Storytime with Stidmama

Chapter 108

23 December 2007

Fire was the most frightening thing to the people on the mountain.

Fires could rage out of control in moments, even in winter when things weren't so dry and the air was cooling.

Paul and Peter were concerned. It had been over seven years since the brush woods beyond the fields had been properly cleared. They were the responsibility of the village, but the village council had been reluctant to take the time and energy when trade was so good.

Next year, they said... Next year. But each year, expanding the market or rebuilding a bridge or sending a delegation to a new trading partner took priority. And every year the firebreak grew narrower and less effective.

Adam had railed about it at every meeting and whenever he met with people at the market for years. Ava had smiled sweetly in public, but in private, when she and her friends met over tea and cakes she would express her own concern. Few people in the village remembered the conflagration that had destroyed all but the center of the village, but she and Adam had been newlyweds, just finishing the last touches on their home...

Of course, the fire had taken the house, and most of its contents -- it lay on the far side of the field, near where Peter and Helena had built their home. It had spared Adam's parents' homestead -- barely, and only because all seven boys and most of the farm hands had spent three days, vigilantly stomping, smacking and splashing every spark and cinder that came within thirty feet. They hadn't slept all that time. Ava stood there with them, her slowly swelling middle giving her the courage to fight for their future.

Adam and his brothers had gone on afterward to help defend the village center. While they had been protecting the farm buildings, the fire had skirted them and raced toward the village, the frightened townsfolk running away, leaving only a few hardy and determined merchants and elders to defend their homes. Adam's next younger brother had died, trying to stop the fire from eating through the school's library. He had died in vain. And so had the council chairman, a venerable man who stood bravely in the water line, passing buckets from the well until the smoke and heat overcame him and he collapsed on the steps of the stone meeting hall.

For decades after, the townsfolk had drilled to learn how to fight fires, and the council had sent out a team every spring and autumn to manage the scrublands. They would scour the undergrowth every ten years, cutting and clearing the under growth, planting the open spaces with ground covers that were slow to light. The townsfolk had seen the results several times since then...

A lightning strike would set a part of the forest ablaze, and it would rage until it reached the buffer, then be easily extinguished with damp sacks and hoes.

And no one was hurt, no buildings or crops were lost.

But the townsfolk forgot, and in time the council did, too. Nancy had tried to bring it up in council meetings, as the historian she reminded the villagers of important dates in history. She waxed eloquent on the losses of life and property that would certainly follow if history were allowed to repeat itself.

And her talk fell on deaf ears. And Peter's admonitions and pleas to his neighbors and the other farmers were unheeded. And Adam's insistent speeches were chalked up to the querulous utterances of a frail (though respected) old man.

Gilly had watched it all, and every spring and summer she and the children had helped Peter maintain the hedgerow across the road from the farm. But she knew it was inadequate. And Paul had come home and set to work with a crew of young men as soon as the harvest was in, gradually expanding the safety zone around the houses and yards. But he knew it would only buy some time, it was not going to keep the village or the outlying buildings safe.

Gilly worried, as she worked on her daughter's pillowcases, so many things could go wrong, so many people could be hurt. Why did the village elders not speak up? Was there a purpose?

Or was there a pattern? She hurried next door to ask her mother's advice.

Ava was pleased, as always to see Gilly -- even living next door she sometimes missed her chatter and cheerful smile. Cathy embraced her sister and made tea while Gilly and Ava made small talk at the kitchen table. It was calm, and domestic, and felt good.

But Gilly spoke up, "Mother, I have been worried about the firebreak, and today Paul says he has had a dream..."

Ava nodded. She had been having dreams as well. Cathy set the cups and teapot on the table with some bread and sat down also.

"It worries us, Mother, that the village doesn't see the need to keep themselves safe -- if a conflagration comes down the mountain, they are unprotected. And we are barely assured of even a delay..."

Ava put her hand on Gilly's, "I know. You heard, growing up, from your grandparents, from your aunts and uncles, from the village elders, what it was like the last time. And you grew up helping maintain the firebreaks around the whole village. You know what the last big fire cost our family..."

Gilly's face was solemn. Cathy shifted in her chair, then spoke thoughtfully, "Mother, were there other big fires in the past? I have heard Nancy speak of patterns in history, of ebbs and flows, so often that sometimes it seems like background noise. But I seem to remember that there were other fires, further in the past."

Ava nodded. "Perhaps we can find out, girls." They all smiled. Not often their graying heads were mistaken for children these days!

And Paul walked across the fields to discuss, once again, with Peter how they might expand the firebreak around their farm.