Sunday, 14 December 2008

Smoke and wine

It was during the summer of the big fires, when the mill and half of Barriere was burnt to the ground and the blaze threatened to snake north through the rest of the Thompson Valley. The summer when the sparks played roulette with Kelowna houses and an area the size of a small country went up like a torch in the matchstick forests of the Chilcotin.

I remember standing outside at the reception at my cousin’s wedding, looking at the moon glowing red through the smoky haze and thinking that I was heading into the apocalypse. Weeks before I had agreed to do some last minute holiday cover for the weekly newspaper in Clearwater, a town just an hour north of the evacuated town of Barriere. There was no power in Clearwater and the residents were on constant alert, informed they may have to evacuate at any time. All it would take was for the wind to shift and the monster would lunge.

I didn’t want to go. I tried to get out of it. No luck. So I went, spending the next two weeks living in a hotel that was being run on generator power, writing my stories longhand while struggling to find contacts in a strange town that was existing inside a surreal cloud. And I mean that literally. Every morning I would go out to my car to find it covered in ash. We breathed it in. We watched it fall. We were conscious of the subtlest breeze. People held giant barbecues to try and make use of the all the thawing food that was going to waste from their freezers. They took water from the river, they established rota systems to share their generators with their neighbours. I went to the grocery store, where all the batteries were gone.

Outside on the curb sat a small old man who was so wrinkled he looked like he would eventually resemble an empty leather satchel. He wore one of those once-white hillbilly hats that was bent at all angles. Beneath his blue eyes, which shone like diamonds in the desert of his tanned skin, his toothless mouth chomped steadily in a pensive half-smile. I remember thinking that the fire had started to drive the hermits from their cabins. Soon the town would fill with reclusive creatures dancing on the fault line of madness.

At the end of the first week I had to drive a hour an a half to the nearest sister paper in 100 Mile so I could use their newsroom to design the paper. I fell short of copy and we ended up printing a massive satellite image of the fire area on the back page. Then back into the smoke and the strange solitude again.

The way to get information in a small town is often to just ask around. I wanted to talk to an old-timer who might have been around during forest fire scares of years past. Someone with a story or two who could put all of our fears into perspective.

So much of those two weeks is lost now, like my mind doesn’t think most of the experience is worth remembering. But I recall the feeling of being lost as I drove over what was supposedly a road, toward his homestead. His house, which his father had built and where he now lived alone, was a tinderbox, surrounded by firewood that was so dry the slightest ember would have set the stacks aflame. Beside the door was a small bag of his belongings, there for him to grab if he needed to head out to his truck at a moment’s notice. He was old, stooped, with the large, gnarled hands of a man who had worked hard his entire life. But he had an easy smile and seemed thrilled to have been asked to relay some of his experiences.

Here comes the part that is burned into me, the single memory that erupts in my mind like a saga bound into just a few moments. The porch at the back of the house overlooked a small marsh. The smoke settled over the still water like the eerie mist in a gypsy’s crystal ball. There were no birds, no sounds, no wind. Just silence and the smoke. We settled down and he handed me a glass of wine.

No. Not a glass.

He gave me homemade plum wine in a mason jar. It was dark like a harvest moon soaked in old blood and wrung out, together with whatever clouds were lingering nearby at the time. I don’t even remember the taste. Only the overwhelming sense that it was, in essence, a concoction. A dream steeped through bark and earth, spiked with a few hot rays and the pleasant drifting scent of hay, then poured into a barrel and left in the still darkness to concentrate.

I asked the kind of open questions I knew would give way to long answers, and he supplied the stories. He had lived in the area his whole life, with years spent working for the parks service, fighting fires in the summers and guarding against poachers in the winters. He still had the double-edged axe he had used to cut into the earth and create lines try to stop the fire from jumping. No use when the thunderous wind a forest fire creates for itself can toss a burning pinecone several kilometres. The prisons would send him inmates to help battle the blaze, the incentive against trying to run being not knowing which way to go in order to ensure not being killed.

One winter his feet became terribly frost bitten. But instead of going to the doctor, he simply waited for them to heal, continuing to force his toes into his boots even when the dying skin would bubble and the puss would leak from his wounds.

“When I walked, it would squish out.”

This is the only thing he told me that I can repeat from memory. I also remember the sheepish smile he gave when he said it, as if ignoring the threat of gangrene was something that a naughty schoolboy would do. It took until July for his feet to heal.

Today I don’t even recall his name. It was seven years ago but I still think of him often and that precious scene on the porch, drinking plum wine and looking out into the smoke, enveloped in calm amidst the burgeoning destruction.

It remains one of the best memories of my life.


Brian in Mpls said...

That sounds fantastic.

C.S. Perry said...

Beautiful writing.
I wish I could cite more adventures like this from my past.
You have wonderful way with language.
Maybe I'll come to visit you some day and you could supply me with a job writing little pieces for expense money.

Purest Green said...

Thank you for your comments of goodness. I have adventures that I wouldn't dare express here (just in case my family does someday read it).
C.S. -You should definitely visit Scotland, but I would have to pay you for your stories with fish suppers.

Jacqui said...

Wow, you make me feel like I was there with you.

C.S. Perry said...

Well...we all like fish, right?

Purest Green said...

What would the Scottish version of Rooked be called? Actually, it could stay the same, but with a bit more force and phlegm. Excellent. Get Rooked! Ach aye. Fer sure.