A short story by James Mitchell, first published in MIR11.
In the end, Burn Day at Ash Creek was everything the brochure promised – that is to say, “an invigorating and authentic reconnection with the raw power of the elements”. I did, as money-back-guaranteed, sense my animal spirit kindle at the sight of the flames pouring over the rise towards us, and I did, as I’d imagined, feel the sweat bead under my guest firehood at my throat and trickle down my cleavage in an Amazonian way. And when I looked across at Islington I did, as hoped, see something more than firelight in his eyes as he gathered up the hoses and checked the pressure. Yes indeed, I thought, there was something really real about the two of us together in that moment as we primed the hydrants, listened for the speakers to tell us to start dousing the trees, and struck a pose together for the photos we meant to pick up from the gift shop afterwards.
The things you remember from a moment are so oddly curated. Hot wind, a bird flying for its life, Islington mouthing something that could have been “Ow” or “How” but was probably “Wow”. The tallest tree creaking, crying out and toppling; Islington with the grin he had whenever he did anything stupid, the smile he’d worn falling out of a Marylebone bookshop with nothing but a copy of Oh, The Places You’ll Go! to hide his thing.
And for the longest second, our fingers touching, a pressure through the many foiled layers of the firesuits’ gloves, and me wondering what romantic things must have happened in moments like these to people like us, who’d left their fully Venned social circles behind to go on the ultimate authentic journey together.
Islington saying “How now, brown cow,” or similar. Me, just about to ask him what.
One Month Earlier, 60ºF
The Volvo’s radio filled the front seats with Balkan party vibes for a third consecutive hour of pine forest, rusted petrol stations, and wilderness – and I realised I’d made a bit of a breakthrough.
“Hey,” I said, “we’ve heard this one before. Right?”
“Hmm.” He lit another Marlboro – or as the bootleg pack stated, “Marlborough” – his first purchase once the men with bootbrush moustaches had thumbed through our passports, stamped them with ornate visas, and admitted us to the Eastern Bloc. “Could be. Check with your phone.”
I protested that it was entirely the point of all of this that I specifically not check with my phone, and we should sit and wonder, and he nodded. But after another verse of wondering the pressure got too much and I whipped my phone out to look. Crisis averted; we had heard it before, and I now had two tags marked “DJ Sven” in my history, instead of one.
“Good to know,” he said. “Yeah?”
“Mmh,” I said, and focused on the road ahead because every sign looked the same, and if we missed the turn for ??????????? we’d have to drive for another hour in Siberian dusk.
“It’ll be fine. It’ll be great!” was his refrain. Like the car, his optimism ran on fumes. He’d hiked across the Andes for a charity, and back for another; he’d studied Zen Buddhism in China when he was twenty; he’d even spent six months in Uganda building schools from clay recovered from the region’s river – though they had to be re-rivered to make way for a hospital the next charity project wanted to build. The point is, Islington had stacked up a CV of enriching life experiences next to which Ash Creek must have seemed like just another bungee jump.
I saw the cracked sign that our guidebook said marked the turn to Novosibirsk, and Islington turned our little party bus down it. As he wiggled the car across lanes of honking traffic, I remembered those Russian dash-cam videos people are always sharing, how they always ended with a baseball bat through a windscreen.
We found a little motel just as it was about to close. A converted hospital; its turn-of-the-century architecture had been sterilised after the typhus epidemics, according to the leaflet in reception. The Russian maid bustled us up to the “Presidential Suite”: a gilded, heart-shaped bed faced the TV, which blared an overdubbed US comedy into the room. As the maid turned to go, I asked her: “Ash Creek?” She stared at me, blankly. I showed her our brochure. She shook her head and said something like “Shest chaznov”: six hours.
As the studio audience whooped at a buffoonish dad falling over, I asked Islington if he was worried. He took a mint from what was surely a kidney dish, and smiled.
“They must have done a hundred Burnings there now. It’s all been tested.”
Still. A hundred and one is just asking for trouble, surely. Good luck doesn’t need pushing.
From day one as a couple, we’d had the misfortune of everything working out exactly according to plan. Both with good enough degrees to get good enough jobs, so that he (IT Infrastructure Solutions) and I (Market Research) could get a good enough flat, and quietly decompose in it. In catalogues, there’s always a woman lying on her three-piece suite, laughing with gay abandon. That’s what we became, human props in a catalogue. Not on purpose; more the mission creep of a single, innocently purchased object. Buying one coffee table on John Lewis (“Anselm”), and slipping down the vortex of “People who bought this also bought” until we had a furnished apartment.
Life was as frictionless as I could want. We established that recycling was collected on Thursdays, garden waste on alternate Tuesdays. We joined the Neighbourhood Watch. We followed “Ten tips for a perfect Garden Party” (Observer Monthly) and enjoyed regular gatherings of cordial murmuring and laughter. Clearing up one morning (a snap thanks to #7: Paper Plates), Islington looked up from fiddling with the Sonos.
In the list of WiFi networks on his phone, just after good old SKY82A78, was: Couple In Flat 3 Watch Some Porn Already.
Islington showed me his favourite sites. Men always have them: you can’t clear the cache of the mind.
“I didn’t think they could be that long.”
So we took a night class in Sexual Anthropology. Another of our phases, to go with Bikram Yoga, Urban Knitting, Analogue Photography – on ice.
He never knew that I had an almost-lesbian phase – every young modern woman’s rite of passage – because one of the mutually understood benefits of baggage is that it can be stuffed, sat on until flat, and locked. But the instructor who greeted us as we finally drove through half an hour of Park Security checkpoints and up to the Ash Creek Visitors’ Centre was a study in asexual elevation. If we had a war now – a proper war, not one of those last-item-in-the-news things – and they needed to remake that poster urging women to work in the munitions factories, they would have called Stacey from Ash Creek AuthentiFire to be the model. I’d expected another matronly Russian gornichnaya, all rolling pins and Baltic swear words, but Stacey looked like she’d just got back from Venice Beach. Later, we found out she essentially had, “visiting Mom” in Sacramento. A strong chin, hair tied back with a rag, sleeves rolled up to show just a hint of lightly muscled definition. Stacey: ABC1 mid-20s female, body of a gap-yearling; likes: rock-climbing, trucks, freedom. She opened the driver-side door and pulled Islington out.
“The Islington party?” she twanged.
“That’s me.” Islington gave her a fist bump.
“And I’m Melissa,” I said.
Stacey showed us the visitors’ training barracks, our yurt, the five-acre grid of wood set aside for our group, and the gift shop: all toy extinguishers and hatchets, and a giant cuddly brown bear in suede. “No actual bears in the reserve, though! We’re very safe?” said Stacey. She pointed out the window and across the taiga, at a cruel-looking fence. “Electrified, for your comfort. Let’s see the hoses next. That’s what the men normally like.” Islington gave me a campy game-show smirk, as if to say “Innuendo alert!” Stacey walk-bounded over a ridge, the pistoning of her buns dragging us in their wake.
That night in the barracks we emphatically agreed how nice it was that Stacey hadn’t worn her professional veterancy on her sleeve, that despite having clearly gone through the routine so many times before at AuthentiFire she treated our only visit like her first. It was seriously important, we both said, not to let the moss of cynicism choke your life. Hence, Ash Creek. Hence, the training.
After Camp Breakfast, we ten new visitors sat in a semicircle of grey plastic chairs for the briefing. Some were dressed for the occasion, most were not. One had a notebook and a sort-of quill pen with a biro end. I really did try not to assess our fellow campers, but, you know. You can take the girl out of Marketing, but . . .
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Stacey, giving our briefing the full Camp America treatment. “You’re thinking, ‘Oh, safety, boring, right? I mean zzzzz and such, like I would actually rather die in the dry heat of a flash fire than listen to this chick for another second.’ Right?” She laid her head on her hands like a pillow and did a little joke-snore. The group giggled to acknowledge her routine intro-gag.
“But I promise you,” said Stacey, doing a little squat, “that I have trained almost fifty groups since we opened this reserve, and absolutely nobody” – she made a fist, her bicep twitched – “has been seriously hurt. Tabitha, why do you think that is, sweetie?”
The sweetie (Tabitha: 6–8 years old; likes: horses; dislikes: boys) looked uncertainly at her mum and dad (cotton, wool, sustainably sourced handmade fibres, probably American, probably rich), who nodded. She mumbled something unintelligible but Stacey clapped her on the shoulder and said, “That’s right! Because of safety, people. The local laws of Novosibirsk Province and AuthentiFire International prevent me from guaranteeing your safety on a Literal and Binding level,” she said, dragging out the italics, “but I assure you that if you listen carefully and practise the drills we’ve laid down for you, when Burn Day comes and we light up that reserve and your personal forest fire comes rushing towards you, you’ll know exactly how to put it out – and what’s more, you’ll feel more gosh-darn alive than the day you were born, excuse my language.”
She rocked back and forth on her booted heels as if she were literally too alive to stand still.
A man in business sandals put his hand up.
“Is it sustainable?”
“Sustainable’s tough for us, you know? But we carbon offset?”
The first Saturday evening at camp, after equipment maintenance and dinner, we sat in our big group in the communal yurt, swapping our stories and singing the Camp Song we’d been taught. Tabitha’s parents were indeed rich, and while she snoozed on her mother’s lap the mother told us that what they wanted for her was a taste of the hardships and dangers of a life less fortunate than theirs, an understanding that Mother Nature and Father Time were cruel parents who could take, take, take where previously they might give, give, give without heed of karma, morality or succour, all within a family-fun context.
“Isn’t that right, David?” she said, and slapped his phone hand in chastisement.
“I gotta forward this joke to the board, honey.”
The woman, Martha (AB1 female; likes: baking, the environment, coffee-table art; dislikes: visible poverty, David), turned to the group for assent. The two gap-year lads, Jack and Mike, were still singing the song –
Oh, Ash Creek, we love thee so!
Your mountains high, your valleys low!
We’ll never let you go-ooo,
Your liability is void.
– only now they sang it as a round. Islington had joined in, a vodka-infused echo for each line. He’d spent a lot of time talking to Jack and Mike: they were in the throes of their freedom years, at the height of something that men never quite recover once it’s lost. But maybe it’s transmittable.
Three Weeks Later, 71ºF
With just seven days left until Burn Day our clockwise walks around the perimeter became twice-daily. They weren’t as exciting as the brochure made out – three hours of unbroken security fence on the right and spindly trees lined up on the left like overthrown Tsarists waiting for the firing squad. You’d have expected little Tabitha to lag behind, but she led us, gazing up at Stacey in fascination. Just once, after pestering, Stacey let her wear the peaked Marshal’s cap. Tabitha had to hold the forest-green thing away from her eyes lest it slip down, but she gave off a commanding air.
“Look at that,” said Martha. “David, look.”
“Hah!” said David. “Holmberg got passed over for the Partner role. Uh-gain. Ow!”
He said “Ow” because Martha had put an elbow into his abdomen.
“Looks like she’s found her vocation,” said Business Sandals. “How about it, Tabitha?”
Murmurs of encouragement rang round the group. You could see her back straighten, her shoulders pull from her hair like Stacey’s did until she snapped a 180 to face us. Her gaze, suitably couraged, made me think of the possible daughter I’d wondered about before. She eyed the wavering treeline, then her charges.
“Troop!” she barked.
We snapped to mock-attention. Islington shouted, “Yes ma’am!” the way he sometimes did to me when he took out the bins.
Stacey watched, the sketch of a smirk twisting her lip. Tabitha scanned her new recruits, marched up to Quill Pen. He was gazing at the trees and writing in his journal, again.
He started. He looked actually afraid of this girl, but then Islington and I had privately decided that he was afraid of women in general. Tabitha eyeballed him, then found a lecturing position on a blackened tree stump. Quill muttered something about Man’s longing for the denarratived bleakness of the veldt.
Tabitha gave us the Safety Talk we’d heard every day. Not a bad job, really: she misremembered the Safe Standing Distance and Required Water Pressure, and a few other things, but it felt good to notice that she had, because that meant I hadn’t.
Unless she hadn’t, and I had.
All the way back, I couldn’t stop reciting her mangled Stop, Drop, Roll.
Drop, Roll, Stop, she’d said.
I was thinking that if you dropped into a diving roll at a moment’s notice, how silly it would look, and how you wouldn’t really know where you were rolling. And then once you were doing that, why would you just as suddenly stop rolling? What would that achieve, just not rolling any more? If you were to cease rolling in life, without cause, what would you be? Just a person lying on the ground, timbers falling around you and no oxygen left? What would come after Stop?
On the last night – Burnmas Eve, to Islington – Tabitha came into our miniYurt.
“Mom and Dad are fighting,” she said. “They sent me here.”
Islington seemed to grow an inch taller, his mouth set steely but his eyes smiling. Yes, he would be a good dad, as long as he didn’t think about it.
“Tabitha, just in time. We’re checking our suits for tomorrow.”
Responsibility dried her eyes, and she sat next to us and picked up the foil jacket marked “MELISSA”. She made a face.
“Ours are nicer,” she said. “No rips.”
No doubt. Their maxiYurt had cable TV, too. No overdubbing.
“Well then,” I said, “you’ll know what a good one should look like.”
I passed the silver tape and a pair of scissors over. I assumed we would pay her lip service and let her paw over our gear until she got bored, but Tabitha was meticulous, using every sense to check my suit’s integrity. She held the backcloth up to the lamp, watching spots of light appear in the tiny tears and sealing them up with care. She ran her fingers, finer than ours, along the seams inside the sleeves, and gasped whenever she found a rip. When she finished Islington’s she made him try it on, “for fit”.
“Spin around!” She giggled.
Islington revolved, the light catching his fabric like a disco-ball sacrifice. Tabitha explained that if she had time she’d have tried to nip in the waist a little bit, and we laughed. Islington asked if perhaps she had a business card, if we could send our stuff to New England for alterations. She said she didn’t, but she’d make arrangements to have one printed. She gave Islington a hug, and his eyes caught mine, though it’s not even like I was angling for them to be caught, I’m almost sure of that.
Tabitha stayed with us long after the curfew gong bonged around the contours of Ash Creek. She said her parents were probably still fighting. So we toasted marshmallows: gummy, injection-moulded product we’d picked up at a service station near Tselinoyarsk.
“Your dad’ll be pleased,” I said, pointing at the firesuits hanging on the canopy frame. “All brand new like that. We’ll be safe as anything.”
“Won’t know. Never listens to me.” Then she said, biting through a chunk of marshmallow-polymer, “He prolly dun know I’m hurr.”
Islington flushed, like David was going to march in that second and cuff him, then drag his daughter away. He took out his phone, the way he always does when he wants to avoid conflict. I was opening my mouth to tell him off but he held it up so the repaired firesuits were in the phone camera’s frame, whole and complete.
“Tabitha,” he said, “what’s your dad’s email address?”
Burn Day, 572ºF
My first thought in that last moment was: It was weird, how all pork was pulled nowadays. When did people start pulling pork, and why? What did “pulling” even mean? It was strange that we had never bothered to find out. The golden tassels on our curtains: what for? Why did self-checkouts say goodbye to you as if you’d take it personally otherwise? Why were we there? All these questions were equally important.
We’d been cut off. I’d been about to ask him what he was saying, when a grizzly bear (likes: fish; dislikes: poorly controlled forest fires) leapt the electrified fence behind us, foaming and raging and licking its burns. In its scrabbling lope it tore the feed line shooting water down our hoses, and the life-giving pressure slackened to a dribble. The nozzles were perfect; we’d checked them at dawn as per Stacey, but we had no control over what happened further up the line. I gripped Islington’s hand, all questions suddenly merged into a nameless single “?” and we backed away from the bear, circuitously but inexorably towards the outlier blaze. Towards the fauxthenticity of Ash Creek, which was, in fact, a mountain and was, in fact, covered in spindly and fast-burning pines. I had a flash of the other holidays we could have taken.
The inferno of the taiga was crying. Crying like a TV-family reunion. Or two huge documentary icebergs melting together. Or, well, what else is there to say? The wall of heat screamed of the absolute, a constant roar, replacing all the processes the trees had known – swaying, breathing, growing – with one process, the burn. The fire breathed the wood in and breathed a trunk of smoke out. A chevron of birds broke rank and scattered around the subliming forest, but came together on the other side as if the separation appalled them. The ground at our boots hissed, throwing off the last of the damp from the hoses.
A little girl’s cry cut through the sound and behind a security fence, safe but screaming, I saw Tabitha. Her eyes wide, her mouth hanging in terror. Her mum and dad – especially her dad, and I felt relief at that – trying to pull her away but her banging at the fence. I wanted to shout “Don’t look, sweetie,” but my inhalation curled a plume of black smoke inside my firesuit’s hood, bringing me to my knees.
“Remain calm!” Stacey’s voice crackled over a loudspeaker. “We have a procedure for this sort of thing!” Then a burst of static, and silence. But maybe we just couldn’t hear any more: the flames were almost arching over our heads now, the Safe Standing Distance long broken.
Islington’s hand shook. He mouthed, “It’s like a . . .” Then trailed off.
I’m sure I was supposed to scream. But that didn’t feel right.
Incomparable splendour, the brochure had said. And it was as we lay there, holding hands and searching for analogies, that the fire took us and we became another line in the world’s energy equation, a line that included the dry pines around us, the dying bear in the undergrowth, the cabling and the brochures, the dry hoses and the firesuits’ broken promises, the engagement ring in Islington’s pocket and the camera in mine all equalsed together into a final value, returned as charcoal, his smile and all my words, my eyes reflected in his, Melisslington, likes: the birds, the trees, the ash, the leaves, the sky, the endless whys, the proteins and protons the family and friends the end the sun the sum.