Read Part 3 here.
Permit me voyage, Love, into your hands. – James Agee
The sun was high in the smoky-blue haze by the time they began, making every step an effort. When she saw two goldfinches dart by, she warned the boys not to brush against the thistles that must be hiding in the tall grass. Goldfinches, she knew, somehow fed and perched safely on the thorny bulbs, pollinating the purple crests of the plants and dined where other animals were repelled. The boys hadn’t carried their share of the stuff, but still Jimmy complained about the pace she was setting. During the last few minutes of the hike, she lifted Michael on her back, to quell his crying.
They settled under Missouri’s favorite tree, which was on high ground and surrounded by short grasses. Its arching branches provided ample shade, where red-winged blackbirds fed on dark choke cherries. A red-tailed hawk stared pensively from the top of a dead sycamore tree, the highest point for miles around. The white plastic pails that had been left upright and partially filled with water a week ago were now as dry as whitened bones. After flattening some of the dry grass nearby, she used the buckets to scrape and pour powdered earth from the receding bank over their spot near the tree, where the fire was to be started. In the process they flushed-out a milk-snake that had been hiding in a damp spot under a rotten log. Milky bands alternated with coral and black as it retreated into the cattails.
It took a few matches to start a hot fire of dead branches and sun-parched reeds. Jimmy tried to stretch out the coat-hangers they had brought, but Missouri quickly took over, not wanting him to poke himself or Michael. It didn’t take long for her to fashion them into long skewers. In minutes the hot dogs were splotched with burns and fresh ash. The boys ate to their fill, seeming to enjoy it more because it was too hot to handle. Probably because she had skipped breakfast and had over-exerted herself in the hot sun, Missouri felt nauseous and a little faint, and couldn’t eat the stuff at all. Jimmy began to search for butterflies. Missouri poured a pail of water over the fire. The sad sound of its hissing death fed her need for rest. She layed down next to Michael where he napped in the shade. For some reason, she felt more at peace than she had for many weeks.
Suddenly, it was night and Georgia Hayes was there. The boys were gone. The two of them sat around a fire that lit the woman’s face in a warm glow. The drought was over and everything smelled like the lush end-of-summer forests that the girl had known every other season before this, only the feel of leaves exhaling life was even more radiant against her skin. A large cactus was between them where the fire had been only moments before. It held, on a remarkably thin shoot, a green bulb the size of both of her hands cupped together. They waited for it to open. Miss Georgia spoke in her smooth southern voice about her life and the flower. Missouri was intoxicated by the rhythm of her voice and the now musky, now vanilla-sweet smell of the forest. She felt as though she had drank a dark, flowery wine and was now bathing its vapors. The girl never spoke, but the woman seemed to be answering her questions with her nods and smiles. She knew that the flower had survived the drought without twisting its growth, it had only been delayed in opening. It remained true to its nature, a desert plant, a slow night bloomer. Missouri’s only thoughts were that this moment should never end. It was like being at home at Big Momma’s house down south when Missouri was younger, but here it was more open, not encumbered by walls, furniture, and her parent’s rules about bedtime. As the flower began to open, its purple-fringed, white petals burst into flames, shedding a great white light. Missouri felt an overwhelming fear that her friend and guide would disappear, as things and people do at the strike of twelve in fairy tales or at the end of dreams.
Jimmy’s screams penetrated her sleep. Michael was still slumped next to her in oblivious slumber. A small crest of reeds and grass not far from where they had been cooking was in flames. The fire was close to the ground, moving under the taller reeds, before climbing and engulfing them. She knew that if the flames did the same to the trees over the crest of the hill, outside the protection of the pond, they would all be in danger. “Get the buckets”, she yelled to the older boy, while pulling Michael to his feet. He began to cry, not yet fully awake. “Stay right here”, she said, her index finger used as proof of punishment to follow if he moved at all. Jimmy had tried using a blanket on the fire, and now this, too, was burning. He dropped his butterfly-net and sat sobbing, holding on to his younger brother, as though he were a life-preserver in a raging sea. Missouri ran to the water’s edge with a pail. Dipping more water than she could manage, she was forced to spill some out before she could drag it to the flames. The water sank almost immediately into the parched earth, not spreading under the reeds as the flames continued to do. Fragments of ash and ember fell several yards away, threatening to flare up into yet another patch of flame. Trying to contain the new wing of fire as it advanced from the pond’s edge, she stamped on the short grass with her sandaled feet. She retreated from the pain that eventually lashed her feet and calves, and ran instinctively to the tree where she had slept and where the boys waited in terror.
Once with her brothers, she forced herself to think about what was happening. “Did you get burned?”, she demanded. Jimmy shook his head from side to side, but cried miserably anyway. The fire was being driven slowly away from them by a gentle breeze. The flames had begun to climb the smaller bushes and trees on the other side of the pond. She had no idea how rapidly it might spread, or whether it might just die out on its own. If the wind were to pick up, the fire might leap almost any distance toward the old woman’s house. If the wind stopped, the fire might turn back toward them, cutting off their access to the highway. The boys had to be taken home immediately, and the fire department and police warned, maybe even the state police and the national guard, she wasn’t sure. She looked down at her legs and feet. She couldn’t see blisters, but the pain meant trouble. Without a doctor’s help, the injuries might heal, but they couldn’t be hidden from her parents, even for a day, since she’d need to put on salve to prevent scars. Even if she could keep the boys quiet and call the police without leaving a name, the burns would give her away.
She couldn’t remember her dream in full, but the thought of Georgia being alone in her shack kept nagging at her. The smoke would have been seen from the highway by now, and someone could be coming to put the fires out and to check on the few houses in the woods. She cried for a few seconds before her mind cleared again.
“You get home,” she yelled to Jimmy, “If you stop on the way, I am going to kill you. Don’t let that boy sit down for anything. Just get home. Follow that path and walk. I’ll run and catch up to you by the time you get half-way home.”
“Come with us now. I am afraid Mamma’s gonna kill me when I get home.”
“Get you’re butt home now!,” Missouri yelled. Coughing and clearing his eyes with his hands, he took the smaller boy by the hand and began dragging him along. The two boys stumbled up the hill, turning to cry before going all the way over the crest. At least she was sure that Jimmy knew the way back, and the fire was still going in the other direction.
She thought about wading in the pond to provide some protection from the flames, but recalled the snake that had entered the pond. The wind blowing toward the shack had neither shifted nor eased. The fire had not yet spiraled completely away from the pond, and could be at the house in less than twenty minutes at the rate it was spreading. It seemed such a puny threat compared to the films of forest fires she had seen on television, since none of the bushes that the fire had consumed was over three feet high. Her own injuries proved that even this brush fire was dangerous.
She raced along the path toward her friend’s home. She had read that in the old days, bison could be heard roaring from their burns after the fires had overtaken their thundering speed. Despite her fears, Missouri believed that the police or fire department would make it to the shack. She didn’t understand why it was so important for her to go there as well, to get there first.
She yelled the old woman’s name before she was close enough to pound on the door. As she hammered the poorly painted wood, she thought of herself as an old woman, as someone who may have had a lover and a husband, only to lose them and be left alone; of how she might make a house cheerful and secure for the children that were really hers, who might someday replace Jimmy and Michael; how she might learn how to carry that tiredness that she saw so often in her mother’s face and not be overwhelmed by it, not let things wind down around her or go up in flames.
When the door opened, the hair, which was usually meticulously groomed, was in clumps on Miss Georgia’s head. Her lips were dry and fissured, as though she also had been walking on the burning grass. Her eyes were red and thick from sleep, rather than smoke. Before Missouri could explain what was happening, Miss Georgia was pulling twigs and grass from Missouri’s hair and greeting her as though nothing existed beyond the threshold between them, although the smoke and flames were now easily within sight from the shanty. Looking over the girl’s head, the older woman calmly grasped their predicament. She placed an arm around the girl’s shoulders and guided her at a slow deliberate pace toward the road. Without speaking, they moved down the path and onto the shoulder of the highway, as unmanned rafts might drift on their own from a cove onto a great river, after being unmoored by a storm long since dissolved up stream.
A patrol car’s flashing lights broke their solitude. The red-then-blue lights reminded Missouri of what little she knew of forest fires. Sometimes in the West they would roar up after a thunderstorm, undaunted by the miserly rain. Such fires threatened many lives and homes. Here in the islands of prairie and forest, fires were kinder, more moderate, retreated rapidly. By morning, the earth they had cleansed would be cool and refreshed under the leveled, fire-raked grass. Trees and brush reduced to ash and fine cinders would blow over the grasslands, nourishing them. Perhaps the prairie would reclaim a few yards of forest land. At the forest edge, some pine cones would open, spilling seeds to aide against the insurgency of the oaks and grasses. The strawberries would be heartier, redder, next season, and fish would be more plentiful in the pond.
The squad car drove through dusky smoke that lay like early morning haze in the shallows of the road. The siren was silent now. Its unearthly lights broke the clouds of smoke that obscured everything except the burning shack, as Miss Georgia and Missouri were taken to Missouri’s home. On the porch, the waiting boys stilled their tears and sobs, awed by the women immersed in powerful lights.