October 2, 2013
Author: Chilton Williamson
Excerpt from The Hundredth Meridian
The old man had understood since the summer of ’88 that pigs are afraid of fire. He’d been in the pig business only three years, following his retirement from the Union Pacific Railroad, when the uncured hay in the haybarn combusted spontaneously, the barn exploded like something on a movie set, and burned to the ground. The pigs in their pens across the yard from the barn had gone berserk when the smoke cloud hit them, squealing in terror and rage and hurling themselves against the fence made solidly from ponderosa pine boards cut from the woods beyond the clearing; a number escaped into the forest, and later one of the sows had killed and eaten two of her litter.
Though the old man had taken the episode for a sign, it encouraged him to know that the pigs could be counted on to give warning in case of a brush or forest fire. Fires were a thing he had hated for years, from the time two missionaries visited him when he was living in a rooming house close by the railroad tracks in Flagstaff and read to him out of the Bible. “I have come to light a fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already burning!” The old man had not read the Bible before or since, but the passage stuck in his mind anyway. It seemed to him presumptuous for a person to decide, on his own, to set the world on fire, and intolerable that he should have the power to do it, whether he called himself the Lord or not. In his retirement in the White Mountains he’d had ample time to brood on the outrage; also plenty of reminders during the fire season that the possibility of it actually occuring was real. In June and early July dry lightning storms were common, while any idiot was capable of starting a fire anytime with a campfire or a cigarette. And now, with the three-year drought and the country at war, one of these raghead terrorists had only to drop a lighted match in the woods and watch the United States go up in flames as if it was made of paper, like Japan in ’45. It was on account of the danger that the old man sat out every evening on his westfacing porch, watching the blocky horizon darkened by endless unbroken forest for signs of smoke and attentive to the pigs grunting in their pens around the side of the house.
Hedda Hooper thought he was crazy and told him so, in a nice way he was able to see straight through. She was a former Roman Catholic nun who had been released from her vows and was looking to find herself a husband, or so the old man understood. Hedda was a small woman with a gray hair, a pink sunburned face, and eyes like two pieces of Indian turquoise, magnified by the wire-rimmed glasses she wore. She lived in Springerville and drove out to see him twice a week, although it made better than a fifty-mile trip. Hedda brought a bottle of red wine with her when she came and they would drink it sitting out together on the porch, while the old man talked about Arizona in the 30’s when the Apache were still raiding across the border from Mexico toward Tucson, and Hedda listened. His stories, she said, reminded her of the ones her father, who had been a railroad man also, used to tell when she was a little girl. On her first visit he’d tried to show off his pigs to her, but she’d wrinkled her nose and said pigs, like Satan, were too smart for their own good, and after that he hadn’t taking her round to see them anymore.
Someone had informed the old man years before that Roman Catholics were the worst-worse even than the Mormons-and so he was careful to discourage her from talk about religion, espcially after she’d invited him to attend Mass in Springerville with her some Saturday evening. The night they spotted the first smoke column, though, he’d become excited thinking about the verse the missionaries had read to him years before, and excitement made him careless. “‘ I come to bring a fire to the earth,'” he quoted loosely, sputtering. “Who the hell does the feller think he is, anyway?”
“Those are Christ’s words,” Hedda explained, “and Christ is Lord of the Universe. It’s His world, to do as He wants with, as He sees fit.”
“That don’t include setting it on fire and burning it all to flinders,” the old man protested, furiously. “He’s got Hell to mess around in, don’t he, if fire is what he’s after? Why can’t he leave the earth be, for Chrissake?”
“Maybe because the Earth is become Hell,” Hedda suggested, “and we made it that way.”
The old man didn’t argue it with her. Instead, he grumbled that religion was hogwash and that, when the time came, he was planning on lighting a fire of his own.
By afternoon of the next day the smoke column had flattened and spread itself across the mountain range, the sky was turned a purplish pink color, and the air smelled faintly acrid. The pigs pushed one another at the water trough, but when the old man brought them their meal they snuffled at it, refusing to eat. After feeding, the old man went and sat on the porch in a worn pair of railroader’s overalls to watch the smoke. At five o’clock he brought his supper outside to eat, and sat until after sundown with a glass of whiskey and his pipe. In the darkness, the distant fire burned along the underside of the smoke cloud and reddened it, like flames curling beneath a chimney-place log. The smell of smoke was stronger now, and at bedtime the old man carried an army cot outside and made his bed on the porch where the fire would not take him unaware.
In the morning the sun rose like a copper ball through scarves of greasy cloud trailing above the mountains. Facing it across the intervening mountains, the smoke lay cloud stretched in a dark billowing wall; the old man, looking from one to the other, had the uneasy feeling of being caught between the cloud and the sun. When he went to feed the pigs he found them milling restlessly, grunting among each other and casting about with their squint intelligent eyes. The old man carried a rifle and his portable radio with him when he went to the porch, but the only station he could bring in broadcast nonstop rock’n roll. Around noon the telephone rang and he went to answer it. It was Hedda, who had learned from the television that a second fire had started southeast of the first and that the two seemed to be burning toward one another. She sounded worried, but the old man pooh-poohed her. “I ain’t the man to be burned out of my own house,” he told her, “lessen I’m the one gets to do the burning.”
He hung up the phone and went to feed the pigs, chucking the radio into the trash can on his way to the pens. The animals had stopped milling and stood instead with their heads down, as if glumly awaiting their fate. It occurred to the old man as he filled the troughs from the hose that if the situation were to become extreme, he owed it to them to take down the slats and allow them to flee for their lives into the woods. As for him, he intended to stand his ground and be damned if he’d let an old man in the sky with whiskers run him off the property he’d paid good money to retire in peace and quiet on.
The wind shifted round during the night, causing the pigs to panic for the first time. The old man got up and went out with his gun to the pens in case there was a bear after them. All he saw was the dim mass of seething backs and in the west the roiling smoke cloud lit by the moon above and the flames below, and he shuffled slowly back to the house carrying the gun under his arm and wishing his old dog, whose name had been Bear, was still alive, or that he’d replaced him after his death six months before.
He’d fallen asleep at last around dawn, when the telephone woke him. It was Hedda in Springerville, calling to say the Forest Service was considering an evacuation order for a wide area that included his farm. She sounded urgent, but at the same time deadly calm. In the no-nonsense voice she’d probably used with her pupils at the parochial school she taught at for years, Hedda told him she’d be coming out in her pickup truck, late in the afternoon, to help remove whatever he wished to take with him to safety. And hung up before he could argue with her. The old man stood by the phone for a few minutes afterward. Then he took his cap from its peg and went outside. It was time now to act and not very much of it, he knew.
Across his shoulder he could see the smoke plume from the second fire, burning around the end of a steep ridge to join with the first one and he quickened his pace on the way to the shed where the vehicles were garaged. There he loaded a box of oily rags, a shovel and chainsaw, and a five-gallon jerrycan of gasoline into the wagon he kept hitched to his tractor, thinking he could have made use of the plow attachment if only the Forest Service had given him warning enough.
It was a couple of miles by the old logging road down to the brushy flats above the creek, shrunk by drought to a string of stagnant pools in its gravel bed. The old man drove across the ford to the lee side, feeling the downslope breeze on his sweated back. The creek, he decided, would have to do for a fire break, though he’d have felt better with a plowed line to reinforce it. He set the handbrake and got down from the tractor, taking care to switch the engine off as a precaution against igniting the dry grass. Then he took the rags and the jerrycan from the wagon and moved off into the brush, dropping a few cloth strips every hundred or two hundred feet and dousing them with the gasoline. When everything was in place he raced from one pile to the next, striking matches and dropping them atop the oily rags. Finally, he ran on to the tractor, swung it hard around, and drove like hell uphill from the valley along the logging road.
From on top of the ridgeline he looked back upon the fires he had started. Several hundred feet below across the creek, a line of bright orange spots advanced bravely like soldiers under white smoke plumes in the general direction of the infinitely greater force a mile and a half away still. The old man saw that the fires were good and smiled crookedly. This was a game two could play at, he thought. The phone was ringing as he approached the house, but he ignored it and went to lie down on his madeup bed with the rifle beside him, feeling comfortable in his mind for the first time in days.
He awoke two hours later with the acrid smoke in his nostrils and the understanding that everything was changed suddenly. The light was gone from the sky, though it was not yet dark, and the pigs were squealing from their pens in the same hysterical way they had done the day the barn caught fire. The old man sat up all at once in the bed, grabbed the rifle, and tore from the house as if he were twenty years old again.
The wind had shifted round while he slept, driving his fire back across the creek and up the mountainside to the top of the ridge where it raced now toward the house, cresting from tree to tree in high explosions of orange and yellow flame, the ground fire burning forward at a slower pace. The fire had created a wind storm of its own, sucking air into its glarey lungs and expelling it with a sound like a Chinese dragon roaring. The old man saw at once that he was too late, the house and outbuildings doomed; no time even to hook up the garden hose and wet down the rooves and siding. The tractor and wagon stood on the turnaround, blocking the garaged pickup truck. He made a standing jump into the driver’s seat, dragged the wagon clear, and ran for the pickup. The old man was backed around in the yard already and started down the drive toward the gravel road when he thought of the pigs, leaping and shivering in their pens like fish trying to climb a falls.
His brain told him to keep on going but he wasn’t listening to it. Freed, the animals would have a chance to outrun the fire and scatter through the forest, where in time they would become a self-sustaining population of feral hogs. He braked the truck hard, jumped down, and hobbled back to the pens whose slatted sides creaked and bulged under the impact of scores of hurled heavy bodies. The gate shuddered beneath his hands as he worked the latch but he got it open finally and stepped clear, as he thought, of a few hundred tons of pent and panicked pigflesh.
Roaring up the driveway in her truck, Hedda Hooper was in time to see a large herd of parti-colored swine stampede across the unscathed clearing toward the rolling cloud of smoke and vanish as one animal into the flaming woods behind it. She was later in discovering the crumpled body lying in a litter of sharp-pointed pig tracks thick as fallen leaves but, time having run out for the old man, it didn’t really matter very much.