A Puritan Boy at the Fire Line

On the twelfth of August our village caught fire. On the twelfth of August a great fire performed actions that people have always attributed to destructive fires. The fire ripped, tore, the fire blazed, the fire also sacked the village where we lived.

Father went directly to the well pump when he saw the haystack in front of Pipers’ farm go up. Our well pump was old and rusted. It would stick every few pumps. Father swore as he pumped, pumped as he swore, yet the well pump still pumped slowly in its obstinance as the fire in its anger quickened and the fire horses drawing the wagons skittered and quickened.

I stood behind the giant skirt of my mother’s giant dress and watched while men ran with wooden buckets dangling from either arm and water sloshing from either bucket. The road was light brown and darker brown in places where water had been spilled, darker than that in places where building shadows blotted out the light cast by the flames.

One group of men stood before the sundry with axes and shovels urgently digging a fire line. Had I been a bit older I would have grabbed a shovel and joined them, jamming its spade into the road full of light and shadows as during any day the roads are full of light and shadow. Yet this was night and here the road was full of light and shadow, screaming men and horses, dogs for whom hell held no consequence, children watching our tearless and stoic mothers.

“Clearly Indians,” said old man Hadfry as my father and other men carrying wooden buckets ran by, as the fire in its anger quickened, as the fire horses drawing the wagons skittered and quickened.

In our village we enunciated each syllable in “Indians” while blaming them for fires and missing livestock. In other villages they said “Injuns” while blaming Indians for fires and missing livestock, for theft of any sort. “We are better than that,” my mother would often say.

Cal Freeman was born and raised in Detroit. He is the recipient of the Howard P. Walsh Award for Literature, the Ariel Poetry Prize, and the Devine Poetry Fellowship (judged by Terrance Hayes). His writing has appeared in many journals including Commonweal, The Journal, Nimrod, The Cortland Review, Drunken Boat, and The Paris-American. He has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in poetry and creative nonfiction. He currently lives in Dearborn, Michigan and teaches at Oakland University.