her — and pulling her shirt off, she would run out into the shallows of the first lake, her feet breaking through the thin ice, and then she would sit down in the cold water, like some animal chased there by hounds.

“It feels good,” she said, the first time she did that, and she leaned her head back on the ice behind her, the ice she had not broken through, and she spread her arms out across the ice as if she were resting on a crucifix, and she looked up at the haze in the sky with nothing above us, for we were above the treeline.

“Come over here,” she said. “Come feel this.”

I waded out into the pond, following her trail through the ice, and sat down next to her.

She took my hand and put it on her chest.

What I felt in there was like nothing I had ever imagined: it was like lifting up the hood of a car that is still running, with all the cables and belts and fan blades still running. I wanted to take my hand away; I wanted to get her to a doctor. I wondered if she were going to die, and if I would be responsible. I wanted to pull my hand away, but she made me keep it there, and gradually the drumming slowed, became steadier, and still she made me keep my hand there, until we could both feel the water’s coldness. Then we got out — I had to help her up, because her injured knee was stiff — and we lay our clothes out on rocks to dry in the sun, and we laid out on flat rocks ourselves and let the wind and the sun dry us as well. She said that she had come to the mountains to run because it would strengthen her knee. But there was something that made me believe that that was not the reason, and not the truth, though I cannot tell you what other reason there might have been.

We went into the lake every hot day, after her run, and there was always the thinnest sheet of ice, back in the shadows. It felt wonderful; and lying out in the sun afterwards was wonderful, too. After we had dried, our hair smelled like the smoke from the fires in the valley below. Sometimes I thought that Glenda might be dying, and had come here to live her last days, to run in a country of great beauty.

AFTER WE WERE DRY, we walked back, and as we went back over the crest of the summit and started down toward the valley, we would slowly come out of the haze and would be able to see all of the valley below us, green and soft, with the slow wind of the Yaak River crawling through the middle of it, and on the north wall of the valley midway up the slopes, the ragged fires would be burning, with wavering lines and shifting walls of smoke rising from behind the trees, sheets of smoke rising straight into the sky.

Sometimes, walking back, we would come across ruffed grouse — males — courting and fanning in the middle of the road, spinning and doing their little dance, their throat-sacs inflated bright and red, pulsing, and the grouse would not want to let us past — they would stamp their feet and spin in mad little circles, trying to block where it was we were going, trying to protect some small certain area they had staked out for themselves. Glenda seemed to stiffen whenever we came upon the fanning males, and shrieked when they rushed at her ankles, trying to peck her, as we tried to hurry around them.

We’d stop back by my cabin for lunch, on the way back into the valley. I’d open all the windows — the sun would have heated all the logs in the house, so that when we came inside there was a rich dusty smell, as it is when you have been away from your house for a long time and first come back — but that smell was always there, in my cabin — and we would sit at the breakfast room table and look out the window, out at the old weedy chicken house I’d never used, but which the people who’d lived in the cabin before me had built, and we’d look at the woods going up onto the mountain behind the chicken house.

I had planted a few wild apple trees in the back yard that spring, and the place that had sold them to me said that these trees would be able to withstand even the coldest winters, though I was not sure I believed it. They were small trees, and it was supposed to be four years before they started bearing fruit, and that sounded to me like such a long time that I had to really think about it before buying them. But I had just bought them without really knowing why I was doing it. I also didn’t know what would make a person run as much as Glenda did. But I liked riding with her, and having coffee with her after the runs, and I knew I would be sad to see her leave the valley. I think that was what kept up the distance between us, a nice distance, just the right-sized distance — the fact that each of us knew that she was only going to be there a certain amount of time — that she would be there for the rest of May and June, and all through July, and on through most of August, but that then she would be gone. We knew what was going to happen, it was a certainty, and therefore it seemed to take away any danger, any wildness. There was a wonderful sense of control. She drank her coffee black. We would snack on smoked whitefish that I had caught the previous winter.

I had a couple of dogs in the back yard, Texas hounds that I’d brought up north with me a few years ago, and I kept them in a pen in the winter so that they wouldn’t roam and chase and catch deer, but in the spring and summer the sun felt so thin and good and the hounds were so old, that I didn’t keep them penned up, but instead just let them lie around in the grass, dozing. There was one thing they would chase, though, in the summer. It lived under the chicken house — I don’t know what it was; it was dark, and ran too fast for me to ever get a good look at it — and it’s also possible that even if I had been able to see it, it would have been some animal that I had never seen before — some rare animal, something from Canada perhaps — maybe something no one had ever seen. Whatever it was — small and dark, with fur, but not shaggy, not a bear cub — it never grew from year to year, but always stayed the same, though it seemed young somehow, as if it might someday grow — anyway, it lived in a burrow under the chicken house, and it excited the dogs terribly. It would come ripping out of the woods, just a fleet dark blur, headed for the burrow, and the old dogs would be up and baying, right on its tail, but the thing always made it into the burrow just ahead of them.

Glenda and I would sit at the window and watch for it every day. But it kept no timetable, and there was no telling when it would come, or even if it would. We called it a hedgehog, because that was the closest thing it might have resembled.

Some nights Glenda would call me on the short-wave radio, would key the mike a few times to make it crackle and wake me up, and then, mysteriously, I would hear her voice in the night, floating in static, as if it were in the night, out with the stars — her voice: “Have you seen the hedgehog? She would ask, sleepily, but it would be only a radio that was in the dark house with me, not her, not her real voice. “Did you see the hedgehog?” she’d want to know, and I’d wish she were staying with me, I’d wish she were with me at the moment. But it would be no good — Glenda was leaving in August, or September at the latest.

“No,” I’d say. “No hedgehog today. Maybe it’s gone away,” I’d say — though I had thought that again and again, dozens of times, but then I would always see it again, just when I thought I never would.

“How are the dogs?” she’d ask. “How are Homer and Ann?”

“They’re asleep.”

“Good night,” she’d say.

“Good night,” I’d say.

ON THURSDAY NIGHTS, I would always have Tom and Nancy and Glenda over for dinner. Friday was Glenda’s day off from running, so that she could drink, could stay up late, and she did not have to worry about any after-effects the next morning. We would start out drinking at the Dirty Shame, sitting out front watching the river, watching the ducks and geese headed north, and then before dusk we would go back down to my ranch, and Glenda and I would fix dinner while Tom and Nancy sat on the front porch and smoked cigars and watched the elk come out into the dusk in the meadow across the road.

“Where’s this famous hedgehog?” Tom would bellow, blowing smoke rings into the night, big, perfect O’s, and the elk would lift their heads, chewing the summer grass like cattle, the bulls’ antlers glowing with velvet.

“In the back yard,” Glenda would say, washing the salad, or rinsing off the carrots, or even the trout fillets. “But you can only see him in the daytime.”

“Aww, bullshit!” Tom would roar, standing up with his bottle of Jack Daniels, and he’d take off down the steps, stumbling, and we’d all put down what we were doing and get the flashlight and go with him to make sure he was all right, because Tom was a trapper, and it riled him to think there was an animal he did not trap, could not even see — Tom had tried to trap the hedgehog before, but had never caught anything — and Tom did not believe there was any such animal. Out by the chicken coop, Tom would get down on his hands and knees, breathing hard, and we’d crowd all around and try to shine the flashlight into the deep, dusty hole, to see if there might be a patch of fur, the tip of a snout, or anything — and Tom would be making grunting noises that were, I supposed, designed to make the animal want to come out — but we never saw anything, and it would be cold under all the stars, and we’d be able to see the far-off glows that were the planting fires, burning slowly, even into the night, but which were being held in check by back-fires, they were in control.

We had one of those propane fish fryers, and we’d put it out on the front porch and cut the trout into cubes, roll them around in sweet mustard and flour, then drop them in the hot spattering grease. We’d fix more than a hundred of the trout cubes, and there were never any left over. Glenda had a tremendous appetite, eating almost as many as would Tom, and licking her fingers afterwards, asking if there were any more. We’d take whatever we were drinking up on the roof — Tom, his Jack Daniels, and Glenda and I, rum and cokes, and Nancy, vodka — and we’d sit high on the steep roof of my cabin, above the second-story bedroom dormer — Tom sat out on the end of the dormer as if it were a saddle — and Glenda would sit next to me for warmth, as we’d watch the far-off fires of the burns, a flaming orange color as they sawed their way across the mountainside, raging, but contained. Below us, in the back yard those rabbits that had still not turned brown would begin to come out of the woods, dozens of them, moving in on the greenhouse and then stopping, just lining up all around it, wanting to get into the tender young carrots, and the Simpson lettuce. I had to put sheets down on the ground in the back yard to trick them, and we’d laugh as the rabbits moved nervously from sheet to sheet, several of them huddling together on one sheet at a time, thinking they were protected; and all the time, moving in on the greenhouse.

“Turn back, you bastards!” Tom would shout happily, whenever he saw the rabbits start coming out of the woods in the moonlight, and his shouts would wake the ducks down on the pond, and they would begin clucking to themselves, quacking, and it was a reassuring sound. Nancy made Tom tie a rope around the chimney in case he fell. But Tom said he wasn’t afraid of anything, and that he was going to live forever.

GLENDA WEIGHTED HERSELF before and after each run. I had to remember that I did not want to grow too close to her, as she would be leaving. I only wanted to be her friend. We ran and rode in silence. We never saw any bears. But she was frightened of them, even as the summer went on without us seeing any, and so I always carried the pistol. We had been pale from the long sunless winter, but were beginning to grow brown from lying out by the lake up at the summit. Glenda took long naps after her run, we both did, Glenda sleeping on my couch, and I’d cover her with a blanket, and lie down on the floor next to her, and the sun would pour in through the windows, and there was no world outside our valley. But I could feel my heart pounding.

IT TURNED DRIER THAN EVER IN AUGUST. The loggers were cutting again. It was always dry and windy and the fields and meadows turned to crisp hay. Everyone was terrified of sparks, especially the old people, because they’d seen the big fires rush through the valley in the past, moving through like an army — the big fire in 1901, and then the monstrous one, in 1921, that burned up every tree except for the very luckiest ones, so that for years afterwards the entire valley was barren and scorched, smoldering — and the wind in our faces was hot, and we went down to the saloon in the early afternoons, after we had stopped off at my cabin, and we’d drink beers.

Glenda would lie on her back on top of the picnic table and look up at the clouds. She would be going back to Washington in three weeks, and then down to California, she said. We were both as brown as nuts. Almost all of the men would be off in the woods, logging. We would have the whole valley to ourselves. Tom and Nancy had been calling us “the lovebirds” in July, trying to get something going, I think, but they stopped in August. She was running harder than ever, really improving, so that I was having trouble staying up with her near the top of the summit, on the days that Glenda ran it.

There was no ice left anywhere, no snow, not even in the darkest, coolest parts of the forest, but the lakes and ponds and reeks and rivers were still ice-cold when we leaped into them, hot and heart-hammering; and each time, Glenda made me put my hand on her breast, her heart thumping and jumping around as if about to burst out, until I could finally feel it calming, and then almost stopping as the lake’s cold waters worked on her.

“Don’t you ever leave this place, Joe Barry,” she’d say to me as she watched the clouds. “You’ve got it really good here.”

I’d be stroking her knee with my fingers, running them along the inside scar, and the wind would be moving her hair around. She would close her eyes after a while and it was hot, but there would be goose bumps on her brown legs, on her arms.

“No, ma’am, I wouldn’t do that,” I’d say and take a swig of beer. “Wild horses couldn’t take me away from this place.”

I’d like to think about her heart, jumping and flapping around in her small chest like a fish in a footlocker, after those long runs; at the top of the summit, I’d wonder how anything could ever be so alive.

THE AFTERNOON SHE SET FIRE to the field across the road from my cabin was a still day, windless, and I guess that Glenda thought it was safe, that it would be just a grass fire, and would do no harm — and she was right, though I did not know that. I saw her standing out in the middle of the field, lighting matches, bending down and cupping her hands until a small blaze appeared at her feet. Then she came running across the field toward my cabin.

I loved to watch her run. I did not know why she had set the fire, and I was very afraid that it might cross the road, and burn up my hay barn, even my cabin — but I was not as frightened as I might have been. It was the day before Glenda was going to leave, and mostly I was just delighted to see her.

She came running up the steps, pounded on my door, and then came inside, breathless, having run a dead sprint all the way. The fire was spreading fast, even without a wind, because the grass was so dry, and red-winged blackbirds were leaping up out of the grass ahead of it, and I could see marsh rabbits and mice scurrying across the road, coming into my yard. An elk bounded across the meadow. There was a lot of smoke. It was late in the afternoon, not quite dusk, but soon would be, and Glenda was pulling me by the hand, taking me back outside and down the steps, back out toward the fire, toward the pond on the far side of the field. It was a large pond, large enough to protect us, I hoped, and we ran hard across the field, with a new wind suddenly picking up, a wind made from the flames, and we got to the pond and kicked our shoes off, pulled off our shirts and jeans, and splashed out into the water, and waited for the flames to get to us, and then to work their way around us.

It was just a grassfire. But the heat was intense as it rushed toward us, blasting our faces with the hot winds.

It was terrifying.

We ducked our heads under the water to cool our drying faces, and splashed water on each other’s shoulders. Birds were flying past us, and grasshoppers, and small mice were diving into the pond with us, where hungry trout were rising and snapping at them, swallowing them like corn. It was growing dark and there were flames all around us. We could only wait and see if the grass was going to burn itself up as it swept past.

“Please, love,” Glenda was saying, and I did not understand at first that she was speaking to me. “Please.”

We had moved out into the deepest part of the pond, chest-deep, and kept having to duck beneath the surface because of the heat. Our lips and faces were blistering. Pieces of ash were floating down on the water like snow. It was not until nightfall that the flames died down, just a few orange ones flickering here and there. But all the rest of the small field was black and smoldering, and still too hot to walk across barefooted.

It was cold. It was colder than I had ever been. We held on to each other all night, holding each other tightly, because we were shivering. I thought about luck, about chance. I thought about fears, all the different ones, and the things that could make a person run. She left at daylight, would not let me drive her home, but trotted, instead, heading up the road to Tom’s.

That was two years ago. The rabbits have changed, and then changed again: twice.

The hedgehog — I have never seen it again. After all these years, it has left. I wish I knew for sure that was what it had been; I wish I had a name for it.

Will it be back? I do not think so. Why was it here in the first place? I do not know.

Just the tame, predictable ways of rabbits — that is all I have left, now.

Is Glenda still alive? Is she still running? It is mid-february. It hurts, to remember her. Things that should have been said, things that should have been done. The field across the road lies scorched and black, hidden beneath a blanket of snow.

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