The marshal came by again this afternoon. Rolled up in his big government truck when I was out back, digging. Didn’t hear him pulling in till Daisy ran out barking, you know how she is. Must’ve spooked him, ‘cause the Marshall waited till I calmed Daisy down to get out and start telling me how the fire’s getting closer, like I ain’t got half a brain to figure that out for myself. Like my throat doesn’t choke at the smoke, like my own eyes can’t see the damn smoke clouds rolling in, underlit by the fire till they glow red like some halfway Hell. I told him I’ve lived out here twice as long as he's been living, so I know a thing or two about forests and fires. And I’m not leaving, so he might as well quit coming around here asking. Course he didn’t take that lightly. Rattlin’ on about how he’s just here lookin’ for my safety and all.
“They’re just things, Charlie,” he said, pointing up at my cabin. My home. “They can always be replaced. And when the fire sweeps through here it isn’t going to stop just because you dug a little ditch. I’m sorry, but this is bigger than you.”
Idiot. Just things. It’s always the ones whose things are stored away somewhere safe that have the luxury of talking like that. Or the ones whose lives have already been burnt up, lying to themselves saying “they’re just things”, hoping that’ll make it not hurt so bad. As if material things don’t matter at all. Ask someone whose things are on the line if you want the honest truth about things. These aren’t just things to me, bobbles I’ve collected that are indiscriminate from any other. This stuff is who I am. Parts of me line the bookshelves in there. I’m carved into the walls. Not to mention you, Jacob. We built this place. There’s just no separating us. Not from the material, and not from each other. If it burns, I burn.
I told the Marshal I would think on what he said. I don’t figure he believed me but at least he had the mind to stop fighting me about it. Got back in his truck and said he’d stop by tomorrow, giving me a sad look like he thinks I’m just too stupid to understand what he’s trying to tell me. Well maybe I am, marshal. But maybe I just understand things a bit different. World out there never wanted what we had, so I see no point of joining it now. I waited an hour or so after he left before I drove down the road after him and felled a few trees and laid them across the road. I may not be able to leave, but I can make damn sure no one joins me. I made my bed.
By the time I get back dusk is upon us, and the flicker of the fire illuminates the sky from an unnatural direction. My bones ache, but it’s an honest pain. I’m too old for this work, Jacob. The digging’s done now, at least. Daisy even helped me for parts of it, but mostly she just slept, or kept wary watch over me from the porch. I think she suspects something is wrong. Surely she can smell it, the fire and the brimstone, and I catch her looking down the road from time to time, but she stays with me. Maybe she feels tethered to this place too. Even now, she’s curled up on the mounded grass in the backyard, keepin’ an eye on me. She always was your dog. I go crouch beside her and scratch her head, looking out at the forest we used to walk together. Sitting here on that pile of dirt, getting as close to you as I can, I feel your presence rising up outta the earth. As if I turned around I might find you there, holdin’ a fresh cup of tea and grinning like you do. Did. It’s almost worse, this partial presence. What I miss is your smell, your touch, your voice. Bet the Marshall would say that’s just more material things I need to let go of. But material things matter when all you’ve got are ghosts.
I hear a cracking twig, and down by the creek I can see a buck stops for a drink. He must be five foot to the shoulder, and his antlers have a delicate strength to them. Like the way branches of an oak turn out to be so much heartier than they look. At least till a fire comes ‘round, I suppose. He’s so close that I can see the velvet on his antlers and the heat of his breath. Another holdout that refuses to leave. Makes me sad, looking at him. Gentle giant that he is, I doubt there’s a creature in the whole forest who wouldn’t think twice about dancing with him. A protective strength. And yet even he can do nothing but wait, let the fire do what it may.
I must’ve made a noise then, because he stands upright and looks at me. Daisy sees him too but doesn’t bother to move on him. Must be the three of us share some knowledge, that there’s no use fightin’ between us now. After a moment he moves on, his antlers blending in with the branches like that much more kindling, and he’s gone.
I give a last scratch of Daisy’s head and then set to making a fire. I’m sure the marshall wouldn’t approve, but what’s another drop of water when you’re the one drowning? Besides, I know how to keep the fire contained. I build a small one, small but warm, like you taught me. Funny how it is, what with how we’ve been threatened with hellfire so often over the years, that I still find comfort in a quiet blaze.
I eat very little lately, so I just set up the kettle and gnaw at a few pieces of dried jerky. Daisy comes and sits beside me, beckoned by the smell of jerky and the kettle’s song, and we sit together as the night comes fully. I feed her bits as I search for glimpses of the stars we used to watch together so aimlessly, when it felt like there was nothing between us and heaven, but the smoke chokes out the sky now and I can see little outside my small fire. The fire at least keeps me warm, and I’m grateful for Daisy’s company, but eventually the air becomes too thick with loneliness for me to stand. I put out the fire, finish my last evening preparations, and retire to the house to sleep.
I wake to a loud cracking sound, and Daisy is at my side crying, licking at my face. At once I feel the heat and I realize I’ve misjudged. The fire’s come already, it’s inside the cabin. I hear another pop as a beam across the ceiling cracks in the flame, breaking and falling to the floor just in front of the bed. The walls ripple with a multicoloured fire and the wood crackles around me, as if I’m in the centre of the storm, where God himself makes the lightning. Daisy cries more and wakes me again, now from my stupor, and I stumble out of bed, dragging her out of this damnation. The bookshelf topples over and nearly catches us as we run out into the night, where Hell itself awaits.
The forest is a cacophony of madness. The trees around the cabin glow and pop, as if the fire’s been trapped inside them all along. The carpet of the forest flares with patches of flame, and just yards past the treeline I see the forest is a wall of flame. I hear a large crack and look to see an ancient pine explode at the base, falling forward and crushing the front side of the cabin. The roof buckles and I can see flames come licking up into the sky, devouring our home from the inside. The air is a thick poison, diving into my eyes and down my throat. I stumble away from the cabin and pull my nightshirt over my mouth and nose but it does nothing against this inferno.
“Get on, go!” I shout at Daisy, pushing at her, cursing myself. Should’ve told the Marshall to take her yesterday.
I give her another hard shove and she looks me once over before turning and running into the brush, towards the direction of the road. Difference between a dog and man is a dog knows when to stay and when to run. Never knew much for myself, but I’m grateful for Daisy. She’s a smart girl, fast too. She’ll find her way out.
I’ve got to hurry now, there’s not much time. I go grab the buckets I set up out back the night before. Careful as I can, fast as my damned old bones will take me, I waddle them over to the hole, trying my best not to spill. I’m getting dizzy from the smoke, and my eyes burn like they’ve picked up the fire themselves. Everything is a blur of oranges and yellows. When I get the last bucket over I sit, dangle my legs into the hole, and drop myself in. It’s not graceful, but to hell with grace. Overhead the wind picks up and I hear the trees popping in the fire, echoing out like gunshots.
The whole isn’t wide, but it’s deep enough. I need to go up on my toes to grab the tips of the buckets and tip them down onto me. Water cascades down onto me, somehow still cold despite the flames around me. Hell of a baptism. I pull the soaked blankets out of the bottoms of the buckets and pull them down onto me, draping myself in them. They’re waterlogged and heavy, and I sink down into the hole under their weight. I’m so tired Jacob. I scrabble at the dirt walls with my fingers, hoping to pile as much as I can on me. Hoping that I’ve dug the hole deep enough, that it protects against the flame. A tree falls, must be nearby because I feel the thud of its impact resonate through the dirt like a heartbeat. Once I can’t manage to dig any more dirt on top of me, I curl up, pull the blankets as best I can over me as the fire burns up all my memories above.
I’m like a plant now, Jacob. A wrinkled, old seed. I know I should’ve gone with the marshall. But I’m too old, I can’t bear the thought of uprooting, trying to grow again somewhere new. It’s too much. At least I feel your presence again now. I don’t know how close I’ve dug this hole, I aimed as close to yours as I could muster. But I feel you, I feel your strength through the earth. A protective strength. I can’t leave you, Jacob. I can’t.