Working the Fire Line
– Fierce Fiction by Alan MacLeod – October 21, 2018
The first time I saw her we were on the fire line digging a ditch to contain the blaze. “There’s Beth,” someone said. “ Bobby Freeman’s sister and a damn good digger too.” I saw a short, slender woman in her early twenties, wearing a bright orange sweatshirt and green safety pants. Her helmet was covered with bright yellow and blue letters spelling out Fiery Momma. She had a measured smoothness in her digging style, and struck me as someone who could go all day without doing herself in, despite the awful waves of heat and body fatigue. When she stopped to look where she was going, her electric blue eyes flashed out from behind her safety glasses, as if she liked what she saw and was having a good time getting there. She tilted her head and flashed a smile at us that I felt deep down in my guts. The sort of woman you were glad to be around, and work with. I liked her right away.
Bobby Freeman was a classmate of mine at the University, in the forestry program. A group of us had taken summer jobs on the fire crew, earning money for school, and looking for adventure in the beautiful, wild, fire – prone mountains. While other people our age were sitting at desks or waiting tables, we were exhausted, but happy to be doing such useful work. As long as you could take the constant ribbing and join in the banter, you’d be okay.
Beth was on a different crew, and though our paths may have crossed before, I couldn’t remember meeting her. Those eyes and that smile would have stuck with me if I had. She straightened up and leaned on her fire axe for a moment’s rest. Her face was tanned and smooth, the skin glowing through the smokey air all around us. I felt like a sweaty, smelly beast with a bitter, dusty mouth, and was sure that she noticed my discomfort.
“What’s up guys?”, she burst out when she saw us continuing to look at her. “You,” I wanted to say, but instead choked out some inanity or other. It would have been enough if it was all in her eyes, but there was also a very adult-like stillness about her, even amongst the chaos of the fire line. I found that intriguing and somehow reassuring. A fine spray of saw dust coated the side of her face. I wanted to brush it off, but managed to stay my hand.
I try sometimes to remember whether I even introduced myself that time, or said something funny, or halfway intelligent about what we were all doing chatting amongst the fiery ruins. But I can’t recall. Once she began her rhythmic strokes again, the moment blurs in my mind with other moments we had that summer – the bunch of us with our backs right up against the inferno digging ditches, the suffocating smell of burning embers stinging our noses, and learning to step aside to avoid the worst of the acrid smoke.
And so, here I am six or so years later, lounging in my backyard, watching my son Tom cavorting and shrieking through the sprinkler, and remembering the stifling heat of that summer. Tom pulls up and looks at me for a long moment. With that innocent intuition of childhood he says, “you look hot daddy.” He’s put in his order for either a brother or a puppy to run with him. I can’t believe I’m considering getting a dog given what came down that summer.
He’s persuasive though, and uses a precocious logic, along with a curly- headed charm, that I find it hard to argue with.
“I’ll learn to be a big guy taking care of a dog.”
My mind drifts back. We chased those blazes, hopscotching through the bush, propelled by the wind. When it jumped too close to a neighbouring community, the helicopters would pound the flames with water, and we’d split off to help spray down the houses. Rushing to contain the fires, we came upon burned out homes, their owners sometimes standing by helplessly. The fickle fire would take out one house before leaping a couple of others, leaving them intact.
It was a few days before I managed to get close to Beth again. She had that easy, comfortable manner around people that drew others to her. We were in the chow line when I caught her eye.
“You’re quite the digger. Where’d you learn that?”
“I watched you.”
The thing was, she made it easy to talk to her. Sort of like one of the guys with her teasing, sometimes pointed manner. Also, she listened, with that head cocked to the right, direct look, that telegraphed her interest in you. Guys didn’t attend like that. Before long, I made sure to seek her out, and I think she did the same. I wasn’t sure what she saw in me, but in my own gawky way, I knew I had to risk taking it to the next level. Otherwise she’d move on, I feared. I don’t know where it came from, but when I opened my mouth, I surprised myself, and maybe her too.
“I like you Beth. It feels good to be with you. I like your style and you’re easy on the eyes. How do you manage to smell so good in this mess?”
“Wow! I used to think you were the silent type, but thank-you. You’re not bad yourself. You notice things.”
A spark leapt between us like a flame from that fervent forest. I was glad I spoke up, even if I didn’t know where to take it next. We began to hold hands that night, and when I swooped in, almost colliding with her head, to kiss her, she was all in for it. No stiffness or pulling away. She settled right in and fitted her body to mine like she’d done it before. I was thrilled and wondered what had taken me so long. She probably did too.
After that I could feel the bond grow stronger between us. Out in the bush, on the crews, there’s no place to hide. You’ve got to be part of it and go with it. For a young couple like us that felt good and not so good. Privacy could be hard to come by. So we just took it. I’d look at her and nod my head. We’d march off arm in arm to catcalls, oohs and ahs. We were often followed by Lou, a black rescue dog belonging to one of the cooks, who seemed to stand guard over us with understanding eyes.
At first it felt kinda awkward to go, but then it felt natural, and the stir quieted down when we went off together. The long stressful, tiring days and muscle soreness made us long for those times when the touch of our bodies both soothed and excited.
“It feels like coming home to me now,” she said.
“What a great home.”
She began to sing then, “You’d be so nice to come home to.” That surprised me. It was an old fashioned tune, but I liked it, loved to hear it directed at me by that sweet voice. When Beth burst into song like that, which she often did, a dreamy look might settle on her face and her eyes would defocus like some secret vision was unfolding before her. It amazed me that one person could have all those parts.
One of those parts was a fear that darkened her face when we talked about the worsening wildfire situation. The normal sparkle and ease left her than, and I was concerned for her because I knew she worried about this, and sometimes took chances to help others. Put herself in danger with a shrug and a quick movement forward.
“What really gets me is that this is the new normal, all these fires. It scares me, and I feel helpless,” she said.
“It scares me too, especially when you seem a little too reckless and bold about helping out.”
“I’ll watch that.”
But she didn’t, not really, and I found myself more and more preoccupied with her safety. I only felt easy when I could see her, and get to her quickly. She tolerated that with a shake of her head and a wink.
“Think I’m a baby needs watching, do you?”
“No, just somebody who cares too much.”
The thing was, she needed to be needed. I could hear it in her voice and see it in her eyes when she talked about not knowing how to help more. At those times my worry for her made me sigh and scramble to give her a different perspective on the thing.
“Maybe the best way to help is keep yourself safe, so you can be there for others.”
She understood in her head, but not in her heart, as it turned out on a particularly knarly day when the wind was ambushing the fires and driving them helter skelter on the edges of a small settlement. We understood that everyone had been evacuated and we were waiting for the helicopters to bomb some sense into the fires while we struggled just to get back from the choking, charcoal-like smoke and devouring flames.
Two things happened at once. A terrible screeching and yipping sound on my left, chilled me to the bone, and was followed by Lou the rescue dog, trailing fire and smoke. Out of the corner of my eye on my right, I spotted a blurred shape crashing through the brush, around the corner after the dog.
My stomach bottomed out as I recognized Beth and took after her expecting to find them both in flames around that hazy corner. At first, I didn’t know what I was seeing; Lou was gone, and a heap of clothes was sprawled out amongst some rocks. As I got closer my vision cleared, and I could see Beth, eyes closed and crimson blood running out from a wound on her head. I’ve never been good with blood. I could feel a wooziness starting to overwhelm me that was beat out by the adrenaline rush galloping through my veins.
Tom always loved to hear stories about my time fighting fires. He’d grow still, with eyes out of focus, snuggling into me, and picturing it all. Just like his mother. He’s got her eyes too, and her sweet nature, coupled with a barbed wit that can spring out at you.
“Daddy, you kept mommy, not Lou the rescue dog. Guess you’re not a dog person, eh?”
By the time we got her to the helicopter, and up and out, she was still unconscious and deathly white. They let me come too. They had to. I guess I insisted.
I held her hand and talked to her all the way, trying to keep her here, not let her go. She’d never looked so peaceful, I thought, as if she was going to accept this too, just like she always rolled with it. I wanted her to fight it; “Please don’t let go,” I whispered. The beat of the rotors seemed to echo the pounding of my heart and the flutter in my stomach.
Funny, the things you remember about a ride like that. There must have been a hundred things I could have noticed as I prayed and promised to get her out of this. But the thing that sticks with me most, that I can’t forget, was the smell of sweat, cloth, engine exhaust, and underneath, like some kind of a heart note, the scent of Beth herself . I can smell that mixture now. It still ripples in my brain, triggering a panic that flushes through me, hot and resonant, like those out of control conflagrations in the bush.
After they patched up her broken head at the hospital, they did a bunch of other tests for internal injuries. The E.R. doctor looked around the waiting room, then made her way in my direction.
“Are you Beth’s partner?”
In a voice filled with fatigue and concern, she detailed Beth’s injuries. The head trauma worried her most, but none were immediately life-threatening. Then, she sighed, gulped a deep breath and met my eyes directly.
“Did you know that she’s pregnant?”
Yikes! For an awful moment I thought she was going to ask me to choose between the two. But, no, nothing like that. Then a strange feeling came over me. It was a relief to hear about new life blooming where I feared all would be lost. I couldn’t take it all in, but a part of me was so glad. Deep inside I think I realized that Beth would fight for this new life inside her. She would not let go of that easily. And she did not.
Oh, her recovery was a roller coaster ride, filled with appointments, setbacks, leaps forward and uncertainty. But there was a radiance about her that flummoxed and startled even the most jaded of the medical staff. They couldn’t reconcile the damaged patient with the avid mother-to-be. When they cautioned her in somber voice not to expect too much of herself and the pregnancy, it seemed to ignite that old fire- fighting spirit within her. She would stiffen, and get her back up like some threatened feline. No one was going to push her on this one. She would prevail and protect. She said she had always left a window open for the unexpected in her life and this was no different.
And so, the end of her rehab coincided almost exactly with the birth of our son, Tom. At the door to the delivery room, between waves of punishing contractions, she looked up at me from the gurney and winked.
“Now there really is going to be a baby who needs watching. Are you up for it?”
Oddly, I felt that I was, though I was barely twenty-one at the time, with few prospects. But I couldn’t let her down. She lay there, vulnerable, yet calling me out, depending on me. I took her hand and squeezed it, sure then that we could do this together.
About the Author – Alan MacLeod
Alan MacLeod is a writer and psychologist living in Bruce County where his family emigrated in 1852. He belongs to writers groups which inspires and encourages, but his top reader is his wife Barbara. He feels honoured to be published in Dreamers, which is a journal of heart and soul.–
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