by Peter Haynes
There is a fire god out there and it is a thing of salvation through destruction.
Young Carl anchored himself to my shadow. It was just before midday when we left the Presbytery house, striking east to the valley head. As we walked I repeated our drill, forged a litany from the words and beat of our steps. I should not have had to repeat myself but the boy was staying up later every day.
There is a fire god out there and many are the signs of its passing.
It moved across the valley mouth and seared over and again the endless blackness of ash. It shattered stone into flakes. That morning in the scorched wilds – perhaps a half mile from the boundary – I heard an echoing fall of rock. The fire had melted ore, made voids in the earth. That iron might flow like a river to percolate through underground passages and contaminate hidden springs. In our valley, where the plates of two great continents met, we were lucky any poison would fall away into the world.
There is a fire god out there and it claims all it burns as its own.
It was at night the fire came. Always night. My community of new Presbyterians waited in the valley when it did, cowed in ritual obedience. There they talked of the petty things we had lost: the taste of food unadulterated by smoke, the transit of low constellations, shadows that did not dance in an endless failed escape from the circling wall of flame. Only to themselves did they acknowledge the real hurt: their once-homes, once-loves and nevermore world.
I saw those lost things in the fire each night, was doomed to be haunted by them. It was a flame that danced in the shapes of cities it had consumed. It showed me the hollow shades of my children each night, their forms replayed to me in the blaze: embers inside my son’s open mouth birthing bright gouts of flame across his cheeks. The empty black pits of his eyes. His sister at his shoulder, her skin a cloak of flame.
These visions the promise for the valley community who saw in it an eidolon of life beyond their deaths.
There is a fire god out there—
And it was inching closer all the time.
'If the fire is our salvation, why should we be so wary of it? Do those we offer not live on within it?' This weak plea from the boy who should have known better. I had thought him less convinced by the community’s modes of thought, but in the end there would always be the foolishness of faith and habit.
I was no fool. They knew their place in the hierarchy of nature: their fire god at the apex, and all other living things in ranks beneath. I knew I must live their way or be cast out to die.
We had arrived at the furthest and, at that time, safest extent of the valley. The obelisk there was denuded: a fractional progression of the fire was eating at the measuring markers, forcing new symmetries, carving the block to a blunt-sided cylinder as bright as quartz. It was the same at all points of the compass where our boundary stones were being reworked into outward-facing mirrors.
I sighed. The child’s query was valid, but how to explain that the fire god hounding us was born of an intelligence lacking wisdom, and raged in accordance to its own rules? Those fools in the valley believed they knew how to appease it, though to do so was to inflict a fatal wound. How to explain that the cruelest weapons are not the ones wielded by mad men but the ones set loose on the world under no influence at all?
Worst of all: how to make him understand that the beliefs of his people – my people –waiting in the valley was a lie?
'You will do as you’re told, boy.'
'I just lost track of time is all,' he says. 'Sorry.'
I put my hand on his shoulder and knelt to level my eyes with his. 'Remember your drill, Carl. Be like the rabbit and bolt for home at the first sign of danger.'
Carl nodded. If there was one thing the people of the valley understood it was the ways of animals. The valley was our home and we shared it with all that knew survival: predators, crows, lucky panicked things.
'Why does it only come at night?' the boy asked.
'Never mind that. Tell me who gave you that black eye.' He looked down but I lifted his head. The bruise was turning purple at the edges. 'You didn’t fight back, did you?' He shook his head. 'That’s good. Come on.'
We walked the cracked boundary stones together, saw the remains of Carl’s plastic toy soldiers in a scorched culvert. They were melted into a many-limbed aggregation, sword points jutting, faces flowing through and over each other. It was a good thing he would have no further sport with them: Carl was Sarah’s child and I knew how she abhorred his playing at war.
I looked again at his face. Though his mother then favoured Adam – rugged, perfect Adam – the boy was Sebastian’s child by blood. Sebastian, the man behind the fist, behind the black eye. Thus a forfeit father.
I could not ignore the signs. Our waiting years, their foolish notions, had eroded necessary vigilances. Carl had failed to heed the dusk – when absorbed by the smallest and most overwhelming concerns we blink away the world – but how had he failed to witness the fire that ravaged it?
'Go home and take your castoreum,' I told him. 'There’s a good boy.'
We took the long and silent route. From up on the ridge you could see everything: a stretch of clogged-up canal crowned with the tilting beams of an ruined counterweight bridge, the southern tumulus some had dubbed the Giant’s Tomb.
We paused where shallow water flowed over the painted stones of an old pavement. Against the horizon, a man carried great armfuls of piled-up logs toward the Presbytery house. Know Adam by his profile: the old cavalryman’s coat which hung like sackcloth when it was not held high and wide on his shoulders. The relentless stride and the trust he had in his boots. Know Adam for his possessing a tool for every job, for his strength. Know Adam by his bravery in moving on in spite of fear.
Cellmates like Adam made the community work; they made things right for the younger ones like Carl. I gently pushed the boy on toward his adoptive father and performed one final survey from the valley head. A little more of the world had become spent. It was the end of a withering year.
The community would want the hierarchies renewed. A fresh Terminalia was upon us. It was time to make an offering to their god.
One life was worth a thousand mountains or forests.
How do you arrive at such a position? No other way but foolish faith and habit.
They had assembled by the lake. The antiphonic qualities of a quarter mile open water and a stand of barricade redwoods turned their voices to music.
There were a hundred of them at the water’s edge awaiting my declaration. Carl found his mother in the crowd, stepped out with her as Sarah left the huddle. Sebastian was already raving. His was a kind of wound-up, scripted panic that served only as performance. Adam shot him a towering glance and all words were swallowed by the group’s immediate silence.
'Is it true?' Sarah asked, her hand resting on Carl’s shoulder. 'A hand’s breadth in just two weeks?'
'Of course,' I said.
'And it is not a tide? It comes on always?'
'We left it too late,' Sebastian started up again. 'There is no authority but the fire. Why have you,' Sebastian pointed at me, 'waited so long? Doing nothing is the same as acting against us.'
The murmur from the crowd was not one of agreement but of shock. The Terminalia was a ritual of their invention, not mine, but I would choose when to conduct it. It was a democratic fiction that had elevated me to this rank, as flimsy as the notion of safety to which they clung. I could not speak against it, for to do so would make me an exile.
The Terminalia was to choose who would be granted a life within their god, a voice in the flames. But, while all were cloistered in the ranks of the living beneath the fire, how to chose which of us would become its satiating fuel?
How else but to take our lead from the things that shared our survival in the valley? Hunters and prey.
I raised my palms to them. 'This will be my third administration of the Terminalia.'
Adam stepped forward to join Sarah and Carl. 'It is the first for my son. He is old enough now to understand the hawk’s hunger and the fear of the dormouse.'
'I’m not scared,' Carl said and his assertion was raised up by a hundred voices of accord. There was little more to say. I returned to the House and took to my bed, assured of rest by the only true wisdom I had gathered: why search for sleep in overlong examinations of the day when sheer exhaustion will suffice?
Some days were fuelled by the shakes, some by hungers. For others it was enough to wake up with music in your head. I awoke with the doleful barely-heard harmonics of the night’s visitation still echoing. The voices of the lost.
The work of distributing the tools of our Terminalia began at once. Masons were dispatched to carve out and set down new granite pillars from the quarry.
The selection of gifts was random, as ever. Each of the hundred would receive theirs from the stores in the cellar, locked those last fifteen years. I told them that no memory of each box’s contents could survive such a time. Selection would be random.
I visited Sarah. We met under the oyster-shell portico where the runoff from a diminishing storm escaped from cracked downpipes to pool on the top step. We could see the whole settlement: the rough shoulder of the Tumulus, the remnant roads fractured by that most stubborn of grass that ignores weight over time, a continuum of trees.
She hung her head, accepted the same gift we all were to receive: a skull-sized box wrapped in paper. Mine sat even then on the stool beside my bed. Inside: a mask, each one fashioned in the manner of our neighbours, the animals. This our way of knowing one's true place in the valley.
She carried a haunted look, as if arriving from a long journey and adjusting to the memory of travel. She looked at the parcels like they were a mistake. Her name, Carl and Adam.
'When?' she asked.
'We... I am not ready,' she continued, hurrying me indoors out of the rain. We sat at the rough oak table in their kitchen and drank green tea from a beaten urn. 'What if, well... what if all comes down to him and me?'
She talked of the hunt, the kill, should the role allocated to them dictate. But did she mean Adam or Carl? I still don’t know. I shook my head. 'It won’t be like that, I’m sure.'
'But there’s a chance.'.
'Just try to get lost somewhere,' I said, bringing a thin smile to her lips.
'Shouldn’t be too hard. I get lost in my own kitchen.'
I did not mirror her smile. 'Sarah. You seemed so certain at the lake. What happened?'
'Adam happened. He is sure it is time for one of us.'
'Try not to worry.'
Adam was waiting outside, a bulwark against the sharp-edged wind coming down from the west. 'You are here to deliver our festival gifts, yes?' He propped his axe up against the pile of logs by the rear door of the house. 'Will it work? I mean, do we know we do this to our benefit?'
'Do you wish to forsake it and find out too late how it might have saved us?'
I would not have sided with their nonsense on any other day, but this time the Terminalia would have to take place. For Carl, for me.
He looked away as Sebastian, in his cups, stumbled through a stand of young birch, startling crows with wild arms.
'You don’t know how hard it is to raise a child here.'
I placed a hand on his shoulder. It should have been impossible to feel his warmth through the layers but still my skin prickled with a phantom heat. 'You think it was any easier before?' I countered. 'Permit a measure of simplicity infect your thoughts.'
Mists were almost always the result of night rains.
I had seen my children again, the night before the Terminalia. My boy words were a wreath of flame, his sister a curtain of dark that fussed and circled behind him. Ghosts in fire, formed by the jostle of a billion invisible airborne machines in an endless march of destruction.
There is a fire god out there and those we give up are offered to keep us from harm.
One life for a thousand rivers. Faith and habit.
I scratched out a crude message of strength in the facing surface of the obelisk. I watched it taken by the hair's breadth procession of heat and turned away.
Carl was there. Even now I despair at the sight of him. How had I not known this would happen? One arm hung low, weak or broken. His face was a patchwork of bruises.
'Sebastian,' I said.
'My father,' his reply.
Sebastian: a betrayal in blood, a man of no worth, whose fists dictated his own son’s value to him, to the others, to the fire.
'It is not true, Carl. What we told you. I know what you are thinking, but you cannot do it. It is a lie. Your god is a lie.'
I should have stopped him. I should have told him how I was to end his pain before he offered it up to the night, how what I meant to do was not murder if done within the rules of the festival. Seeing him there, complicit in his beliefs, I was convinced more than ever I would do right by him and his family.
But I was old and he was already out of reach. 'Just wait a day, Carl. Please.'
The boy addressed me with no trace of fear. 'No. I wish salvation now. I will give your love to your children.' And then he was running. I could only watch as he was torn into a million sparks, rendered down to pattern, became part of a fire that he had mistaken for some measure of infinite mercy.
Adam was catching fish in chalk bed streams. Sarah was raging in her kitchen, which we gave to her of course and did not interrupt. Sebastian was working through a crate of white dog in the Presbytery garden. The others all processed, clutching their paper-wrapped gifts like jewels. Carl’s actions would not preclude the Terminalia taking place: to put oneself next to their god was against the laws of the valley.
The time of offering had arrived. We had arrived there by an accretion of tiny invisible failures from which they believed one great corrective wrong would save them.
Even Adam and Sarah attended in the end. 'We wouldn’t want it to count for nothing, would we?' Sarah said, and I could sense some growing part of her was alert to our errors.
Regardless, everything was made ready; the community thrummed with expectation. The mist drew down an early dusk. At the echo lake, under twilight fire, we donned our masks and became the lucky panicked things of the valley.
Night ravens came. The coldest of us played the scavenger or the evening rabbit who bolts home in a flash. The badger chased her little family out and back into their sett. Twins played as rooks in the branches of bare oaks. Hares nurtured their young in nests of grass. The sparrow and the swift were unafraid in aerial gambol. All these were safe, by the rules of the community at least, by the laws of nature.
Prey animals travelled by foxlight, scurried along low pathways and took to their bowers. Never in the chase would you be caught, their reasoning. Oh, for a jointed skull, they silently wished. But they had lived through this before, knew who would most likely be chosen. Not them.
The hunter took a patient and wiser route, the tawny route. Do not mistake the stocky form of the owl for an inefficiency. Their territory was to be protected fiercely. Their hunger was apparent and the hunt would last all night.
That was my journey. The arcing tones of my flight became a melody against the dull note of the far-off burning world. Some might have considered it a shame about Sebastian, but the owl will always hunt the shrew.
Thus to faith and habit.
Peter Haynes lives and writes in Birmingham, UK. His work has appeared in Unsung Stories, Reliquiae Journal, Litro and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @ManOfZinc.
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