Brushfire

By ANNE SWÄRD

One dry, aimless day in an infinitely long summer, a brushfire broke out beside the railway that carved through the landscape. A landscape already scorched by the sun, my landscape, open and gently sloping down toward the lake.

It burned in the field of barley and along the railway embankment, smelled of singed weeds and tar, white-hot rails, blackened barbed wire. Insects and field mice burned. The earth burned. The blackthorn bushes crackled, the turkey sheds smoldered and screeched. Something was changing, a feeling of security melted away; a different mood would take its place.

The news spread as fast as the fire. It was in the middle of the factory holiday, and most people were at home and rushed up from all sides. When the whole village was standing ready along the edge of the field it looked like a civil defense exercise, were it not for the terror in people’s eyes. The flames advanced rapidly in all directions with the help of the wind. Allowed to run its course, it would soon reach the houses. The fire brigade took its time. It was a much drier summer than usual in the middle of harvest, and perhaps there were fires in several places at once. But we couldn’t wait, as the fire wouldn’t wait. Mama and Papa’s mother started to break off large branches along the embankment for all the helping hands. Cooperation and working together were needed now—just like the old days, one of the elderly people said. Everyone in my family was there, and I wanted to be there too. At first they tried to push me out of the way, but soon it was all they could do to keep the fire in check and they were no longer aware of me. I ran back and forth with water like all the others. Saw Mama go dangerously close to the worst of the fire, saw Papa’s brothers help to smother the flames with military blankets and tarpaulins. Two tall women, my father’s sister and my mother’s, walked along the embankment in men’s high Wellington boots, stamping out the embers. Papa’s father Björn and Mama’s father Aron worked side by side with quick, jerky strides, like brothers in identical overalls, but Grandfather Björn was taller by a head, as enormous as the bear he was named after. They wanted to show that they were just as capable of work as their sons, and they had begun to create a firebreak in the field so that the blaze would lose its hold. I saw Mama’s mother standing on the side of the hill cradling an empty zinc bowl, as if she didn’t know why she was standing there. As if someone had tricked her into thinking that she could direct the teamwork from up there, just to keep her out of the way. Papa had burned his hands and was being bandaged up by Mama’s brother, who ruthlessly ripped wide strips from Papa’s favorite shirt to protect his damaged palms. My mother’s sisters were members of the long chains of people passing water out of the nearest houses from hand to hand.

The fire spread along the side of the hill as if it would never be halted. Working against the wind, we tried to limit the disaster, until at long last we heard the sirens approach.

It was dangerous to get in the way of the hard jets of water. Everyone drew back—all except one, a teenage boy I had already noticed as the only one to get nearer to the fire than my mama. At times he looked almost as if he were standing in the flames. When everyone else had taken a step back he continued his monotonous firefighting. Mama shouted a warning to him, but he took no notice. She managed to shove him away from the flames, but he went straight back. She grabbed hold of him tighter and screamed something at him in the voice she always had when she was afraid. When she hit him, he didn’t react, just pulled away and carried on. She took hold again and shook him, as if she were trying to wake him out of a spell. He broke loose again, but his strength was gone and he sank down onto the charred grass as if all the energy had emptied out of him in an instant.

From mania to inertia in seconds. Black from his hair down to his gym shoes. I had never seen a dead person, but he didn’t look alive. Smoke could poison you, I knew—during the last autumn storm Mama and I had helped Papa’s father clean up in the arboretum after the wind had been through it like a tornado, and when we burned the branches the smoke made me sick and 
I threw up half the night.

Papa’s father led Mama away through the crowd. I went closer to the unknown boy to see if he was breathing. His chest inside the sooty T-shirt seemed to be gently rising and falling, but for safety’s sake I sat a little away from him. If he stopped breathing I would call Papa, who’d once breathed life into a child who had died—a girl caught in the weir next to the factory. Papa said that he had seen my face in hers as he gave her the kiss of life. Mama’s sisters said that certainly my papa had brought that girl back to life, but once long ago he hadn’t been able to save the one whose name we couldn’t mention in case Mama’s mother heard it, the youngest, the one who fell through the ice. Even so, Papa was the only person I knew who could wake the dead.

After a very long time the stranger opened his eyes and with difficulty he sat up. I should have left, but when he looked at me I couldn’t. Papa had given me a carton of milk that was good if you had inhaled smoke. I took a couple of sips and gave the rest to him and he accepted it without a word and downed it in one.

When I asked him which of the people there were his family, he said that there was no one. I couldn’t think of a single person in the village who was missing; all of them had come out of their houses to help.

“Don’t you live here?” I said. He nodded and indicated toward the lake. There was no house there. He was just pointing over an empty field. I stood and screwed up my eyes in the sun. Had there been a house there that had burned down?

“Can’t you see it?” he asked. I sneaked a look at him to see if he was pulling my leg. Strained my eyes, stared at the place he had pointed to, but there was nothing there.

If that was where he lived, why had he tried to fight the fire here and not from his own side? It was as if he had tried to put out the fire in the wrong place altogether. I explained which people in the crowd were my family—all except for Mama, not wanting him to know that she and I were related. I had never seen Mama like that before, never seen her hit anyone, except for once when she was alone in the cold-storage room with someone—I didn’t manage to see who, probably Papa—the incident so bewildering that I all but forgot it.

His eyes widened at each mention of the twelve I identified as my kin.

“What about you? Do you live on your own?” I asked.

“No, of course I don’t live on my own,” he said, not looking at me. “I’m only thirteen.” He spat into the grass, black and red.

But I didn’t think that was so.

He gazed out over the field, as if he wondered himself where his house had gone, but he seemed to be in no hurry to rush home and make sure that his family was okay.

“What about you, then?” he asked. I’m sure it was obvious, but I still couldn’t tell the truth. Papa used to say that I was older than I looked.

Mama didn’t agree at all. I was just quite small. “How old?” the boy said again, measuring me as he looked. Not much to measure, I hadn’t even reached the age of seven. Instead of answering I asked him where he lived—truly. Then suddenly I felt his hard hands take hold of me. I lost contact with the ground without warning, rising right up until I was taller than him, and there . . . far down the slope, sheltered from the wind and people’s view by high trees, was the house. Beyond my horizon, far beyond the limit Mama had set for me to roam around on 
my own, almost down by the water’s edge, the widening of the river, round like a lake, silver blue, with two narrow streams that meandered farther north and south.

He set me back down on the grass. I straightened my sleeveless dress that had ridden up and gotten creased and had the marks left by his black hands. Felt my face tighten with soot and heat.

As soon as the worst of the disaster had been averted, speculation over what had caused the conflagration began. Or who. Arson, Mama believed. Sparks from the train line, Papa said. Dry grass that spontaneously ignited, Mama’s sisters thought. Arson, Papa’s father agreed—it had begun to burn in several places at once; natural fires seldom follow such a rapid pattern. Mama’s father thought it might be a bit of everything: it was a fire summer, a snake summer, a summer of parched and overheated emotions. I said nothing and no one asked me what I thought.

The danger wasn’t over. The ground glowed with sealed-in heat, for the fire could creep along the roots and stay alive for days and restart at any time. Watch had to be kept on the field all through the night. The thirteen adults who under normal circumstances looked after me would have been too preoccupied or exhausted to bother whether I was in my bed or not. The rest of the night I sat with the unknown boy near his house wrapped in a heavy saddle blanket that smelled of propane and old stallion, filled with new, unfamiliar feelings.

The fear that the underground embers would suddenly flare up again kept me awake. His presence as well. Was he one of those you had to be wary of? 
I wasn’t sure. The fire, the dark, the tiredness, the stinging in my eyes, the sense that I had to look after myself now, that no one would protect me so far away from my usual territory. Independent overnight. No one would recognize me when I came home, if I ever came home. It seemed unreal that I had had a family at all. I felt so grown-up, so far from home, that I lost sight of my old life, the house, the arboretum, the cars in the yard, the tall white birch, my hiding place. Where this endless night would lead I had no idea. For the first time in my life I was alone with someone I didn’t know, nestled beside the forbidden lake where, it was said—I knew this even though I wasn’t yet seven—people from the village had deliberately gone under. One or two from the neighboring village too.

Where he lived was still the only thing I knew about him, in the house where no light was turned on the whole night. He went into the garage and found a blanket for me when he heard my teeth chattering in the darkness, but he didn’t go into the house, despite hunger, despite thirst. I didn’t know what his name was, only how his hands felt when he lifted me up off the ground, 
the smarting of the tender skin of my armpits, a cold tingling in my stomach. He didn’t fetch a jacket for himself, never felt the cold, he said, sat on his 
heels, huddled up, and smoked as if he didn’t have enough smoke inside 
him already.

The only things I had smoked before were chocolate cigarettes, and even that I had done in secret. But when he offered me a cigarette, I couldn’t say no. What would he think, that I was a child? I didn’t want him to light it for me, just sat there, tightly wrapped up in my blanket like a stuffed cabbage leaf and carefully held the cigarette in my hand. Thought I would save it, as a mark 
of . . . something. It was the fact that he had asked me that was important.

This was something I would always remember. The only thing I wanted to wipe from my memory was the sound of the birds on fire, but that was hard when the smell of them hung over the field. The turkey sheds were already in flames when Mama managed to open the padlock, and the birds that were still alive flew out like blazing torches and set fire to the barley where they fell.

The whole village was shrouded in a stench of the charred remains of living creatures. The pain in my lungs helped to keep me awake. To sit with a stranger and say nothing and feel cold and keep sneaking a look at him and then at the glow of his cigarette and know that our job was so important that we had 
to make sure that the whole village didn’t catch fire made everything easier to bear. Including the longing for home I felt when I saw the bats silently swoop after insects above the lake.

He didn’t ask what my name was. I told him anyway.

“That sounds like a boy’s name.”

“No, it’s the name of a beast of prey,” I said.

“Yes, yes. I know. I know all about beasts of prey,” he said and looked at me skeptically when I related what Mama had once told me. That one autumn when the ice froze earlier than usual up in the north, where my family came from, a she-bear walked out to one of the rocky islands and went into hibernation. When she woke up in spring the ice was gone and she was caught in a trap. Men went out in boats and looked at her in awe. In those days a bear was an exceptional sight up there, and she was a magnificent specimen. Then they shot her, because they were hungry that spring after the war, and everyone knew it was the same bear that had killed my great-grandfather, so his family received the biggest share of the meat.

“A bear’s not a beast of prey,” he said.

“I know, but that was the bear that killed my great-grandfather who gave Papa’s father the name Björn. And it was Papa’s father who gave Mama the name Karenina. And Mama who gave me the name Lo.”

“Oh, right,” he said, and looked at me quizzically. “Are you going to smoke it or can I have it back? It was my last one.”

“I’m going to,” I said, “but not at the moment.”

Lukács Zsolt. That was what he was called. Or rather, Zsolt Lukács—
a misunderstanding that occurred long ago when he arrived here at the outset with his father. As far as he knew his father had written his name down on 
a piece of paper for the day-care staff the first time he left his son with them, not realizing that in Sweden the given name usually comes first. When he picked up his son later the same day everyone called him Lukas.

And Lukas it remained. It was a funny story, but he didn’t tell it as if it were funny. He didn’t mind the mix-up, he said. Lukács had been his mother’s surname, that was why he liked it. And when he pronounced it in Hungarian it sounded like lo-cat.

A number of times during the night he had to go off and throw up after all the smoke he had inhaled. He had gone nearer to the fire than anyone else, displaying a defiance that reminded me of that dangerous look in Mama’s and Papa’s eyes when they threw themselves into the surf at the sea. Again 
and again into the waves, into the flames, as if each time were the last.

He knows all about beasts of prey, I thought, as I watched him dry his mouth and sit down again. I realized that he was the one who had started the fire. 
I didn’t understand why. Sitting on the burned-out field on the lookout for signs that it was starting up again, I was suddenly aware that he hoped it would.

The sandy field, the heat under the soles of our feet, the smell of burned flesh when we ran. If the fire hadn’t started, I would never have encountered him. When I returned home that morning I knew hardly any more about him than before we had met. Not much was said during the night, but the fire had burned all the way between our two houses, and that had altered everything.

At home in the dawn, blue with cold and altered, everyone still asleep. 
I slowly washed my hands with Grandmother’s lily-of-the-valley soap; the rest of me was so black I would probably never be clean again. Creeping down into the bed between Mama and Aunt Marina, I tried to steal some of their warmth under the blanket without waking them with my ice-cold hands and knees. I wanted to face both of them, couldn’t choose, and lay on my back instead. Mama’s sleep was troubled, and she tossed her head back and forth so that her long hair became more and more tangled on the pillow.

When the family assembled on the veranda for a very late and silent breakfast, I behaved as if nothing had happened. Papa’s hands were wrapped in clean new bandages. He fumbled and grimaced and swore as his mother and Mama’s sisters had to help him with his coffee and porridge. He looked 
as though he enjoyed being waited on from two sides, his father teased. No 
one else said anything, the subject of the fire having been exhausted long 
before. All that remained was to eat in silence and then to go down and gawk at the devastation.

I couldn’t tell them that I had met someone who had offered me cigarettes, and had seen the sun rise from another world on the other side of the field. 
I was hurt that no one had even noticed my absence. But belonging to everyone in a way meant belonging to no one—at night I often wandered around between the beds and any one of them could have thought that I was sleeping with one of the others.

Just as the guilty return to the scene of the crime, all the villagers returned to the burned-out field. Perhaps it had all been a nightmare, but no, it looked as though war had rampaged along the field of barley and the railway line. The wind had died down and the sour smell of smoldering vegetation hung stubbornly over the black landscape. No one spoke, as there was nothing to add, except possibly a cautious word of thanks directed obliquely upward, that at least the fire had been halted before it reached the houses.

The boy who had said he was called Lukas was there as well. He stood slightly aside and hung on his rusty bicycle, with a look I didn’t really comprehend. 
I glanced back, but didn’t go up to him, stayed with Papa’s brothers and counted charred electricity poles along the embankment.

Growing up, I could see, meant not saying all you knew.

The rain finally came, a day too late. A grime over everything that had burned. The impression that something had threatened the village gave 
a feeling of solidarity in misfortune, even if it didn’t last.

 

Anne Swärd has received several awards for her fiction as well as an August Prize nomination. 
[Purchase your copy of Issue 05 here]

Brushfire

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