Read The Fireman Online

Authors: Ray Bradbury

Tags: #Science Fiction

The Fireman

The Fireman By Ray Bradbury

 

I

 

Fire, Fire, Burn Books

 

THE four men sat silently playing blackjack under a green drop-light in the dark morning. Only a voice whispered from the ceiling: "One thirty-five a.m. Thursday morning, October 4th, 2052, A.D.... One forty a.m.... one fifty..."

 

Mr. Montag sat stiffly among the other firemen in the fire house, heard the voice-clock mourn out the cold hour and the cold year, and shivered.

 

The other three glanced up.

 

"What's wrong, Montag?"

 

A radio hummed somewhere. "… War may be declared any hour. This country stands ready to defend its destiny and..."

 

The fire house trembled as five hundred jet-planes screamed across the black morning sky.

 

The firemen slumped in their coal-blue uniforms, with the look of thirty years in their blue-shaved, sharp, pink faces and their burnt-colored hair. Stacked behind them were glittering piles of auxiliary helmets. Downstairs in concrete dampness the fire monster itself slept, the silent dragon of nickel and tangerine colors, the boa-constrictor hoses, the twinkling brass.

 

"I'm thinking of our last job," said Mr. Montag.

 

"Don't," said Leahy, the fire chief.

 

"That poor man, when we burned his library. How would it feel if firemen burned our houses and our books?"

 

"We haven't any books."

 

"But if we did have some."

 

"You got some?"

 

"No."

 

Montag gazed beyond them to the wall and the typed lists of a million forbidden books. The titles cringed in fire, burning down the years under his ax and his fire hose spraying not water but — kerosene.

 

"Was it always like this?" asked Mr. Montag. "The fire house, our duties? I mean, well, once upon a time..."

 

"Once upon a time!" Leahy crowed. "What kind of language is that?"

 

Fool, cried Montag to himself. You'll give yourself away! That last fire. A book of fairy tales. He had dared to read a line or so. "I mean," he said, quickly, "in the old days, before homes were completely fireproof, didn't firemen ride to fires to put them out, instead of start them?"

 

"I never knew that." Stoneman and Black drew forth their rule books and laid them where Montag, though long familiar with them, might read:

 

1. Answer the alarm quickly.

2. Start the fire swiftly.

3. Be sure you burn everything.

4. Report back to fire house.

5. Stand alert for another alarm.

 

Everyone watched Montag.

 

He swallowed. "What will they do to that old man we caught last night with his books?"

 

"Insane asylum."

 

"But he wasn't insane!"

 

"Any man is who thinks he can hide books from the Government or us." Leahy blew a great fiery cloud of cigar smoke from his thin mouth. He idled back.

 

The alarm sounded.

 

The bell kicked itself two hundred times in a few seconds. Suddenly there were three empty chairs. The cards fell in a snow flurry. The brass pole trembled. The men were gone, their hats with them. Montag still sat. Below, the orange dragon coughed to life.

 

Montag slid down the pole like a man in a dream.

 

"Montag, you forgot your hat!"

 

He got it and they were off, the night wind hammering about their siren noise and their mighty metal thunder.

 

IT WAS a flaking three-story house in the old section of town. A century old if it was a day, but, like every house, it had been given a thin fireproof plastic coat fifty years ago, and this preservative shell seemed to be holding it up.

 

"Here we are!"

 

The engine slammed to a stop. Leahy, Stoneman, and Black ran up the side-walk, suddenly odious and fat in their plump slickers. Montag followed.

 

They crashed the front door and caught a woman, running.

 

"I didn't hurt anyone!" she cried.

 

"Where are they?" Leahy twisted her wrist.

 

"You wouldn't take an old woman's pleasures from her, would you?"

 

Stoneman produced the telephone alarm card with the complaint signed in facsimile duplicate on the back. "Says here, Chief, the books are in the attic."

 

"All right, men, let's get 'em!"

 

Next thing they were up in musty blackness, swinging silver hatchets at doors that were, after all, unlocked, tumbling through like boys all rollick and shout.

 

"Hey!"

 

A fountain of books sprayed down on Montag as he climbed shuddering up the steep stair well. Books bombarded his shoulders, his pale face. A book lit, almost obediently, like a white pigeon, in his hands, wings fluttering.

 

In the dim, wavering light a page hung open and it was like a snowy feather, the words delicately painted thereon. In all the rush and fervor, Montag had only an instant to read a line, but it blazed in his mind for the next minute as if stamped there with a fiery iron. He dropped the book. Immediately, another fell into his arms.

 

"Montag, come on up!"

 

Montag's hand closed like a trap, crushed the book with wild devotion, with an insanity of mindlessness to his chest. The men above were hurling shovelfuls of literature into the dusty air. They fell like slaughtered birds and the woman stood like a small girl among the bodies.

 

"Montag!"

 

He climbed up into the attic. " 'This too shall pass away.' "

 

"What?" Leahy glared at him.

 

Montag froze, blinking. "Did I say something?"

 

"Move, you idiot!"

 

THE books lay in piles like fishes left to dry.

 

"Trash! Trash!" The men danced on the books. Titles glittered their golden eyes, falling, gone.

 

"Kerosene!"

 

They pumped the cool fluid from the white snake they had twined upstairs. They coated every book; they pumped rooms full of it.

 

"This is better than the old man's place last night, eh?"

 

That had not been as much fun. The old man had lived in an apartment house with other people. They had had to use controlled fire there. Here, they could ravage the entire house.

 

They ran downstairs, Montag reeling after them in the kerosene fumes.

 

"Come on, woman!"

 

"My books," she said, quietly. She knelt among them to touch the drenched leather, to read the gilt titles with her fingers instead of her eyes, while her eyes accused Montag.

 

"You can't take my books," she said.

 

"You know the law," said Leahy. "Pure nonsense, all of it. No two books alike, none agreeing. Confusion. Stories about people who never existed. Come on, now."

 

"No," she said.

 

"The whole house'll burn."

 

"I won't go."

 

The three men walked clumsily to the door. They glanced back at Montag who stood near the woman.

 

"You're not leaving her here?" he protested.

 

"She won't come."

 

"But she's got to!"

 

Leahy raised his hand. It contained the concealed igniter to start the fire. "Got to get back to the station. Besides, she'd cost us a trial, money, jail."

 

Montag placed his hand around the woman's elbow. "You can come with me."

 

"No." She actually focused her eyes on him for a moment. "Thank you, anyway."

 

"I'm counting to ten," said Leahy. "One, two..."

 

"Please," said Montag.

 

"Go on," said the woman.

 

"Three," said Leahy.

 

"Come." Montag pulled at her.

 

"I want to stay here," she replied, quietly.

 

"Four... five..."

 

The woman twisted. Montag slipped on an oily book and fell. The woman ran up the stairs half way and stood there with the books at her feet.

 

"Six... seven... Montag," said Leahy.

 

Montag did not move. He looked out the door at that man there with the pink face, pink and burned and shiny from too many fires, pink from night excitements, the pink face of Mr. Leahy with the igniter poised in his pink fingers.

 

Montag felt the book hidden against his pounding chest.

 

"Go get him!" ordered Leahy.

 

THE men dragged Montag yelling from the house.

 

Leahy backed out after them, leaving a kerosene trail down the walk. When they were a hundred feet away, Montag was still shouting and kicking. He glanced wildly back.

 

In the front door where she had come to gaze out at them quietly, her quietness a condemnation, staring straight into Leahy's eyes, was the woman.

 

Leahy twitched his finger to ignite the fuel.

 

He was too late. Montag gasped.

 

The woman in the door, reaching with contempt toward them all, struck a match against the saturated wood.

 

People ran out of houses all down the street.

 

"WHO is it?"

 

"Who would it be?" said Mr. Montag, leaning back against the closed door in the dark.

 

His wife said, at last, "Well, put on the light."

 

"I don't want the light," he said.

 

"Come to bed."

 

He heard her roll impatiently; the springs squeaked. "Are you drunk?"

 

He worked out of his coat and let it slump to the floor. He held his pants out into an abyss and let them fall forever and forever into darkness.

 

His wife said, "What are you doing?"

 

He balanced in space with the book in his sweating, icy hand.

 

A minute later, she said, "Well, don't just stand there in the middle of the room."

 

He made a small sound.

 

"What?" she asked.

 

He made more soft sounds. He stumbled toward the bed and shoved the book clumsily under the cold pillow. He fell into bed and his wife cried out, startled. He lay separate from her. She talked to him for what seemed a long while and when he didn't reply but only made sounds, he felt her hand creep over, up along his chest, his throat, his chin. Her hand brushed his cheek. He knew that she pulled her hand away from his cheek wet.

 

A long time later when he was finally floating into sleep, he heard her say, "You smell of kerosene."

 

"I always smell of kerosene," he mumbled.

 

Late in the night he looked over at Mildred. She was awake. There was a tiny dance of melody in the room. She had her thimble-radio tamped into her ear, listening, listening to far people in far places, her eyes peeled wide at deep ceilings of blackness.

 

Many nights in the last ten years he had found her with her eyes open, like a dead woman. She would lie that way, blankly, hour upon hour, and then rise and go soundlessly to the bath. You could hear faucet water run, the tinkle of the sedatives bottle, and Mildred gulping hungrily, frantically, at sleep.

 

She was awake now. In a moment she would rise and go for the barbiturates.

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