PodCastle 728: The Fireman
by Christoph Weber
I face the forested mountains, raise my hands like a conductor readying an orchestra, and point to my first section. A glow flickers to life in the inky darkness beneath a grove of trees. Arms of flame climb the bark and the canopy explodes, turning trees into torches, illuminating my canvas.
I sweep my hand from left to right and a mile-long slash appears like a knife wound in the mountains, bleeding fire. The flames crawl upslope. Not fast enough. A few twists of my wrists and I sculpt a stampede — orange bulls of fire, a few charging tigers, and one galloping zebra striped red and blue. I pause to appreciate the canvas come to life. It’s my best work.
And I’m just getting started.
A flock of phoenixes rises from the flames and soars out for a mile in every direction. Transformed into a dozen Icaruses, they plunge back to earth on wings of fire.
The mountain range — a dark, blank canvas just moments ago — is now a work of art, a living Pollock-splatter of incendiary shades. I brim with the pride of a father watching his child thrive.
Fire is a living creature. It is born, it consumes, it grows, and it dies. It even breathes: the wind whipping past me is my fire inhaling air from below to replace its exhaled smoke plume, glowing with firelight. At times like these, I can feel that flames have desires of their own: ambitions to spread, to conquer new lands.
I watch the mountains burn until red-and-blue lights rattle up fire roads — wildland engines come to contain the inferno.
I close my eyes, breathe deep, and smile. Burning forests smell so lovely.
When the first helicopter arrives, I recognize its tail number. I’ve worked with the pilot in my day job fighting fire. Okay, making it look like I fight fire. My assignments have a tendency to burn rather long and out of control.
The pilot drops her water bucket on a column of fire probing up toward the ridge. I sculpt the flames into a fist — middle finger extended — that burns so hot the pilot’s water drop evaporates before it can reach earth.
The next hero to try slaying my dragon is a large fixed-wing air tanker. It sets its course above a ridge and drops a load of chemical retardant. My child reaches the wet, sticky strip and pauses. I can feel its frustration — until a school of crimson flying fish leaps from the flames, soars over the retardant-soaked ridge, and dives into the next canyon. Turquoise rings ripple out everywhere they land. It’s a wonderful touch.
But it’s not enough. Tonight I need more. Tonight, burning every square inch of these mountains will not satisfy me.
I turn around and scan the city’s downtown lights, glowing pink and green. They’d look better engulfed in orange.
I throw my arms out, signaling the coming finale, and sweep my hands forward. A rumbling avalanche of flame crashes down the wooded slope, rushing around me toward the neighborhood below. When my fire reaches the first long row of homes, I lift the flames up as a great wave, its orange crest curling over rooftops, poised to descend and destroy.
And as I think of the people inside those homes, nausea extinguishes my euphoria. A cold realization freezes me: I, Daris Afrit, have burned every beautiful thing from my life.
Hands shaking, I ask myself how I got to this point. The memories flow like my tears. Cold and true.
In sixth grade, my classmates and I gave presentations on historical figures. Marie, my first girlfriend, presented as Madame de Pompadour, her hair magnificent in her subject’s signature gravity-defying style. When Marie took the stage with a grace far beyond her twelve years, I thought I was watching the most beautiful girl in the world.
But even then, reality was not enough. The red-and-yellow stage lights created the illusion of flame on her dress, and I couldn’t help thinking how much more exquisite she’d be if she actually were on fire.
The fabric whooshed to life. Marie spun in terror, the bottom of her dress flowing outward like the petals of a crimson flower, her hair catching blue fire. In retrospect, I should’ve guessed how much hairspray she’d needed to achieve de Pompadour’s style. But that was the first time I’d burned, and in that moment nothing could worry me. While everyone screamed and rushed to extinguish the flames, I just sat there, rapt with the goddess pirouetting before me, twirling those scarlet petals around her waist, the crown of flame atop her head the cobalt stigma of the flower I’d transformed her into.
But afterward, when the flames were out and the high was over, when her screams of pain racked the auditorium, I nearly vomited with guilt. When I visited Marie in the burn unit and faced what I’d done, I finally lost my meal.
I comforted myself by saying I wasn’t a bad guy. I never meant to hurt her, after all. I didn’t know I could think flames to life, and when they appeared, well . . . I just got caught up in the bliss.
I chased that high throughout my teens, playing with fire, experimenting with how much I could handle, growing eminently skilled at hiding evidence. But I felt enough responsibility for Marie that I made myself a promise: I would never burn anyone again.
It took me decades to realize there are many ways to burn those you love.
The stained-glass window in the art museum was far too beautiful. I stepped over the red velour rope for a closer look and caught my breath — the individual panes were not glass at all, but butterfly wings arranged in a mosaic of iridescent blues and whites and reds.
Nature and religion always seemed a bit at odds to me. Growing up, my parents insisted that religion was the path to awe, yet the cold, drafty church they dragged me to was about as inspiring as a Walmart. But when I’m in wild places, when I can see that humans are just a single strand in a thrumming web of life, those are the times I feel a greater power. I’ve often worried whether that makes me some sort of animist heathen, and that butterfly church window eased my anxiety by providing a metaphor that nature and religion are just two paths to the same thing. I stood transfixed by the artwork, overwhelmed with colors never captured by man-made paints.
Then I set it on fire.
The piece was titled The Kingdom of the Father, by Damien Hirst — butterflies and household gloss on canvas. Those papery butterfly wings would have probably burned quite nicely on their own, but when stuck to canvas with contact cement and coated in gloss, they damn-near exploded. Two seconds after I ran a flame along the lower edge, arms of fire thrashed out from every side of the frame like some giant, immolating octopus was trapped inside.
I stroked my chin and considered the piece again. Now it’s perfect, I concluded. For what exploration of religion is complete without a treatment of hellfire?
I hid my grin as a security guard rushed in, fire extinguisher in hand. Like a guardian angel, he battled the hellfire with his heavenly cloud sprayer. The piece was already torched, of course, but the angel’s swift descent did save a few wings from full consumption. With its adhesive delaminated, one blackened wing hinged up as if trying to fly, then fluttered to the floor with such tremulous beauty my heart trembled with it.
Satisfied with my work, I helped the guard finish extinguishing the fire. I wasn’t a bad guy, after all, so I ordered the fire to disappear in the same way I’d told it to start. I never touched anything, and when the museum checked their security footage, that’s exactly what they saw. I knew the fire investigator from my day job, and when I asked him what he thought happened he shrugged and said, “Auto-ignition due to gloss oxidation.” In his shoes, I’d have probably said something stupid, too.
Afterward, when the high was over and guilt descended like a lead blanket, I asked myself — not for the first time — why, when something moves me with beauty, do I feel the need to burn it? My answer never fully satisfied me, so I’d sometimes present others with a hypothetical to explore the issue:
Imagine you have a need to burn, a need stronger than any drive for food, drink, sleep, sex — anything — and you’re locked in a room with two objects: a dried elephant shit and the Mona Lisa. Which sounds more thrilling to burn? Almost everyone answered with the latter, and that made me feel better. There was nothing wrong with me — I was just like everyone else!
That was one of many feeble rationalizations I made for my actions.
I drove from the museum with a bad comedown. The sustained ecstasy of watching flames lick at beauty seems to exhaust whatever neurotransmitters are involved in the experience of positive emotions, inevitably resulting in a state of mind I’d readily trade for physical torture.
I found my partner in the kitchen, a gorgeous dinner on the table. Jen was incredible, always doing little things like waking me with little angel kisses on my neck, and bringing me coffee — in bed! — to get me going in the morning. I truly treasured her, but in that moment I was trapped in the prison I feared most: the frigid, lightless emotional cavern I always found myself in after a burn.
“You got back late today,” she said over dinner.
Do I have a curfew, Mother? “I wanted to stop by the art museum.”
“How was that?”
“Crazy. One of the works caught fire.”
“Daris, it’s been what, six months since that fire when you were at the botanical gardens? Sometimes I wonder if you’re a firebug.”
I forced a smile.
“Was everyone okay?”
“Yeah.” I poked at my food. I’m not a bad guy, after all. “And how was your day?”
“Pretty good,” she said. “I introduced my students to the periodic table.”
God help them.
“What are your plans for tomorrow?” Jen asked.
“I have to be at the station at seven. Then I’ll clean equipment and wait for a fire.” Same as every day at the station.
“How do the guys like the new engine?”
“Same as the last one, just shinier. Quarter-million taxpayer dollars for the same effect as a five-dollar can of wax.” I gazed at my warped reflection in my spoon and fought the urge to gouge my eyes out on the off-chance pain might distract me from the slithering shadow hollowing my guts.
Jen walked around the table, straddled my lap, and whispered in my ear. “Scott’s sleeping over at a friend’s tonight. Whatever’s bothering you, can I cheer you up?”
I just sat there, my hands hanging limp to each side of my chair. Most times I’d respond by carrying Jen to the bedroom with a horny teenage grin on my face, but how could even the most passionate sex compare to the ecstasy I’d just experienced, watching flames lick every inch of that butterfly church window? Months of energy went into that piece, and when those flames danced in climax it was as though the lives of every butterfly, of every moment of time and thought the artist put into his work were all liberated at once so I could bask in that sweltering power.
The only thing I desired right then was escape. That’s the thing about the lows: when one takes hold, you don’t care about anything except getting the high back. And if you know your trigger, you’ll pull it without a thought for where the gun is aimed.
I knew my trigger all too well.
I pushed Jen off my lap. “I can’t do this.”
She tilted her head questioningly. “What do you mean?”
“I mean us. We’re not working. The fire’s gone.”
She just sat there, blinking. “What are you talking about?”
“Do I really have to lay it out? I’m breaking up with you.”
She got off my lap, shaking her head in disbelief. “Are you kidding? You . . . you want to just . . . throw away all we have?”
I shrugged. “I don’t feel anything for you. What do you want me to do, fake it?”
“I want you to tell me what’s wrong so we can fix it! You don’t junk a car just because it has a flat tire!”
The friction kindled a small fire inside me. Its flickering light warmed the cavern ever so slightly.
I stoked it. “It’s not just a flat tire. The other three are blown, axles are broken, engine’s shot. We’re totaled, not worth fixing. In other words, time to find a new ride.”
She just stood there, mouth hanging open, tears of betrayal welling in her wide eyes.
Did I have issues? Uh, yeah. But anger? That was Jen’s specialty, and as her shocked, pained expression slowly morphed into a glare of primal fury, I knew it was about to be on full display. She grabbed a glass from the table. Grinning with anticipation, I rolled out of my chair to feel it whiz past my head and shatter against the wall behind me.
“What about Scott? You’re a father to him!”
“Eh, just a stepfather.”
I ducked another glass.
Even in that moment I knew how lucky I was to have Jen. We had something truly precious, which is why I suddenly felt so fiercely alive. I’d pulled my trigger.
I was burning something beautiful.
Adrenaline cascaded through me as I ran down the hallway to her bedroom. A little metal picture frame sailed over my shoulder and stuck in the door at the end of the hall like a ninja star. I skidded to a stop in front of her bedroom door and slipped inside.
“Pitcher!” I shouted, slamming the door shut. My heart throbbed in my ears.
“Pitcher!” I repeated, egging her on as I turned the lock. “Your student-teacher softball game . . . ” I was so wired I started gasping for air. “I vote . . . you for . . . pitcher!”
It sounded like a banshee shrieking through the door. The handle shook, went silent. I snatched a bag from the closet and started collecting a few belongings.
The door was one of those decorative ones with a glass oval in the center — this one had a peacock design. As I packed my things, the bird flew inward in a shower of glass shards. Jen’s eyes were so crazed my knees locked up in fear. She used her teacher of the year trophy to beat away the glass still stuck around the edge. It felt like The Shining — I half expected her to poke her head through the hole, grin maniacally and say, “Here’s Jenny!”
I grabbed what I’d packed, decided I could afford to buy a new toothbrush, and ran to the window. As I straddled the frame, I paused to look back. Jen’s hand reached through the hole in the door, found the inner lock. Crazy as it sounds, I wanted to linger. It was like a horror movie, where even though you’re terrified you can’t stop watching because you just have to see what happens next and your adrenaline-fueled heart is rattling your ribcage and you know what? It feels good. You feel alive.
But when that door opened I knew any more lollygagging might permanently end the whole feeling alive thing. I leapt to the ground and looked up to see Jen’s teacher of the year trophy spin end-over-end out the window. Thing probably flew fifty feet before it clattered in the street. Jen’s tear-streaked face emerged a moment later.
“Screw the school league. You belong in the majors!”
The next day, I could not meet my own eyes in the mirror. I cried, tried to call Jen, to apologize, to patch things up. No answer. When I burn a bridge, I really torch it. It’s a skill that comes with practice. Whenever I find myself trapped in that lightless, godforsaken cavern, I panic and do the one thing I know will light the way out: I start a fire. The more precious the fuel, the brighter the flame.
The worst part? Jen wasn’t collateral damage. She was the target. I chose to burn her, just for the perverse high I knew I’d get, watching a cherished relationship turn to ash.
Nobody deserves that, Jen least of all. And I didn’t just burn her; I pissed on the ashes. It made me sick. Knowing that I eventually hurt everyone in my life, I decided I didn’t deserve love, and made a solemn vow to never let myself grow close to another person.
That lasted about a month.
The worm named Loneliness crawled inside me, gnawing at my gut. Too weak to endure, I begged Jen to take me back. This time I got a response: she told me to piss off, to stay out of her and Scott’s life. Stubborn wart that I was, I persisted, explaining that I was just in a really dark place that day, that I never meant any of it, that if she would just forgive me I would never hurt her or Scott again. Sublime, forgiving woman that she was, Jen finally yielded, making it abundantly clear this was my last chance.
That year was one of the worst fire seasons on record. I spent all summer on an enormous wildfire complex in another state. Every time the incident commander declared it contained, it flared back up. Usually somewhere near me. Strangest thing.
Things with Jen were good again, and the moment I walked into our home at the end of fire season, I felt lighter, as if her absence had been a weight on my shoulders.
“Welcome home, Sweets.” She wrapped her arms around my neck, melting me with a kiss.
I heard the pitter-patter of Scott’s feet on the tile before he turned the corner. “Daddy Daris!” He ran into me, hugging my legs.
“Hey, boss.” I rubbed the top of his head, noticeably taller than when I’d left. “I brought you something.” I reached into my pack and pulled out a white box.
Jen raised an eyebrow.
“Incendiary grenades,” I explained. “Thought we’d light them off on Scott’s birthday.”
Scott’s eyes lit up.
Jen’s did not. “We’ll let Daddy Daris hang onto those, okay?” She turned to me, glared, and twisted my nipple so hard I yelped.
We spent a long time reuniting. Afterward, we curled up in each other’s arms, my nose in her tangled hair, wondering if I could bottle her smell. I’d drown the world in it.
“How’re your students?” I whispered.
“They’re great. Smart, engaged, hardworking. A joy to teach. And I’m getting a raise right before our wedding.”
I took her hand and rubbed the ring I’d bought her, reflecting for a moment how ridiculous it was that after my resolution to never grow close to anyone I could hurt, I’d made a vow to spend my life with the very person I’d wounded so deeply I’d felt the need to make that resolution in the first place. Didn’t make much sense, but love often doesn’t. I just knew I loved Jen, and that I’d do whatever it took to make things work.
“That fire you were on has been all over the news. They’re saying it’s the largest in recorded history. Incredible that no homes burned.”
“Amazing, right?” I’m not a bad guy, after all. “Hey, I’m gonna go read for a bit.” I kissed her cheek, threw on some sweats, and went into the living room to grab a collection of poems.
People are often surprised to learn how many wildland firefighters are literature lovers. I think they see us as strange wilderness animals who make our beds in ashes, rarely shower, and suffer from absurd fixations with facial hair and chainsaws. Okay, all that is true. But the most universal item we bring from one fire to the next? Books.
I sprawled on the couch, dove into a collection of William Carlos Williams, and let his words play music on my heartstrings. Then I read these lines from “Waiting.”
When I am alone I am happy.
. . . The sky is
flecked and splashed and wound
with color . . .
When I reach my doorstep
I am greeted by
the happy shrieks of my children
and my heart sinks.
I am crushed.
Nine short lines of poetry brought my world crumbling down. As soon as I read them, I knew that was my future with Scott and Jen: a life of suffocating domesticity in which Jen would demand I change careers to spend more time with her and family she wanted to build. And I knew that once I gave up the fire-flecked skies of my chosen career — the only healthy outlet I had for my needs — I would resent my family every moment I came home to them, for smothering my greatest passion until it breathed its last sad wisp of smoke.
Eviscerated by a poem, I went to the kitchen and wrote a note.
I cannot be a husband or a father. I’m out, this time for good. Be gone for some time. Will collect my things later.
I felt hollow, cold, as I pinned the letter to the fridge. Fiending for something to warm me, I jumped into my truck and drove to the city’s outskirts. When the pavement ended, I parked and hiked toward a lone hilltop from where I’d have a good vantage of my waiting canvas.
Here I stand. An avalanche of flame crashes down the wooded slopes around me. The world screams in orange. My flames reach the homes marking the city’s edge and rise up in the cresting wave of an infernal tsunami that curls over sleeping rooftops, poised to descend and destroy.
Here I stand, face to face with the glowing truth of what I am. I’m not just dependent on fire. I am fire. All I’ve ever done is destroy, just for the hot thrill that lifts my spirits when I’m too weak to endure uncomfortable emotions. Like now, when I’m so terrified of facing my fear of commitment I’d burn those I love most. Along with hundreds of homes and all the people inside them.
I fall to my knees and weep, grateful for cold tears that blur the scene before me, the proof of what I am.
I am not a good person. I never have been.
There are certain fires that burn so ferociously they cannot be extinguished with water. There is only one way to slay such a monster.
You must fight fire with fire.
I rise to my feet and wipe my eyes, knowing what I must do. With a flick of the wrist, my murderous wave retreats from the city, crashing into a roiling red sea. I extend an arm and from the angry ocean slithers a snake of aposematic red-and-yellow stripes, so large it fully encircles the base of the hill I stand atop. The serpent begins to climb, at first sidewinding upslope, then constricting around the summit’s waiting meal.
The tears on my cheeks begin to evaporate. The superheated air will soon sear my lungs, filling them with fluid. Drowning in fire. It’s almost funny. But that’s not how I want to go. I put my mouth to the ground, where the air is cooler. I don’t want to drown. I want to scream as I burn, like the trees around me. Like all the people I’ve hurt.
The serpent shrieks, spitting sparks as it constricts around me. Just as my skin starts to blister, something I didn’t think possible happens.
Fire disobeys me.
I stare above in disbelief. The flames that should be consuming me instead avoid me, doming overhead to meet in a cool blue vortex that dances into the night sky.
Then, they attack.
Twin tendrils of twisting white flame emerge from the dome. The piercing strands bore into my ears. I shout, try to pull them from my head, but my hands just go through the cool plasma.
We are bound.
I used to think the story of Moses hearing a voice from a burning bush said more about the power of desert hallucinogens than anything else. I’m not so sure anymore.
Yet you never understood me. You see only my destructive power, appreciating none of my gifts to warm, to cleanse, to light the dark. And as long as you use me for your selfish needs, you will burn everyone around you. Tonight, you have finally realized this. But there lies another path. Reject me, and I will sever our connection.
Yes! I scream inside my head. I want nothing to do with you!
I am part of you, Daris. If you choose this path, I must tear myself from you. Burning alive will be nothing compared to the pain this will cause. If you survive, you will be scarred forever. Yet if you desire a future with your family, you must give me up.
I think of my love for Scott and Jen. Of a future in which I don’t hurt them. I want them, more than I’ve ever wanted anything.
If you beg me to stop, I will. But know this: like cutting off a pinned limb, if you make it partway yet lack the resolve to endure, you will be even worse off than you are now, for you will not only still be trapped, you will also be horribly wounded. You must be sure.
I have never been so certain.
With a thunderous rumble, the dome of flame around me darkens from blue to the black of ocean in a storm. The tendrils in my head extend, probing through my body.
Then, I burn.
A ball of white fire flares to life in my gut. I scream, but I do not tell it to stop.
It grows, filling my abdomen, swelling into my chest. It’s burning me alive, from the inside out. Vomit joins the screams from my mouth. I double over, clutching my stomach, and then the pain is not just there but everywhere. I cannot survive this. I must stop it.
Scott and Jen flash into my mind, reminding me that if I give up, I will survive only to inflict my misery on them. If this pain kills me, at least they’ll be safe. The world will be better off. I curl into a ball, hug my knees and cry and scream and thrash and puke for what feels like forever.
Finally, at the end of eternity, the voice comes again.
Tonight, after a life of sacrificing others to serve yourself, you have sacrificed yourself for those you love. For this I will grant one final favor. Goodbye, Daris.
Arms of flame emerge from the dome. One merciless hand pries open my mouth. Another reaches inside. I gag as the hand slides down my throat, every fiber of my body rejecting it, but the other arms pin me against my heaves and I fear I will break my back as fingers grasp the fire in my heart and pull. I throw back my head and scream a whorl of black flame that shoots into the vortex above with the sound of a jet engine until I’m on the verge of passing out and I want to beg it to stop but I’m so close I just need this fucking fire out of me!
I gasp for air, for the piece of my soul that’s been wrenched from my body. I’m eviscerated, left with a cold emptiness that I fear will kill me if I cannot fill it.
For the first time in my life, I know it need not be filled with destruction.
I crawl from the smoking hilltop, screaming as I burn my hand on the remains of a tree I torched. I force myself to my feet and stagger down the hillside. At the bottom, I cool my hand in a creek and wash the soot, spit, tears, and vomit from my face. My mind is a mess. I can think of only one thing. But it’s all I need to keep going.
I hobble past a fire engine, onto pavement, and into my truck. I speed home, hoping that maybe, just maybe, I can get there before Jen finds the horrible, cruel note I left.
I stumble through the front door, into the kitchen, and freeze. The space on the fridge where I left the note is blank. I swallow, close my eyes. The emptiness swells, threatening to devour me. The TV blares a cold, hollow voice — a psychologist on the news claiming that under stress, mass hysteria can develop as people convince each other they saw impossible things. Like schools of fish leaping from flames and infernal serpents the size of mountains.
Jen’s voice comes from our bedroom. “I know, it’s terrible . . . I can’t believe it either . . . ”
I have no idea how I can take that note back. But I have to try.
“I’ll call you back.” Jen emerges into the kitchen. “What is wrong with you, Daris?”
“Everything. But I want to get better.”
She raises an eyebrow, then points to a dark discoloration on the floor in front of the fridge. A dustpan holding a handful of ashes sits beside it. “You can’t just burn things on our kitchen floor!”
For a moment I just stand there blinking, confused. As I look up from the floor to the empty space on the fridge, it hits me. Fire’s last favor. “I’m profoundly sorry.”
“Sometimes I swear you’re a firebug.” Jen shakes her head. “How was the night call? I just got off the phone with the Pattersons — they said right as the fire was about to burn their home the flames stopped, waited in place like they were struggling with second thoughts, then turned back the way they’d come. And people are reporting even stranger things on the news. Did you see any of that craziness?”
“Uhhh . . . yeah. It was a weird night.” I throw my arms around her, bury my face in her hair, wet it with my tears.
She returns my hug. “Ahh, smoke, the fireman’s cologne. Will you have to go back out for mop-up?”
“I’m not going anywhere.” I squeeze her tight to my chest. The void left by fire’s withdrawal is still there, and I suspect it always will be, but I drink in Jen’s smell, absorb her warmth, and already these simple things ease the emptiness.
Scott walks into the kitchen, sees my tear-streaked face. “What’s wrong, Daddy?”
I choke back a sob. “Nothing, bud. Come here,” I croak, waving him over. And as I pull him into our family embrace, an urge overwhelms me.
An urge not to burn, but to build.
About the Author
Christoph Weber is a former firefighter, now a writer and tropical fruit orchardist in Hilo, Hawaii, a town so rainy he couldn’t start a wildfire if he wanted. Probably. He hasn’t tried.
Christoph’s short fiction has appeared in Nature, VICE’s Terraform, and won the Writers of the Future Award. For more of his work, including an in-progress trilogy that resurrects Neanderthals and other de-extincted hominins, follow him at christophweber.com
About the Narrator
Dave Robison is an avid Literary and Vocal Alchemist who pursues a wide range of creative explorations. A Brainstormer, Keeper of the Buttery Man-Voice, and Eternal Optimist, Dave’s creative ADHD ensures that he’ll have a half-dozen projects going at any given time. His dulcet tones have narrated dozens of stories for Escape Artists, Inc. and he’s currently shepherding several projects including Archivos (https://www.archivos.digital)