This One Time, 81

This one time I was having my doubts about fire. That probably sounds strange coming from the mouth of a fireherd, because I’m on pretty intimate terms with flames. I know what they do to you when they they have you hypnotized and know they can get the upper hand, when they have you so terrified that you lose all of your senses and just cower until they claim you. But I’ve made my offerings. I wear the protections. I walk among them with respect but not fear. I know all the rules, and as the chief of my team, it’s my job to teach the ignorant who serve with me, and sometimes that’s harder work than sweating in the Kevlar and leathers, managing the hoses and water cannons, and shoving around burning rubble to drag the trapped to fresh air and see if they can be revived.

My waistline is starting to spread from all that extra-hard work, and from couple of warning signs I’ve been given from my chest and how I run out of breath after running a few flights of stairs, I know it’s time to spend more of my afternoons in the little gym we have on the bottom floor of the firehouse. So that’s where I was when I was having my doubts.

It’s hard to look at fire and not see the most naked of the spirits that drive our world, beautiful in just about the only way remaining that completely denies lust. Some of the more disrespectful joke about worshipers of fire that are consumed little by little, or maybe all at once, seeking physical pleasure from the flames, occasionally making accusations of one another when someone comes out of a burning house with the air sucked out of their lungs or a bit scorched. But we’re all well aware that’s no more than obscene joking. I try to hammer home the point that the flames take the disrespectful, but they also take those that lack the confidence to face them down. You have to allow the guys to seek their own balance and hope for the best.

I’ve buried a couple too many of them to allow myself to get too jaded.

From where I stood in the weight machine, doing a few more reps before working up the nerve to hop on the fixed bike — the one with the seat that may as well have upward-pointed fangs — and do my more necessary cardio workout, I could see out at least two open doors. The main one was open, with the ladder driven out front so it could get a washing, and also the side one into the room we’ve turned into our gym. It was hot as the place the flames come from, but fireherds will almost always take fresh air from outside over standing around in an air-conditioned box.

It’s almost like we take on the habits and preferences of the flames we wrangle and tame. I wouldn’t be very surprised if I caught some of the boys eating dry wood, exhaling smoke, and shitting ash.

And that was what got me thinking. From where I stood, I could see outside where people were walking around, enjoying the sun and the breeze, followed or led by their shadows on the ground and trailed by their own angels and demons that you can only see when it’s bright enough and the other world comes shining through. But today, instead of feeling myself fascinated by the vision of various anima, I just saw them as stuff. Things. Something that just happens.

And maybe fire is just a dumb beast, like maybe we give it too much credit. I mean, you wouldn’t want a bear or a bull in your kitchen either, but they don’t need propitiating. They just need pacifying. Take away their air and they succumb and pass out, and then you can drag them away. But you can lure an animal, confuse it and overcome its mind. Fire might be even dumber than that. Maybe we imbue it with all this extra spiritual nature just so we feel less like chumps when it takes everything we own. When it takes our spouses and parents and children. When it blisters my black ass in a backdraft I should have expected.

I don’t think I’m much in danger of fully joining up with the Clockwork Heresy, with the determinists who insist it’s an insult to give them a capital letter. But when I look at fire, especially trapped and tamed, it’s hard to see, even looking at its naked spirit, the essence of self-will. Sometimes I see it as just the cascading breakdown of complex matter coming apart at the seams, undoing the work of life and creation. Just glowing gas coming out of the rubble of matter withered and dried from heat and smashed by a spark. All it takes is enough heat — and whatever it is in the air that fuels our own internal fires. We burn much slower, but we still burn. I’ve seen the ash we leave behind, in a hundred years or so, even when no flame is applied.

Perhaps the difference is in the meat, rather than some quality of the spirit. It doesn’t sound like it makes sense, but I wonder anyway. Maybe the glimpse of anima in the bright sun is closer to the brief memory of the stroke of a finger on skin, but on the back of the eye. You see it with the ladder truck, something built by men and other machines. Where would it get a spirit? What happens if we leave out the final invocation? Or just forget?

So that’s what I’ve been thinking. And I’m writing it down so if the flames take me next time, someone will know why. But every time I survive a fire I help quench, I’m making a mark at the bottom of this page, and we’ll call that a test.

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March 22, 2011 · by xalieri · Posted in This One Time  


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