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Lest You Be Swept Away

by Lauren Ring

2915 words

“Never look at a flame for so long that it becomes beautiful.”

I was taught that mantra as a child in school, and again as a cadet in the fire academy, but I heard it from my father first. I still remember the urgency in his voice and the way his hands shook as he closed the blackout blinds. I still remember the fear in his eyes.

Above all else, fire is indifferent. It only wants to burn. It will do whatever it takes to gulp down oxygen and race across defenseless dry brush, without malice or regret. It is a cosmic devourer on a human scale, with thick smoke that chokes out the sun and a fierce glow that blots out the stars. It will hypnotize you, swallow you, burn your brain from the inside out.

Fire took my father away. It can never be beautiful to me, and so I am the perfect firefighter.

• • •

This morning, I’m in charge of a controlled burn. A small fire now can save us from disaster later, and monitoring the burn means I don’t have to deal with civilians. While my colleagues pass out filtered wildfire glasses to the commuters stuck in the nearby traffic jam, I head out to the canyon to gather the goats before the wind cancels our plans.

The strengthening breeze plasters my sweaty bangs to my forehead as I climb up the back road to the tallest cliffside. It’s a hot day, and dry, the worst kind of heat. Dangerous.

On the cliff’s sheer face, the fire department’s goats climb as freely as I walk. It does not escape my notice that these goats are more trusted employees than the inmates that make up half our firefighting crew, but I can’t allow myself to think about that. Instead, I focus on the goats themselves. They work hard, grazing on the fire-prone undergrowth to help us clear the cliffs we cannot scale. They are graceful, vital, beautiful.

Although the goats do their best to keep nature’s kindling under control, we still need fire once in a while. Some herbs and flowers thrive under the shock of heat and the taste of ash, fire poppies and whispering bells and all sorts of blossoming phacelia. These fire followers, the good kind, spring up in delicate droves after every wildfire, as if summoned to consecrate the charred earth. They are beautiful like the goats, especially by comparison to the fire that births them.

At the very top of the cliff, watching her goats with an expression both fond and firm, is Cordelia, my favorite goatherd. She turns and greets me with a hearty wave. Cordelia is beautiful too, another thing I cannot think about.

“Is it time already, Emmie?” she asks. “I thought y’all weren’t starting the burn until the afternoon.”

“They’re predicting that the wind will pick up, so we’ve got to start now.” I shove my hands in my pockets, fidgeting with my wildfire glasses, and make an attempt at small talk. “How are your goats today?”

“They’re doing fine, but this dry heat is getting to us all. I’ll be glad if the wind comes. Bluebell here almost fainted on a ledge.” Cordelia gestures to Bluebell, the smallest goat of the herd. She is resting in the shade of a nearby boulder. Her rope lead snakes through the weeds like an unlit fuse.

“Poor girl. Here, I can watch her while you get the others.” I pick up the loose end of Bluebell’s rope and sit atop the boulder as Cordelia calls back the grazing goats. The breeze blows stronger, but it brings no relief, only more hot air. Heat haze shimmers far below us on the gridlocked canyon road. When I squint, an immaterial roiling lake spills out across the asphalt.

Bluebell stands bolt upright, focusing her rectangular pupils on the other side of the canyon.

“What do you see, Bluebell?” I pat her on the back and peer across the canyon, but it’s too bright for me to see anything. Bluebell bleats and strains her legs but stands rigid, as if she is trapped in molten tar. I frown.

“Hey, Emmie?” Cordelia’s herd surrounds her now. Between the goats and the wind and the car horns from the traffic down below, I can barely hear her. “Do you smell that?”

I smell only sunscreen and sweat.

“No, but can you come look at Bluebell?” I call out to Cordelia. The little goat trembles beside me. Her fur is hot to the touch. “Something’s wrong, maybe heatstroke.”

Cordelia heads over to me with her back to the canyon, and that is what saves her.

The scent of the wildfire finally hits me just as I see its flames crest the opposite cliff. It smells familiar, like soot and death. Its hypnotic swirls and eddies lick at my mind with a thousand red-hot tongues, searing their shape into my synapses, tugging me toward the edge. I tear my gaze away.

“Cordelia, look at me,” I say, fixing my eyes on hers and trying to strike a balance between authoritative and comforting. “Keep looking at me. There’s a fire across the canyon. Don’t turn around.”

To her credit, Cordelia barely flinches at the news. Cliffside work isn’t for the faint of heart. Instead, she sets her jaw and marches toward me, urging her goats forward. As the herd crosses Bluebell’s line of sight, the struggling goat relaxes. Her mind has bounced back in the way that Cordelia’s wouldn’t.

“You’re almost here.” My voice becomes gentler now that she is close. I reach out to her, wildfire glasses in hand. “Just a few more steps. I’ve got you.”

Someone screams in the canyon.

Because I don’t look, because I have hardened my heart, I see instead Cordelia’s face as she turns. There is no fear in her eyes. Perhaps this was what Lot’s wife heard in the desert of old, and perhaps her choice to look back was also no choice at all. Perhaps this was what my father heard during that last shift just weeks before his parole. When a truly kind person hears a cry of “help,” they turn, and no threat of salt or flame will stop them. As for me, I don’t turn. I fight.

The goats scatter out of my way as I sprint to Cordelia’s side. I’ve trained to run like this, to race against flame, when every second counts. I slide my filtered glasses over her eyes and hope like hell that I was fast enough.

Screams continue down at the base of the cliffs. Some voices leave the chorus of fear, picked off one by one by the sight of flames above, but there seems to be no end to the panic. I don’t blame them. I screamed too, long ago. Up here atop the canyon, the goats begin to wander off, adrift without their leader’s guidance. Cordelia brings her hands to the glasses, slowly, like her fingers are dragging through lava.

“Emmie?” She tilts her head toward me. Recognition is an excellent sign, and she’s turned away from the fire. For a moment, I think I’ve protected her entirely, but then a rapturous smile spreads across her face. “Oh, Emmie, I just saw the most beautiful thing…”

• • •

I have no idea how many goats made it back to the station with us. All my attention was spent on guiding the half-entranced Cordelia, keeping the glasses on her face and urging her forward to the firehouse.

Her smile does not waver even as I place her in one of the station’s dark rooms, the chilly, windowless kind we keep empty for afflicted firefighters. When I take back my glasses, I can see that her eyes are alight with joy and memory. Cordelia will have a long road to recovery, and she may never fully shake the thrall of fire, but at least she is not dead or dying in the burn ward. At least she is not a charred pillar atop the cliff.

Sweet little Bluebell presses her nose into my palm as I check for civilian reports from our corner of Orange County. I need to get out there and face the fireline, but first, I must know the size and shape of my death.

The wildfire is small but spreading fast. With the wind and the aridity and my fellow firefighters caught far from their gear, I find myself in the peaceful eye of a perfect storm. If the flames leap the highway, as they have in the past, even the station itself could be at risk. There’s no use waiting to see if anyone makes it back from the traffic jam.

I sound the alarm. The goats flee into the depths of the station and circle back again, helpless against the noise and light. They echo the blaring of the klaxon with their distinctive wavering screams. In the midst of this, the fire chief steps out of the barracks, shifting seamlessly from drowsy to alert.

“What’s the situation, Hernandez?” he asks, reaching for his uniform and visored helmet. “Did your burn break containment?”

“Didn’t even get a chance to start it, sir.” I start pulling on my gear. “Something ignited over by the mountains. I’m assuming zero containment, and the rest of the crew is stuck in the canyon. We could be looking at a mass follower incident.”

The chief nods and looks over my shoulder, assessing my thrown-together sighting map. Bluebell chews on one corner of the paper.

“And the goats?” he asks. I grimace.

“I was with the goatherd when we spotted the flames. Didn’t get to her fast enough. She’s in a dark room for now.”

“Good call. Can you handle setting the fireline?” The chief tries not to be fatherly, but I can see the urge to comfort me simmering behind his eyes. The similar circumstances to those of my father’s death are undeniable. When the firestorm hit, his sentence was almost through. The inmate firefighters were the only team close enough to respond. He loved his work, but sometimes a choice is not a choice.

“I can handle it.” I flip down my visor and march out into the blazing light, trusting the chief to back me up by coordinating the county’s response. I leave Bluebell, and I leave the transfixed creature that was once Cordelia, and I do not turn back.

Through the dim filter of my helmet, I can see that a massive fireline has formed across the highway. Civilians make up most of the line, but I can see a few of my colleagues too, caught unaware when the blaze crested the hills. They are safe in the canyon in the same way that tea in a kettle is safe from drinking. They have not become fire followers yet.

Unlike the rooted blossoms of their namesakes, human fire followers are fiercely mobile. Nothing can stop them from steadily tracing the path of the nearest flames. Nothing except the fire itself, of course, because flesh is only flesh and bone is only bone. To set the fireline, we need to make sure that these people don’t get in our way. It’s an ugly task with an ugly purpose.

I glance at the flames atop the cliff, shielded from their effects by my helmet. The fire’s rate of spread is worse than I thought. The wind continues to strengthen, whipping embers through the brush while the flames start their slow descent to the highway. As I leave the firehouse alarm behind me, its clamor is replaced with the familiar whine of engine sirens, climbing to a fever pitch as all the stations in striking distance respond to the chief’s call. Help is coming. They’re counting on me to clear the way.

It feels strange, almost sacrilegious, to run towards a fire empty-handed. Only my uniform sets me apart from the yearning masses trapped at the base of the canyon. If I just looked a little longer, I could join them. I could finally understand how hot a brain must burn to choose flames over life.

No one in the fireline notices when I stumble breathless onto the highway. They’ve left their cars and taken up watch all along the asphalt, parents with children, fathers with daughters. They don’t notice each other, either. They just watch the fire.

I’m not ready when the first one blooms. The man is half my size, scrawny, but you wouldn’t know it from how fast he moves. He bolts for the cliffside and starts climbing up to meet the blaze. I steel myself for what I am about to do, and then I go to the man and push him face-first into the flames.

This protocol is a kinder, faster fate. It’s the death I would have wanted my father to have, not the prolonged agony of the burn ward. Besides, the thing they dragged away and bandaged up and locked away — that wasn’t my father anymore. Not on the inside.

I maintain the fireline until the engines pull up.

“Good work, Hernandez,” my coworker Monroe calls from the cab of our station’s engine. He and Silvia, in the passenger seat, are wearing the unmistakable orange uniforms that mark them as members of the inmate fire camp. The same uniform my father wore.

Now that my backup has arrived, we can at least try to fight for the remaining victims, the ones who are still standing joyfully in line. We cover their eyes with filtered glasses and tuck them back into their cars even as we uncoil hoses and chop through dry bushes. I grab an axe and set to carving out a break at the base of the cliff. If we can starve this fire, we might be able to make a stand here.

As I hack away at the undergrowth, though, I see smoldering embers sail past me with each gust of wind. They land on cars, on people, on asphalt. Our luck won’t hold for long.

Just as I activate my intercom to warn the others, a commotion breaks out behind me. Several members of the fireline have started moving at once, tripping over hoses and firefighters alike in their desperate rush toward the fire. One woman pushes me forward with such force that I fall against the burning cliffside. There is a dull crunch as my helmet strikes solid rock.

It takes me a moment to get my bearings again. I had been facing the fire, but I have fallen and turned and I am still facing the fire, and now it is also behind me and above me.

When I see firefighters running for their engines, I realize that the wildfire has jumped the highway. Flames streak up the opposite cliff, consuming everything the goats didn’t manage to clear. Fire followers spring into action all around me like popping corn. In the distance, I hear superheated gas tanks explode.

The fire is everywhere now. Its seductive force is inescapable. Firefighters halfway into their cabins go still and stare even as their drivers stomp on their pedals and speed away. I grit my teeth and run for something, somewhere, but I don’t know where my engine is. There’s nowhere I can look that is not ablaze and I know that even I must have my limits. Still, it’s not beautiful yet.

I stumble forward, ignoring civilians and cars alike. Bodies litter the ground, some charred beyond recognition, some only knocked unconscious as the wildfire greedily sucks up oxygen. I keep moving, but I can’t see the cliffs anymore. I can’t even see the sky.

A firefighter emerges from the chaos and raises a hand as if to greet me. Their uniform is inmate orange.

“Monroe?” I cry out through the intercom, squinting at the firefighter’s badge through the smoky haze. Even the flames reflected on that superheated brass are too much for my dazzled mind. I shut my eyes as I yell. “Silvia? Whoever you are, get out now. There’s nothing left.”

I feel the heat on my face, on my back, in my lungs. Violent red fire-light floods through my visor and my eyelids, overpowering every filter I have at my disposal. I open my eyes again to see the firefighter standing directly in front of me. Staring at me.

The flames close in. I gasp for air, choking on acrid smoke, and fight the fire with the last of my strength. The other firefighter burns, and I know it, and I know him, and I know the burning. I fight the fire, and I do not look at him — I listen to my father and I do not look at the firefighter but my father is the fire and I am the fighter and he says let me see your face, Emmie—

• • •

We’re cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway with our windows down and the Beach Boys blasting from the radio. The ocean outside is a stunning scenic view, a deep red inferno with golden sparks, glowing hot enough to beat the sun. The high-tide flames surround us. For once, there are no other cars on the road. It’s just me and my father, just as it should be. He smiles at me as I turn the burning wheel, and I smile back beneath the gentle ash spray, blissful and content. There’s nothing to worry about anymore. After all, it’s such a beautiful day.

Lauren Ring (she/her) is a perpetually tired Jewish lesbian who writes about possible futures, for better or for worse. She is a World Fantasy Award winner and Nebula finalist, and her short fiction can be found in venues such as F&SF, Nature, and Lightspeed. When she isn’t writing speculative fiction, she is most likely working on a digital painting or attending to the many needs of her cat, Moomin. You can keep up with her at laurenmring.com or on Twitter @ringwrites.

Issue 38

March 2023

3LBE 38

Front & Back cover art by Rew X

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