The strange alchemy
which transforms water
into fire is nothing more
than the common chemistry
of a dairy farmer’s error.
Moisture, traces of heavy
dews and summer rains,
trapped deep inside a tightly
bound bail of still green hay
buried deep inside a mow
will dry deep in that darkness
creating its own heat,
and like a madman’s genius
long suppressed and compressed,
it will spark-- deep
inside at first, a smoldering heat
that seeks to consume its darkness
until it can feed openly and rage,
becoming an unforgiving blaze.
Everyday at noon
the fire whistle blew,
just a test, a piece
of the rural landscape
that we all knew.
When it blew off schedule,
my father who never volunteered
for anything, scanned the valley
from his backyard view,
and as other men raced to the firehouse
in rusted pickups, portable blue
lights flashing, my father sought the smoke.
Binoculars in hand, he circled, a human
pointer on the scent, until he’d give up
the hunt or find a distant black plume.
Then arms and tongue wagging, he’d herd
us up into the old blue four-door Malibu
and using the smoke as a guide, he’d drive
until we’d reach a distant farm, barn
red hot circled by chaos and firemen
from half the county, containing
more than extinguishing,
keeping the house roof wet,
wrestling livestock from the heat,
and then he’d park along the road,
and we would watch
using the car’s trunk and hood as our seats,
part of an audience that would stretch
down and up the road for fifty car lengths
or so. Some bystanders would wander
from car to car seeking news spreading rumors;
others screamed tired jokes, “I like my beef
well-done,” but mostly they all watched
and groused about the volunteers
until the barn would burn itself out.
Then we’d all climb back into our rides
and headlights on, begin the drive home.
Once the second cut of hay was stowed
my life settled back into long evenings
spent listening to Rizutto calling Yankee
games and screaming “Holy cow!”
out of a cheap transistor radio
while I watched reruns in black and white.
When the special issue of TV Guide,
the one that promised new hit shows,
came home from town with the rest
of the groceries, it meant my life
would soon turn into a endless bus
ride between home and a remote school.
An early stop on the route, I sat
by a window, behind the driver
halfway back. On the way to the first
day of the fifth grade, the bus slowed
then stopped for the two girls
who stood in front of a burnt out barn.
Once they took their seat, the one in front
of mine, the bus moved on. They began
to answer questions, about their parents
who had begun to look for work, about plans
to rebuild, someday, about how the cows
had to be sold, about how their lives had changed.
I had nothing to ask. Strange
how strong synthetic leather seats
can smell. I sat in a cold sweat,
my head pressed to the cold glass
and learned a lesson my old man
never knew. The sudden burn of empathy.