Authors: Lauren Wolk
“Terrible,” he said and, shrugging, managed to look endearing despite the tufts of green hair that sprouted wildly from his ears.
“I ran into Anne Schifflebien at the Superette last week,” Rachel said, easing down off the rail to take up a new spot beside him where she could see his face and he could see hers if he chose to. “She seems to think there’s something not quite right about a grown man extorting apples from children.”
“I’m the troll,” Joe replied, tilting his head back for a better look at the Seven Sisters. “It’s my job.”
“She said you’ve forced her into giving Cracker Jacks this year.”
“I’m evil, I am,” Joe said. He picked out an apple and offered it to Rachel.
Rachel returned to the rail for a while, eating her apple, and watched the occasional children pass, but she soon began to feel that she was spoiling the whole thing, despite her witch’s rig. The bridge was Joe’s domain this night, not hers. She’d already taken her basket of candies down to the huge willow tree in the park by the school where the children knew they’d find her, a tigress one year, an octopus the next, crouching or coiled among the branches, waiting to drop treats into their gaping bags. They had liked her as a witch, they said, because of the glow-in-the-dark spiral that climbed up her wonderfully pointed hat.
“I’ll eat you up, my little pretties,” she had cackled in reply and showered them with chocolate kisses wrapped in foil.
But that was all done with, and Rachel could not think of a way to make the night begin again. So she gained her feet, thanked Joe for the apple, and walked off down the street, her long black gown trailing behind her, a distant portion of red, smouldering horizon catching her in silhouette.
, thought Joe.
What a beautiful witch she makes
Rachel Hearn was twenty-three years old. The fire that burned under Belle Haven had started shortly after her tenth birthday. Garbage dumped for years in an old mine pit two miles from her house had somehow caught fire, and the flames had crept hungrily underground. They had followed shafts rich in timber straight down to the tunnels, to a feast of unmined coal, and had fed on coal veins ever since—slowly, quietly, but without pause. The government had sent experts in to track the fire, measure its girth, forecast its activity, predict its demise. Some said it would burn for a thousand years.
If not for the violence of its repercussions, this deliberate, nearly placid progression might have seemed more bovine than anything else. But, like the anaconda, it tended to creep up on its victims. Most easily, perhaps, on the swiftest among them, those most certain of their chances of escape.
There were now several places in Belle Haven where the ground had caved in without warning, where the heat coming up from below was 500 degrees Fahrenheit. And although boreholes had been drilled throughout the town to vent the fire’s hideous, sulfurous fumes, every basement was equipped with a monitor that sniffed the air filtering up through the ground and sounded an alarm at the scent of poison coming quietly in.
Rachel often wondered about the canaries imprisoned throughout the town. Would someone deeply asleep, full of meat loaf and parsley potatoes and lemon chiffon pie, be awakened by the death throes of a small, yellow bird grown tired and dispirited from a life behind bars?
She had once considered equipping herself with a canary or two and had even gone so far as to visit the pet shop over in Randall.
said the sign in the window,
BUY ONE, GET ONE FREE
. Inside, she had followed the bird sounds to the cages at the back of the shop.
Some were awhirl with parakeets: lime green, purple, yellow, spring sky blue. They had black-and-white wings, small white faces, black eyes. The bigger parrots, spotting Rachel at their cages, stuck out their tough little tongues. One had zebra stripes around his eyes, white, leathery cheeks, and a long, blue, lady’s-hat tail. Another had a white cowlick and a blue-rimmed eye, his partner a green cap and a black beard. The canaries were a feeble yellow. The jungle-colored lovebirds in the cage next to them looked as if they were dying.
The last cage Rachel came to held two Mollucan cockatoos. They were big birds, white with bright yellow underwings. They were cleaning each other and ignored her as she stepped before their cage. They didn’t seem to notice the din around them. It was as if they were sitting in a clean and wonderfully distant rain forest. The sign on their cage said they’d been marked down from $799.00 to $699.99. Rachel left the store without a canary. She would never have a bird for a pet. That much she knew.
Instead, Rachel had dozens of spider plants, which had grown plump and juicy on their diet of tainted air. At least as many spiders
roamed unchallenged through her house, kept the plants free of pests, and, said Rachel, brought her luck.
“Never kill a spider unless it’s as big as a Buick,” she had once told Ed, the mailman, when he arrived on her front porch to find her rescuing a sack of baby spiders from her mailbox, just in time.
She felt equally protective about all of the more vulnerable creatures with whom she shared her patch of ground. After a heavy rain she’d don slicker and rain boots, grab her worm spatula, and head for her front walk. She’d scoop up the half-drowned worms that were dragging themselves raw across her walkway and put them in a nice, dry, loamy place in the lee of her compost heap. Rachel Hearn had the richest compost in Belle Haven. In the springtime, when young frogs filled the twilight with their unearthly song and insisted on crossing the roads, cars notwithstanding, Rachel never drove on country lanes after sundown. And in the summer, loath to spill poison into the ground or spew it into the air, she relied on ladybugs to keep the aphids from her roses.
For only seven dollars and fifty cents, Rachel had once ordered a thousand ladybugs from a catalogue. When they’d arrived, stunned and angry, Rachel had sat down and cried over her complicity. A thousand ladybugs packed into a mesh bag, folded up into a cardboard carton, and sent tumbling through the postal system had been delivered into her hands, and she was nearly sure that she could hear them weeping. She had waited until the cool of the evening and then set the open package among her roses, but when she returned in the morning she found that the box was still nearly full of ladybugs. It took hours of careful prodding before they began to leave of their own accord, and then the exodus began in earnest. They stumbled out in their endearing way, so perfect, the kind of bugs Disney might have invented, and took refuge in her incredible garden.
If they were confused by the fact that every single plant in this garden—from tulip to lilac—was cradled in its own spectacular pot, they never let on. Perhaps they were charmed by the pots, which Rachel made with her hands, her wheel, and her kiln. Most were wrapped in brilliant ribbons of color, glazed to gleam in all kinds of weather, and fashioned with such care that they never toppled, not even in storms. Rachel had been told that the hill on which her house stood was relatively safe, for there were no mine tunnels directly below her, no coal to speak of, not that anyone knew of, right close
by. But Rachel had come to be a skeptic of sorts and was loath to plant her flowers where the fire might, on a whim, bake them black.
“And what do you plan to do if things heat up too much around here?” Joe had once asked her as she filled the back of a huge ceramic turtle with nasturtiums. “Those pots will turn right into ovens, Rachel.”
“That day may never come,” she had replied, her eyes on her work, “so why think about it now?”
In much the same way, Rachel had never liked to think about the monitor in her cellar, the changing configuration of the fire, the parents who bundled up their pallid babies and put Belle Haven behind them, sorrow and resignation clear in every step they took away from town. But eventually the fire had given her no other choice but to look straight into its face and admit the very things she had fought so hard to deny.
As she climbed the front steps of her hilltop house this Halloween night, Rachel turned to gaze for a moment at the cauldrons that had laid claim across the northern fields. Whenever the fire climbed close to the crusty skin of the earth, whenever it broke through, it made an angry sore that oozed and bubbled and pulsed. Rachel forced herself to stay a while longer, to watch the fire burning until her eyes began to ache. Then, chilled by the sight and by the impartial autumn air, Rachel went inside her beloved house, trembling with prayers, searching for but not finding a way to stop this night from its progression.
By the time Rachel had made her way to her bedroom, Joe had found his way slowly through the woods behind her house, covered his apples with a bit of canvas to keep off the frost, and climbed the ladder to his house. He’d built it in a mighty walnut tree on land he didn’t own, with wood he’d salvaged from fallen barns near and far, with nails others had given him outright, with his own potent sweat.
He would never again sleep in this refuge. The fire had come, winter was close behind it, and much as he loved this place, he would not die for it. But on this Halloween night he was content, unafraid, wrapped in worn but mended blankets, and could see the stars without even opening his eyes.
It was easy for the people of Belle Haven to remember the day when the fire began. Most of them had been at the Fourth of July parade, in itself quite memorable and as perfect a companion for a fire’s genesis as anyone could want. When Rachel thought about that day she often wondered how much of her memory was authentic, pure, and how much had been garnered from more than a decade of conversations, of all the things said and written about the fire, of scrapbooks and church sermons and the songs children made up when they skipped rope. In a way it didn’t matter. Whether her memory of that day was purely her own or a blending of things she’d encountered since, Rachel knew that it was in many ways her most important recollection, one that was somehow linked to all the rest, even those from much further back into childhood. For her, as for most people in Belle Haven, the fire was a landmark against which nearly all events were measured. Things had happened either before or after the fire took root: births, deaths, marriages, divorces, catastrophes, celebrations. There were other ways to recount their history but none more familiar.
The Fourth, that year, had been too hot, too dry, too hard. The farmers walked around with their heads tipped back, watching for clouds, feeling the air with their skins, aware of the dust. The children were all tired out before the morning had waned. The smaller ones sat in the shade, panting like cats, their hair wringing with sweat, waiting for the sound of the band. The air was white with
heat. Cicadas screamed. The tar on the street was so hot that the smell of it hurt Rachel’s nose as she sat atop the mailbox outside Paula’s Beauty Salon waiting for the parade. She’d imagined that the mailbox would be a clean, comfortable perch. She had not counted on it being so hot. Her thighs stuck to the metal.
“You all right there, Rachel?”
“Great,” she said, sliding her arm through her father’s. “But maybe I’ll get down now. I’m too big for this sort of thing.” She seemed too mature for many such things, now that she was ten.
When she slid down off the mailbox, her skin stuck, came away from the metal all at once, and would have sent her sprawling if her father had not held her by the arm.
“You’re about as graceful as I am.” Her mother laughed. She had on a blue-and-white gingham dress with a red belt. Rachel was wearing a pair of red shorts, a white blouse with blue stripes on it, and a red ribbon in her hair. She had painted red and blue stars on her Keds. Her father, who was an electrician, wore what he nearly always wore in the summertime—dull green work pants with a short-sleeved, Perma-Prest, one-pocket shirt, leather belt and boots, a plain cap. For the Fourth, he always flew a flag up at the house and, when the Belle Haven veterans marched by, saluted theirs.
“I hear the tubas,” Rachel said. The children came running from under the trees and sat along the hot curb. Rachel’s mother stepped back and slapped the flat of her hand against the beauty-shop door. “Band’s coming, Paula,” she called through the screen. Paula carried a half dozen hair clips on the collar of her blouse and a pair of scissors in her hand when she came through the door. Cora Ball, completely unabashed, swept out behind her in strange array, a pink sheet draped around her shoulders and dusted with bits of her gray hair, half her head glinting with clips.
“Who’s gonna be lookin’ at me … and who cares anyway?” Cora laughed, and Rachel found herself filled with admiration.
Before the sound of the band became much louder, the parade leaders turned onto Maple Street and down toward the crowd. Teenage boys with painted faces and homemade tricornes popped wheelies on their bikes. Three antique cars puttered by, their horns off-key. Kids with soapbox cars. The veterans, hot and breathless in their tight, old uniforms. A horse-drawn hay wagon done up like a float with a papier-mâché Statue of Liberty that everyone said looked just like
Molly, who worked at the checkout over at the A&P. A girl in white boots and flag colors, twirling a baton. Then the school band: small, ragtag, magnificent.
Finally came the polished fire engine and the volunteers who manned it, sweaty and exhausted in their gear. It was, for many of the children, the most wonderful part of the parade, for as the truck trundled slowly past they were permitted to run alongside, step up on its running boards, run their fingers along its hoses, smell the gleaming smell of it, feel its engine rumble. Rachel was just wondering whether she was now too old for this when the radio inside the cab began to chatter.
The firemen shooed the children back. The siren burped, the big truck swung slowly off Maple onto a side street, the firemen all waved their arms for people to stand clear, and then the truck was away, siren going, lights spinning, dust rising in its wake.
Nobody knew where it was headed. It wasn’t until much later, at the picnic out by the Methodist church, when they’d all had their fill of chicken and potato salad, baked beans, corn bread, five-bean salad, red Jell-O mold with white marshmallows and blue gumdrops on top, lemonade and punch, and sparklers nearly invisible in the afternoon glare, that they heard about the fire in the mine pit.