Conversations in art about ecological collapse and our place in the changing world

Conversation 10

Fire Breathing
Patricia Robertson

There they were. Ahead of him. Four immense black figures, curling downward at the tops, reaching out spindly crackling fingers toward him. He automatically tugged at his hose pack, but it was hopeless. —Get out! someone yelled, racing past him, Get out, now!—it couldn’t be Ray, could it?—not Ray, of all people…. The nearest black figure was toppling in slow motion, if he didn’t move now he’d be trapped—

He woke shouting, as always, strangling in blankets. After he’d wiped the sweat off his face he stood in the cool band of moonlight, blinds raised, staring out at an ordinary edge-of-city suburb. Out there, in the hills and mountains, the black figures walked, ever closer. It was safe, for now. Safe for as long as he and his kind did what they were trained to do—hold back the wall of flame from the world.

§

Over black coffee and scrambled eggs he checked his phone. No call-outs yet, just a kind of ominous silence. End of season anyway, or what used to be the end of season, though it wasn’t, not anymore. November and still over a hundred active fires in the Coastal region alone. Already there’d been snow at lower levels, melted now, but that didn’t mean he was done for the year. He paced, drinking a second cup. Stella bumped her nose into the back of his knee, triggering a bolt of pain. Walking her was usually Parveen’s job, but she was on the other side of the planet for a wedding, some cousin or other in Chandigarh, he couldn’t keep track.

You remember, Parveen would say insistently, Kiran, the pretty one in the pink-and-gold salwar kameez, my auntie Nanda’s youngest, and he’d laugh and ask how she expected him to remember out of the fifty or sixty cousins he’d met on their honeymoon.

It was beginning to drizzle. Typical November weather for Burnaby, if you could call anything typical nowadays. He hunched into his anorak, the much-too-expensive one Parveen had bought him last Christmas, and opened the door for Stella to go arrowing out. She’d been his own present to Parveen two Christmases ago, a wriggling lump of yellow fur from a farm in Abbotsford. Black lab and golden retriever, the ad said. No, not Christmas—Diwali, when Parveen filled the house with candles and sweets and spent three days preparing a feast for their closest friends. Yes, Diwali, of course, the festival of light. That was why they’d named the puppy Stella.

—A puppy for Diwali? Parveen’s brother had said in mock horror. —You are worshipping dogs now?

—Now, Dhanu. Parveen frowned at him. —Don’t be such a tease. I wanted one, you know. Ty bought me the perfect gift.

To her husband she had to explain that in parts of India people offered garlands and food to dogs and marked tikas on their foreheads during the festival. —Remember, sweetie, what I told you about dogs in Hinduism? They guard the doors of heaven and hell.

No, he hadn’t. All those dizzying gods and goddesses with their multiple incarnations and avatars, their pulsating colours—how could anyone recall them all?

—My mother always said, if your pet dog sneezes while you are going out, it’s a good omen, Parveen’s sister-in-law added. —Remember, Dhanu, that pug of hers, how she dressed it up like a baby?

Then there was an awkward silence, because Parveen’s own mother kept asking why there was no baby yet, after eight years, when Dhanu and his wife had three, all boys.

They had agreed, he and Parveen, there would never be a baby. How could you bring a baby into a world on fire?

. . . .

The call-out came on Monday. Parveen wouldn’t be back for another two weeks. He drove Stella to his niece’s, where her eighteen-month-old and the dog could tangle together on the floor, and checked the coordinates on the status website as he headed to the airport. Estimated size: 5 000 hectares. Suspected Cause: Person. Stage of Control: Active. Approximate Location: Binder Creek. It had broken out on the weekend—likely a campfire—and blown up fast. An interface fire, where cabins, houses, communication lines could all be threatened. He’d fought another fire back in the summer in the same valley, only 10 kilometres from this one. An evacuation order was in place, though so far it affected only two pumice mines and a hydroelectric project.

Ed, Ed Stefanovich, would be taking him up. Steady Eddie. He knew all the pilots; he’d been flying in these mountains for longer than he wanted to remember. —You got one of the Vulcan crews this time, eh? Ed said as they walked across the tarmac. —Skookum bunch of kids. Dave took em up last week.

They’d told Ty that when they called him out; all the Wildfire Service crews were on other jobs. Since his back injury the year before, when he’d been off for four long months, he’d become an itinerant crew boss, flown in on relief or wherever they needed to cobble a crew together. Vulcan had a great rep; he’d heard only good things.

—For pity’s sake, Parveen said after he’d sprained his back. —Last year your shoulder, this year your lumbar. You’ve been doing this half your life, sweetie. You’re getting too old.

But thirty-seven wasn’t old. Some of the men he worked with were in their forties, even fifties, now they were calling out the retired veterans as well. The contract crews like Vulcan’s were younger, mostly college kids, though fighting fires year-round meant there was more of a mix. Every year was worse than the year before. He’d still been in college, back in 2017, when the province had the worst season in its history: 1,064 fires scorching over a million hectares of forest. That twenty-year-old record had long receded, along with his plans to teach anthropology. Firefighting paid better and meant steady work.   

The plane was falling through the drifting smoke, the river twisting up to meet them. As silver-grey as the cutthroat trout he’d fished for here on a field trip during his student days, when he’d worked on a pit house dig near a river tributary. They’d found a seasonal camp dating back 5,500 years. What would they think, those long-ago people, of the airborne machine that dropped humans from the sky into flame?

§

On a strip of pebbled beach, the helicopter was waiting for him. He and Ed high-fived and then he was dodging under the rotor blades and lifting himself into the passenger seat even as the machine rose from the ground. Last in, last out, he thought to himself—that was his role these days. The chopper pilot was new, some kid—younger man, he corrected himself—who grinned at him above his boom mike. They swung so low over the trees he saw a moose and her tiny calf in wetland below them. Smoke drifting across his vision erased them.

The kid—man—put the chopper down like a pro in the helispot on the hillside. Crouching, Ty scrambled out, pumping his fist when he was free of the rotors. And who was coming toward him but Graham, except it couldn’t be Graham, Graham wasn’t fighting fires anymore….

—Hey Ty, I’m Reid, they said you were coming up. Dad says to say hi.

And the boy who’d been born in the middle of the Sicamous fire stuck his hand out, laughing Graham’s body-shaking laugh. That had been Ty’s second summer fighting fires on Graham’s crew. Graham hadn’t seen his son until he was two weeks old.

—Dad says you’re among the best because he trained you himself. That laugh again, and the teasing, what they called fire-bagging.

A clump of burning debris landed at their feet. —Fire whirls already? Ty said, and glanced automatically uphill.

—Yeah, things picked up this morning, we’re getting crossover conditions, weird this time of year, huh?

Not just weird but impossible. Who’d ever heard of it in BC in November?

§

He’d met a First Nation firekeeper on that student field trip, an elder who sat silent while her son talked. Their family had been firekeepers for thousands of years, the son told the dig team. —Lines of our people walked the land beating drums. We warned the birds and the four-leggeds.

That was their hereditary role, to renew and purify the land through fire. —My mother taught us that every fire is like a snowflake. No two are alike.

Every fire is like a snowflake. Yes. Each fire was a live thing with a mind of its own. Fire was a divine attribute, after all, a gift of the gods, or else it was stolen from them and the thief punished. It wasn’t something you messed around with. But they’d thought themselves able to control it, white people had. They’d suppressed it for hundreds of years, and now it rose up against them, blisteringly intense, full of fury.

§

The Vulcan team was working in four sub-crews that day. He didn’t meet them all until their shifts ended. Five women, the rest guys, though he soon lost track of their names.

—Got slimed today pretty bad, one of them—Mike?—said when the first crew came into spike camp that evening. His chest heaved in spasm, choking his words.

—Here, have some Vitamin I, Veronica said, sliding the ibuprofen bottle across the counter as the others laughed. They were at ease; they’d had a good day, a good pull, despite the fire retardant. Some people were more reactive than others, though nothing like the borate salts they’d used when he was the age of these kids. Gave you runs so bad you were pissing liquid shit for days.

—Black coffee does it for me, Reid said. —Honest. Opens up the airway.

—How’d you learn that already, snookie? said Jai. —Second year on crew and he thinks he knows it all, eh?

Ty left them to the banter to find his cot and fall into comatose sleep, though not before trying, and failing, to get a signal so he could phone Parveen. Not that she’d be surprised if he didn’t. You couldn’t count on it out here. Besides, she was in that other dimension half a world away, helping choose the music, the jewellery, the lehenga choli the bride would wear. There—he’d remembered something about Parveen’s universe after all.

§

On the second day he found himself in a sub-crew with Reid at the perimeter, digging a firebreak. The weather had changed, bringing rain squalls and sleet. They could focus on tactical work, get ahead a bit, though his hands had numbed with cold. Every time he turned and looked at Reid he saw Graham, that same sunburst of freckles over his nose. If it wasn’t for the flickering pain in his lower back he’d have felt years younger.

—Don’t do this forever, he told Reid as he straightened against a muscle spasm. —Don’t trash your body like I did.

—Oh, I’m a goner, Reid said. —Anyway, you and Dad did.

—Yeah, and now your dad’s wearing a truss and his rotator cuff’s shot.

The muscle seized again but he was already over the limit for ibuprofen. —How’s he doing these days? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Graham. He had a desk job at headquarters in Parksville.

—Bored, Reid said, and laughed, and whacked at the ground with his pulaski. —Tells me how he envies me.

Well, the old always did, didn’t they? Envy the young? If Ty had married early, like Graham, maybe he’d have chosen parenthood after all, have a son like Reid. Another would-be lifer, in love with gut-wrenching challenge. In love with fire, really, and the outdoors, and the trees themselves.

§

They weren’t always menacing and spindly-fingered, the trees in his dreams. In the last year or two things had changed. He had no idea why. That first time, he was in a northern forest with his hand on the white bark of a paper birch. Three eyelike knots stared back at him. The tree was trying to tell him something, and he stood there listening. The voice was brisk, eager, impatient. He was on the edge of understanding, but he couldn’t quite make it out. He woke into sheets damp with sweat, but from exertion, not fear. He lay still, puzzling, for a long time.

Spruce came some months later, slow of speech and rather condescending. A black spruce, from those same northern forests where so much had burned in the last decade. This tree was young, not much more than a sapling, and the new growth of fireweed frothed around it. Every sound was intense: a downy woodpecker rapping on a nearby trunk, a ground squirrel chittering alarm. The spruce took its time, leaning toward him as if blown by a high wind. Ty wondered if it was because he hadn’t been able to keep up with the birch. The woodpecker’s rapping was a message too, but he was too slow, too stupid. He looked down at his trenching tool and threw it away, and then he woke.


Excerpt from “Fire Breathing” to be published in Hour of the Crab copyright © 2021 by Patricia Robertson. Reprinted by permission of Goose Lane Editions.
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