A short story by Steven Heighton
We shoulder the coffin of my friend Warren Reed down the front steps of the church and on toward the hearse’s gaping back door. It reminds me of the receiving mouth of a crematorium, that door—how a coffin will glide through and into the discreetly quiet, white-hot furnace beyond. I always wonder how they manage to keep such a ravenous blaze so quiet.
I’ve read somewhere that fire, to certain ancient peoples, was an animal, as alive and on the same level as humans, horses, birds, fish, insects, everything. It’s easy—especially for someone who has fought fires, and walked inside them—to imagine how the belief arose. Fire breathes air, like us. Fire eats wood as well as the flesh of animals, the dead as well as the living. It moves on its own, it has a voice and a vocabulary, it can seed itself and propagate, it can hibernate deep in the roots of trees and fully revive, it leaves a sort of bodily waste behind, it attacks, it withdraws, it can be tamed and domesticated, and finally, when it has eaten everything, it starves or else smothers or perishes by drowning. I’ve read, too, about a certain desert tribe who believed that while animals understood the language of fire, humans had somehow lost it, along with the other animal tongues—but that each person at the moment of death regained the capacity to understand. This tribe believed their dead should never be buried but instead burned, so the living flames could guide and sing the dead into the afterlife.
There will be no flames today, though—no furnace door. Firefighters seldom incline to the crematory option. Once we load my friend into the hearse, we’ll be getting into our cars and merging into the motorcade heading out to the cemetery on the outskirts of town, or what used to be the outskirts. Green and peaceful, breezy grounds, tall, stately hardwoods two centuries old.
My friend’s maple coffin is—do I need to say this?—heavy on our shoulders, though it’s not the burden it might be for an average pallbearer. There are six of us, and the five who wear full dress uniform (I’m the odd one out, in my formal civvies) are all in good shape, the way I used to be when I was signing in to the fire hall gym four times a week and carrying serious poundage into and out of burning buildings.
Then there’s the fact that we’re getting used to bearing these coffins and sliding them into hearses. It’s not what you might think, either—not fatalities on the job, floors and burning walls collapsing, chemical explosions. An occupational epidemic of cancer is what it is, cancer of the brain, cancer of the liver, plenty of lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, cancer from all the burning crud we’re inhaling in all the factories, garages, condos and offices we try to save. Still, my friend feels heavy in his coffin, this virtually bombproof carapace whose protection he could have used in life, on the job, but now has zero use for.
I left the department over a year ago. I’m doing sedentary work now, not exciting, but it’s a job, it’s safe, it pays decently, and to be honest I rarely miss the challenge and adrenal rush of what I used to love doing. Plus I work at home, meaning more family time and none of the strife and stress of working with others. That endless chafing of personalities. It was an awkward resignation, if you can call it that. (Did I fall or was I pushed? A bit of both. If I’d wanted to fight it, the union could have saved my job, I’m pretty sure, maybe after moving me to another hall.)
So we ease my friend into the hearse and there’s a curious interlude, nobody sure who should close the back door. Standing beside us in a too-big black suit, the funeral director’s assistant—a thin, fidgety kid who looks like he should be slouching along in loose jeans and an undershirt—hesitates too. Is it his job to close the door? This might be his first funeral. For a moment we stand looking around, then downward, the crew at their own spit-buffed parade boots, me at my laceless, matte-black shoes, shoes shaped like a platypus’s bill. They’re clean and new, not too informal, I feel, though suddenly I wonder. A couple of my ex-crewmates are having a look at them, and they seem to baffle the giant crew captain, Jack Steiger. He and I never got along too well, especially at the end. And yet he surprised me yesterday by calling and gruffly inviting me to join the rest of the crew as a pallbearer. Most people, I’ve come to see, surprise you more often, not less, as they get older.
Big Steiger aims a look of hard inquiry at the apprentice and nods at the door. The kid, helpless in the face of such raw, animal ascendancy, steps forward and swings it closed.
Room 303 was the last one I broke into, during my last fire, my last night on the job. I’d clomped upstairs in the dark with Reed and Steiger, full gear, hose and lifeline, breathing loud and laboured inside the mask. From between the room’s floorboards and out of the joins between the wainscoting and walls, spotlit by my headlamp, smoke hissed up in gauzy sheets that broke apart at waist level, scrolling and spreading through the room. And there was purple smoke, like a stage effect at a heavy metal show. A rooming house is about the worst place for a fire, short of a chemical factory. Narrow hallways, the wiring below code, a dozen rooms or more, each warehoused with the kind of fodder that fires dote on—aged mattresses, bales of newspapers and Reader’s Digest, paperbacks, LPs, dry-rotted furniture. This place was sensationally decrepit. Shredded Insulbrick over century-old clapboard. Packed with flammables and going up in a whoosh. We had four trucks out front, ladders deployed, crews fighting to dent the firestorm that had already blown out the lower windows, seeking more oxygen, more space to expand. The crews were spraying from all angles, triangulating the fire’s heart, trying to buy us a few minutes upstairs. In the south alley, another hose was drenching the side-door stairwell where we’d entered and where we hoped to exit, soon. For now the lower flight of stairs was a foaming, terraced cascade, like a salmon weir.
There were five of us inside. Truba and Santos were on the second floor and they would be moving fast, I knew, making sure the rooms were vacated and if possible rescuing any pets. Reed, Steiger and I had climbed to the third floor on the same mission.
It’s remarkable how many people take the time to lock their doors when fleeing a major fire. As if the whole event might be a burglar’s ruse. And it happens more often, not less, in the poorer buildings. We didn’t give the place any odds of surviving, and if it did survive it would be demolished, so I wasted no time putting my axe to the door, a necessity I always enjoyed: the arc and acceleration of the heavy blade overhead, powered by you and at the same time pulling your arms along for the ride, the big, gratifying crunch as you connect at the targeted spot, usually to the inside of the handle.
The door of 303 burst open, one blow. Though these old doors were solid, not veneer—crafted with conscience in a conscientious time—the wood around the lock was rotten, the whole structure weakened by a few dozen tenancies of constant opening, closing, slamming. I heard another door splinter nearby. As I pushed into the room, Reed, up the hall, was calling through his portable that there was a cat in 306. Steiger called back, “Grab it and let’s move.” I peered into 303. Those hissing plies of floorboard smoke were hypnotic. It still wasn’t too smoky to see: a fridge and, surprisingly, a freezer too. Red sleeping bag on a mattress on the floor, square Arborite table with an ashtray and two beer cans, a plastic church-hall chair. A steel dolly, the kind used to move large appliances. The pasteboard wardrobe seemed to be full of fancy stuff: swaths of what looked like red velvet, black silk. And on the floor beside it, two extra-large black plastic bags, as if for industrial garbage. Bags of tires?
I’m not sure why I did it—Steiger was hollering again that we had to move—but I walked over and investigated. I parted the thick, unsecured lips of the first bag and jerked back in disgust: a dark, scaled coil as thick as my upper arm. No need to feel it. I knew it was alive, or had been until moments ago—nobody lives in a single room with enormous dead snakes, though sharing the place with living ones seems almost as crazy. I backed away, turned and came out the door just as Steiger reached it.
“Something in there? We got to move now.” There was a problem with the voice amp of his mask. His voice was faint, tinny—a worked-up announcer broadcasting warnings on a distant radio.
“No, sir,” I shouted. “Yes. Snakes. Two, I think. Big ones. Huge.”
His eyes widened behind the mask. Reed loomed out of the smoke, a Siamese cradled in his arms, oddly silent, its squinted blue eyes running. Reed said, “What is it, Terr?”
“Snakes. Big ones. Maybe we should bring them?”
“They moving?” Steiger asked.
“Probably dead. Can’t be worrying about snakes.”
“Got to get this cat out,” Reed said, and he lumbered toward the stairs.
“And dangerous,” Steiger said. “Let’s go.”
“I don’t think they’re dead, sir.”
“Now!” Steiger said, and I followed him.
We pounded down the sodden, steaming last flight to the door. Heat radiated through the inner wall, fire on the other side. We clicked out our regulators. Truba and Santos stood squared in front of the door, blocking it like riot police. A small man, facing them, wanted to get past. He hopped once, comically, surprisingly high, trying to see over them. He was bald on top and the greying fringe of his hair was a fright wig of long, tangled curls. A gaunt, excited face—yet the left side of it was passive. He was yammering in French but his urgency didn’t budge the drooping half of his face, which looked years younger, lineless, uninvolved. Reed, with the weeping Siamese, pushed past this standoff and then Steiger did too. I shouldered in between Truba and Santos, adding my width to their wall. I grew up in Montreal and knew some French. Maybe I could help. The man wanted something from his room. This always happens, especially with the older, poorer victims. I said, “Puis-je vous aider, monsieur?” and he paused for a moment, startled, then thrust his contorted face at me and screamed, “Sauvez mes serpents!”
“Those are your snakes,” I said in English. He was shouting in French again and I made out a few details. He performed in clubs, at fairs, circuses. He and his serpents. They were how he earned his bread. He was in town for only a few months. He should never have come here.
“Ils sont dangereux, vos serpents?”
“Non, absolument pas!” he cried, and again he tried pushing past us.
Truba was getting the gist of the French. “Fuck his snakes,” he said. “Nobody’s going back in for a fucking snake.” And he leaned down over the man, his big gloved hand pointing upward as he enunciated, full volume, “Danger—okay?”
“I don’t care about it!” the man said with a dense accent. “Ils sont ma vie!”
Steiger was back. The heat was scorching through my gear now, into my shoulders
and spine. Truba and Santos and I, and now Steiger, were a human bulkhead protecting this lunatic from the killing heat. Down one side of his double face—half-frenzied, half-resigned—tears streamed, lit silver by our headlamps, which were all focused on him. I felt for him. Steiger didn’t.
“Man wants his snakes,” Santos announced.
“Get him out of here,” Steiger roared. “Your snakes are all gone, okay? It’s over!
Christ, this is a four-alarm fire!”
Steven Heighton’s most recent book is a novel set in the ruined resort town of Varosha, Cyprus: The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep. His work has appeared in Ambit, the LRB, London Magazine, Tin House, Poetry, Stand, Best American Poetry, Best American Mystery Stories, and Best English Stories. stevenheighton.com