Anger That Burns Without January 5th, 2018
The fire has burned a hundred years. No one knows for sure where it started. In the south they say, in the greenlands. I can't remember a day when the world wasn't burning.
My earliest memory as a child was when we had to leave for the first time. My grandfather would not get on the wagon. No, he said. I will run no more, and I will not spread the evil any further. I will let the fire take me today. I remember seeing my grandmother slap him hard on the face, and he sat on the back of the wagon for the whole day, in silence. I think about him a lot these days.
It is late in the year, but the air is still warm. The distant smoke climbs high above the horizon, forming giant trails that block the sun. We have traveled farther north than I thought possible, but still the fire drives us onward. The scrubland here is arid, with bush after bush that the fire will eventually consume. We cannot stay here.
I unpack the mule and lay the packs out on the dusty ground. Uncle Jerome hacks away at a nearby acka plant and drains the water from within, catching it in a small clay bowl. It's easier now there's just the two of us. No more fighting over who gets what.
We eat a meal of sandroot; there is nothing else. I boil it slowly over a small campfire. My uncle has said nothing all day. I stare into the flames as the pan boils. They seem almost alive as they flicker and dance in the darkness.
"You shouldn't look at it," says Uncle Jerome. His round white beard glows brightly against the night. "It'll burn you."
"Don't worry," I say, "I'm keeping my distance."
"That's not what I meant."
A small lizard runs from the rocks, attracted by the warmth. My uncle drops the bowl down on top of it and traps it, then quickly reaches underneath and grabs it by its tail. He throws the lizard onto the campfire for luck. I can still remember the rhyme my grandmother taught me long ago -- a flame fed well will cast no spell, an evil unfed will surely spread. Uncle Jerome still believes in good luck.
I finish my meal and take the pan off the flames, leaving the water to cool for tomorrow.
"You'd better put that fire out before it spreads," he says as he lies down on his blanket.
I kick the dirt across the fire and stamp it out. We sit in the darkness, the only light coming from the distant glow behind us on the horizon, where the smoke has turned the sky a strange reddish. I sit looking southwards to where we have come from. The many places we had fleetingly called home are now but a distant memory, all consumed by the flames.
"Uncle Jerome..." I ask.
"How did the Great Fire start?"
The old man lifts himself up onto his elbows and lies in thought. With a great effort and a greater grunt he sits upright.
"The way I heard it," he begins, "there was a man whose heart was consumed by anger. They say a woman rejected him I think, chose someone else over him. Well that kind of thing can really get to you, you know? Well of course you're too young for all that, but you'll understand one day."
"Anyway, the anger built inside him, until it could be contained no more. Then one day he lit a match, and stared into it until it became one with him. And so he set fire to her house, and let the evil escape from within himself. Of course, with that much rage there was no stopping it, and the monster was released."
We sit in silence for a while. The wind blows with us from the southeast, carrying the smell of ash with it.
"Do you really think there's a land to the west?" I ask. "I mean that's what you said, right? Across the sea, a land where the Great Fire cannot reach?"
He strokes his beard in thought. "There must be," he says. "Old Tommeth used to tell tales about it, where I were a lad. Used to tell tales of his grandfather being a fisherman on a sailing boat, back when there were plenty."
He takes a pipe out of his pack and start filling it, poking around in the campfire's ashes to find an ember to light it with.
"Tommeth had always planned to take a boat to sea years ago. Before the fire caught up with him, of course." He stares into the night while taking a deep puff on the pipe.
"What's a boat?" I ask.
"It's... it's a kind of floating wagon I suppose," he says. "Like a big wooden duck."
He offers me a drag on his pipe, but I shake my head. I wish he'd stop smoking that thing. He's getting crazier every day.
I sit and look up at the stars. Long ago, back when there were ten of us, we traveled with a man who could read books. I had asked him about the stars. He'd told me they were lands like ours, only further away. He said they burned forever, like a fire that never goes out. Perhaps our land is becoming a star, I consider, once the Great Fire finally takes us all.
Uncle Jerome lies flat, but not asleep for I hear no snoring yet. I ask why the fire doesn't go out. Why does it keep driving us further northwest, I ask, and why won't it stop?
It does not drive us, he tells me. We bring it with us. It follows with the evil in our hearts. But we are not evil, I say. Yes we are, he replies, and tells me to go to sleep.
He is a stupid old man and knows nothing. I hear a crackle from the campfire, for some small embers still remain. I sleep. In my dreams I hear the fire calling to me. I will follow you, it says. We are one.
We reach the coast on the first day of winter. I have never seen so much water before. I want to settle here. No, says the uncle. The fire will reach here within the season. I want to drink the water but the stupid old fool won't let me.
We find an old wooden boat left abandoned, and westward we sail. The wind does all the work, and we sit and wait. The boat floats like a duck; the old man was right about that at least.
It is strange out here. The land falls far behind, and for the first time in my life I can see no glow on the horizon chasing us. We have left the fire behind. It feels quiet. My uncle will not allow me to light a fire in the boat, so we eat little. And yet I feel strangely happy, like a weight has been lifted.
On the third evening we make landfall, on a new world of wispy trees and the scent of olive. Deep lush forests of pine cover the hills, untouched by the hand of the Great Fire. We could settle here, I say to my uncle. We could stop running. Perhaps, he says.
Yet there is a fire ahead; I can feel it calling. We explore forwards and come across a village of thatch buildings, surrounding a clearing where a bonfire burns brightly.
They stare at us as we enter. A broad tall man approaches and pulls a large knife from his belt.
"That's far enough, newcomer," he says to Uncle Jerome. The accent is new and unfamiliar. He waves the knife at us, and the villagers crowd behind him.
"Have no fear," Jerome replies with his hands half-raised. "We are no enemy of you."
Don't trust them, I hear a strange voice whisper. They are evil.
A haggard old woman pulls at him from behind. "Don't trust them," the old woman says. "Look at their clothes. They are evil. They've been burned by the fire."
My uncle takes a step forward to say something, but the tall man is quick and dashes at him with the knife. I cry out but it is too late. The stranger stabs my uncle through the stomach, then again through the heart, and he falls to his knees.
I stand with my mouth open.
"Let the fire have him," the stranger says. "It needs something fresh to feast on."
They drag my uncle's still body across the ground and haul it up onto the bonfire. I follow, tugging at them to stop them, but one pushes me aside and I fall to the ground. The tall man is laughing.
"We should be thanking you," the tall man says. "Your friend will keep us all safe for weeks. Didn't your mother ever teach you how to feed a fire?"
A rage burns inside of me. The bonfire calls through the darkness, and finds me waiting. Release me, it says. Release me, and we will avenge him. I hear it so clearly.
I look up and pull a burning stick from the fire and throw it, as far as I can. It catches in the timbers of a thatch roof. The villagers scramble to put it out, but the thatch takes it swiftly. The tall man tries to start a bucket chain from the beach, but the fire is quicker. Half the village is alight now.
A warm wind blows from the east, across the sea. The new fire is spreading fiercely, and takes into the nearby forest. The oil from the trees burns well. I hope this fire lasts a hundred years.
I pull my uncle from the bonfire, but the life has already left him. I lay him on the ground and I tell him he was right, even though he cannot hear. I sit with him and I laugh, and I watch the new world burn.
Written by Richard Mitton,
software engineer and travelling wizard.
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