The groaning and gibbering column of mourners stood over the small, still warm cat. All wept and shook save three. The old man, leaning slightly harder on his left side, looked only at the boy, his daughter’s son. The boy was silent also, though wore the look of the savaged. The third to keep from buckling to the emotion of the scene was the vet who had administered the barbiturates.
The cat, Blanco, had ceased her spasms. Cruel, lifeless jerks that ran out from her groin through her legs and caught in the throats of the family. Her mouth lay open, teeth set in a slack grin, dust heavy air already drying it out. The dual lunettes of her nose wept ever so slightly.
The boy’s mother spoke of a ‘fitting ceremony’ for their beloved pet. More than a pet. She choked her way through memories and suggested small tokens that could be buried alongside her. She praised her fighting spirit. The boy looked to his mother and bore a sting of uncomfortable feeling. As he brought his face back upon Blanco’s the light hit her half shut eyes and swam about them, filling them with life and emotion for a moment before the shine vanished.
The boy then joined the weeping, his grandfather looking solemnly down at him. He wanted to say something, but as he shuffled over the boy’s mother put a hand on his young shoulder. The boy shrugged it off and then walked silently from the room. Amongst the sobbing the old man heard the soft close of the boy’s bedroom door.
In his room the boy saw Blanco everywhere. Blanco sunning on the windowsill. Blanco sleeping by his trainers. Blanco cleaning herself on the foot of his bed.
The family had had cats before Blanco, and the boy felt the guilty shame accompanying the knowledge that his parents would surely get another cat given a few months, or weeks. He’d been too young to really care for the others but Blanco was a true part of his growing up, and the thought of replacement was insulting.
A knock at the door.
‘Son?’ His grandfather had always called him son. ‘You alright in here? I’m coming in.’
The long drawn out creak of the slowly opened door gave out to the muted shuffling of the old man’s feet. He stopped a moment in the frame and then came forward until they were side by side sitting on the bed.
‘You alright in here? I know this is tough, but we should all be out there. We’ll bury her soon. Out with the others.’
The boy was making small, knobbed fists in his lap. His lips trembled though the old man saw he tried to pull them tight and still.
‘Mum pulled me out of school two years ago to tell me Blanco was sick. That I should get ready to say goodbye.’ The boy’s face had reddened. ‘Only, she didn’t die. And she didn’t even seem sick. Why did Mum have to kill her now?’
‘Now Son, that is not what happened. You know that. She was sick. But she was a fighter. She was in a lot of pain and now she ain’t anymore.’
‘Because Mum killed her.’
The old man sat there for a minute.
‘You gonna apologise?’
He sighed and stretched out his legs. One knee popping whilst the other refused, leaving a hollow, nasty feeling in the joint.
‘You know I used to tackle the fires back when I was a younger man, don’t ya?’
The boy said nothing. His hands trembled slightly, and the old man wanted badly to hold them, but knew from experience how it would only cause embarrassment and outburst.
‘I saw a lot of them. You might be surprised now, I certainly was, to hear about it. How half the time, more than that I’d guess, we were there simply to watch those fires burn themselves out. Any fire can get to that point, where it’s too far gone for putting out, and we just had to stop it from spreading outwards. We just had to sit there and kind of make sure the flames didn’t jump to the next house or car or whatever.’
He brought a wrinkled and spotted hand up to his forehead and pawed at the clammy space there.
‘It gets hot out here. Sometimes I catch myself cursing how hot and I laugh to think of how truly terrible some of those fires were.’
He relaxed a little and went on.
‘Them fires, they got hot. I mean really, god damn hot. I used to take with me this little tub of cream. Real thick stuff, a heavy smell on it. And I’d rub that cream all over my neck to try and keep the heat out.’ He stopped his hand halfway up to the back of his neck and put it back in his lap. ‘But there were bigger fires. Fires giving off a heat so fierce it left you delirious. They were too harsh for it. You’d get to the blaze, feel that scorch and by the time you’d put hand to pocket for the tub, the heat’d healed over the surface of the cream and you couldn’t get at it.’
He turned to the boy, laughing at the thought, and saw the dim, inattentive eyes. Red and slow.
He sat forward, angling himself toward his grandson.
‘I remember, there was this one blaze we were called out for… I actually quit it a couple months after. This one sticks with me. We were called out to this farm. The house and one of the barns were on fire. Lot of land. Big fields surrounding the buildings, full of crop just waiting to catch.
‘For all else I’ll say about them, those big fires were a beauty. Truly. We were coming up on it, still a few miles out, but that open land just breathed out the colour of the thing. Purpling sky in the early hours of night, and this brutal patch brighter than anything sunlit that seemed to be exploding out of the very ground. It was like the earth was still in the midst of birth.
‘You take that time, coming up on it, to get over the awe and spectacle of it. When you arrive, you’re all business. You try your best to be. But I remember getting out of the truck with all the guys, grabbing our gear and chucking out lengths of hose, there was this smell on the air. Not the usual flame stricken fume. No, I remember standing there, for one moment, and smelling a steakhouse on the wind. It passed quick though. The senses fail fast around that kind of blaze. You’ve got the fire and the smoky blackness, the running eyes and stinging nose with which to fever the damned thing.’
The boy had stopped his trembling and was sat completely focused on his grandfather, whose thousand yard stare sank into the corner of the room.
‘Those flames had strong potential to spill out over the immense land surrounding, so we were ordered to contain it and we took up around its edges. I saw one of the guys cross himself as we moved out down the field, and following his gaze I saw why. There were these little wagons of flame darting to and fro across the earth. Each would rush terrifying from the blazing barn, rush and falter and fail. One by one they all came to rest in smouldering heaps not too far from the mouth of the barn and as their respective fires burned out we saw the truth of them.
‘Cattle. Running and screaming in idiot agony through their last moments of life until their legs gave out or their brains fried or they choked on their own smoking bodies. I swear we, all of us, were dumb stricken, praying to the little gods we each kept within our guts.
‘It was one of these animals that nearly set the whole thing up another step. As we stood, fighting to keep the flames contained, I saw one of them, trailing small clusters of burning in the long grass, run into one of the unlit barns. It wouldn’t take anything at all. That cow just had to run in there and land in a bale of hay or something.
‘I yelled out to the guys and I was off, sprinting with all that gear on my back. I was half blind with dancing spots across my eyes when I got to the barn. The cow was lying in a groove of dusty earth. The flames extinguished and the hide peeling and black. Dust was sticking to patches of weeping flesh and gunking them up. You wouldn’t ever think a cow could scream. These days I think people can’t. I walked up to her, not knowing what I was gonna do, hand already on the axe. And I brought it down, right through the top of her head. That was my responsibility in that barn house. Nobody else was gonna do it, and it had to be done. I stood there for a while, I felt caged by those dusty bars of light shining through the boarded walls. But then I thought how quiet it was in there now. No more screaming. And I jogged back to the line and we watched that house burn down.’
The boy was leaning forward, having followed his grandfather to the edge of the bed as the story was told. The old man looked the boy in the eyes, and brought his hand to his back.
‘That cow was burning. She was dying, she was dead, clear as day. Now, you couldn’t see it, but Blanco was burning too. She was fighting because she couldn’t even see it. But that burn was there, and she was going. Painfully.’
The old evergreen out in the garden had two small, crude gravestones beneath it, and one freshly dug hole. The family were gathered, and thought in the saying goodbye to Blanco, they would also take a moment to remember the others. Suds and Ambrosia. Suds would rarely be seen at home, instead he was usually scrapping with the other neighbourhood cats. Ambrosia was lazy. She mostly lay around in warm patches in the garden, following the sun, dozing time away until she fell into heat and would disappear for days. Blanco was the family cat. Always around, always seeking a fussing.
The grandfather followed the boy out into the garden and watched from the step as he went and sat with his mum, putting his arm around her as she nestled into his hair. A wind picked up and the old man felt a chill as the revered ghosts scuttled across the earth with the leaves.
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3 thoughts on “The Fire by Nicholas Higginson”
A vivid and empathic description of a boy’s first encounter with death of a beloved pet. The grandfather’s story bought a focus, the lens of experience, to show the boy a greater context. I like the grandfather’s slow and gentle way of telling the boy his story.
One of life’s difficult lessons well-depicted and with poetic touches.
What I love about this is only certain age groups will recognise this type of life-lesson story from an elderly relative. We were all told them. They were traumatic but real and told to us to help.
I wonder about the kids now-a-days and whether older family members would be comfortable telling such stories. It is getting to the stage that those relatives are even too young to have anything to say. All the delicate wee flowers will probably end up with some form of trauma!
You took me back to the times when I loved listening to the older guys telling about the brutality of their normality.