by Scott T. Barnes
The Witch Fire waltzed across California and destroyed 1650 houses, sweeping across much of the same ground the Cedar Fire had blackened four years earlier. The farmer's fence posts burned and his fences fell. His barn crumpled and his burned-out tractor looked like the husk of an insect. A blown up transformer was blamed for the initial blaze, but that couldn't account for the half dozen or so copycat fires which sprang up throughout Southern California.
Spirits? No one thought so at the time.
The farmer attended the inevitable conference.. More fire trucks said the fire chief. More money, said the senator. A new helicopter, promised the supervisor, and people applauded.
The farmer cornered the supervisor after the meeting. “Your father was a farmer,” said the farmer. “You know that a helicopter won't stop a fire if the wind blows.”
She eyed his $150 suit and his weathered hands. She nodded.
“Why don't you graze the public lands? Why don't you thin the trees and build fire breaks like before?” He controlled his passion with difficulty. He hadn't heard a word about reducing fuel loads during the whole conference.
“Prevention,” she said, rolling the word around her mouth as though it had a curious taste. She brushed a strand of silvery hair from her eyes. She had been a supervisor for 23 years. “Prevention doesn't accomplish anything. No photo ops, no user fees, no votes from the fire unions. Nothing.”
The farmer understood. He decided to vote for her come November, given her honesty.
The fire department got a new helicopter and user fees went up another $25 per residence. The scrub oak sprouted twenty suckers each while Manzanita seedlings bounded from the earth like locusts. Grass grew three feet tall and nothing ate it, being as most of the grazing animals had perished. In April the farmer bought a gallon of Chopper woody plant herbicide. In the sprayer on the back of his Suzuki Quad he mixed one pint Chopper with 25 gallons of water – enough to spray an acre.
His wife kissed him as he left the house.
He parked above the brush-filled canyon behind his farm and began spraying. Everywhere he walked puffs of soot danced about his rubber boots. The charred Manzanita bushes resembled the masts and rigging of skeleton ships heeling in a storm. They left black slashes on his white, disposable spray suit. Soon he looked like the victim of an unfortunate flogging and smelled an odd combination of ash, must, and chemical spray. He wondered if he would have to shampoo twice to remove the smell from his sandy hair.
The farmer could only drive downhill; for the Quad would topple going uphill with the heavy sprayer on the back and driving crossways would roll it even easier. He stopped every 25 feet or so, uncoiled his hose and sprayed the chaparral in a circle around the vehicle, then moved on. At the bottom of the canyon an old prospector's road wound back to the top where he could begin again 25 feet over. He avoided spraying the sage. Their stalks formed pretty, foil-like spires and their aroma reminded him of his mother's stew. He also avoided the wild peonies, which had no fragrance, and the California poppies with their bone china branches and buttercup flowers like a tea set for fairies.
The Chopper smelled vaguely like diesel and the more he sprayed the more overwhelming the smell became, so the farmer was surprised when he caught a whiff of a lovely cherry-tobacco aroma. He glanced about, looking for its source and saw instead a white pickup trundling down the prospector's road. It parked and a heavyset man wearing overalls climbed from the driver's side. The farmer began coiling up his hose to go investigate.
An orange flash sparked near his feet. He thought the Quad's exhaust pipe had ignited the grass. He spun the spray nozzle, squeezed the handle and soaked it. A spark shot up and snapped his pressure hose in two. Chopper rained everywhere and the hose leapt about like an angry viper.
“Hey!” the farmer exclaimed, disconnecting the pump before his entire tank drained. The hose flopped down.
“Serves you right.”
The farmer squinted through his safety goggles. He had to take them off to see properly. The voice had come from the grass near his feet – there. Standing on a gopher mound stood two insects. Or at least insect was the word which first came to mind. The yellow moth gestured angrily while the orange June bug simply glared. He appeared to have a wet stogie in his mouth.
“What the hell are you thinking?” said the June bug.
“I…I don't know. Not really, no, humph, what?” garbled the farmer. He composed himself with a deep breath, and then asked, “Who are you?”
“I'm asking the questions,” the June bug said.
“Yeah,” piped his companion. “Like he says.”
“I…I'm…my name is…”
“Is this some kind of joke?” the bug continued. “You call the fire bugs then douse them with…” he appeared to sniff his fore-legs. “Diesel? Hey, not bad.” He snapped his forelegs together and a yellow spark jumped into the grass. It fizzled and died with the sound of French fries going into the fryer. He snapped his forelegs together a second time and another spark jumped with the same result. He scuttled around in a circle and fluttered his wings. He looked extremely displeased.
“I better be able to get this off me,” threatened the moth. He sniffed under his wing. “I ain't reeking like diesel in the morning without even a flame to show for it.”
“Where did you learn English,” asked the farmer, “with a New Jersey accent?”
“Genius answered his own question,” the bug said, coming to a standstill. “What are you, Einstein?”
The insects turned towards each other in sudden understanding. “This ain't the guy,” the moth said.
“I know this ain't the guy,” the June bug replied. “Bookings loused it up again. I put in for Malibu, you know, Barbara Streisand's house? I'd love to torch that joint. I'd give her some Memories…” he belted with a decent vibrato. “But no. They put me in Witch Creek. Who of any note lives in Witch Creek? Where will I get notoriety burning farmer goat-face's barn?”
“Did you burn here last year?” the farmer asked.
“Last year, four years ago. Back in '77 too.”
“And don't forget the times we didn't burn,” the moth added. “The cigarette butts we flicked into the grass which smoldered out, that accident flare that you rolled off the road which petered out like an unhappy marriage. Even the airplane we brought down which blew itself out in the crash.”
“Don't get me started,” said the June bug. He roared with laughter. “That always kills me. Don't get me started.”
“You're so good,” laughed the moth.
“I studied agriculture in Fresno State,” said the farmer, “but they never mentioned talking insects.” He began coiling his hose. “No one would believe me anyway. I'll just go home and repair this so I can continue spraying.”
“Now that's where you're wrong,” said the June bug. “We can't let you walk away from here.”
The farmer began to feel rather annoyed at these bugs preparing to burn his farm with such nonchalance.
If he were the violent type he might have stomped on them right there. He swallowed his anger and said,
“I'm sure you have lots to do. You must be working very, very hard to burn me out a fourth time. You should think about retirement. Take a rest.”
“Let's incinerate him,” said the moth.
“Oh yeah. The Rule.”
The June bug pulled a fresh stogie from under his wing and whacked off the end with his blade-like foreleg.
The farmer bent to retrieve his broken hose. He didn't really want to turn his back on the strange insects but he didn't want to hang around either. Maybe he should tell his wife to hook the generator to the pump so they would have water pressure even if the electricity went out. These two seemed dangerous.
Maybe he should have read more Tolkien – did Tolkien ever write about Fire Bugs? Maybe then he'd know what kind of a crazy rule the bugs were talking about.
He decided to bluff. “If you would stop trying to burn me out you wouldn't have so many rules. You could spend all day doing what you want to do – or better yet, doing nothing.”
“The Golden Rule,” said the June bug with a sagacious bow, “no spontaneous combustions in front of witnesses.”
“Right,” said the moth, springing into the air to flutter like windblown ash. “Witnesses.”
The farmer straightened. “Witnesses?” he asked.
A shovel loomed in the corner of his eye then the ground dove to meet him.
“Wake up, buddy. We've been thinking about what you said.”
The farmer opened one eye. He became aware of several things at once. His limbs tingled like the veins had been drained of blood and filled by crawling ants. His legs were bent behind him and secured to his arms behind his back. He lay on his belly, bent backwards like a mockery of a tortoise. A brown haze concealed the sun and his throat scratched. The back of his head throbbed where the shovel had hit it and the side of his face was scraped raw.
He strained and managed to raise his head. A semi-circle of flames kindled the chaparral below him. The overall-man had done his work. But the good news: he was secured with his own spray hose. It was tight – the overall man must be strong – but a hose ties a clumsy knot. The farmer could certainly wiggle free if he had time.
But the fire was only fifteen feet away.
“Hey, I'm talking to you,” the June bug said.
A wave of heat rolled over the farmer's face as a cascara bush lit up. He could barely make out the man in overalls jumping into the cab of his pickup truck, grinning fiercely. He saluted the farmer then drove away.
“Arson-boy has been working us to death,” said the June bug, gesturing to the retreating pickup. “We figure you can get us out of this.” He held forth a sheet of paper covered with fine print.
The farmer blinked. “The arsonist has a contract with you?”
“Not the arsonist, Einstein, the fairy supervisor. Legal language tighter than a caterpillar's molt-day epidermis.”
The cascara sizzled and hissed. The farmer tried to wiggle his fingers and failed; the hose had cut his circulation completely. Escape, he saw, was impossible. He said a quick prayer for his wife and the farm. A long list of accomplishments he hadn't gotten around to threatened to overwhelm him, but he pushed it aside.
Focus on the present, he thought. My wife needs me alive.
He licked his cracked lips. “I'm no lawyer,” he said.
“You got one shot,” said the June bug. “Find a loophole or die.”
“Yeah,” said the moth, “like a mosquito in a bug lamp.”
The farmer nodded. He read as best he could given the smoke and discomfort – no, the agony – of being hog-tied. The fire rumbled like a crowd before a riot. Loud, he thought, louder than he could have imagined.
The June bug lit up a stogie and blew cherry cigar smoke into his face. “Take your time,” said bug. “I feel a nice warm front moving in.”
The farmer read everything twice to be sure, and then finally dropped his forehead to the sand.
“Well?” asked the bug.
“Retirement is impossible.”
“Let's get outta here,” said the moth. “We'll make sure the house burns this time.”
“One way out,” the farmer managed to say.
“Keep talking,” said the bug. “You got about thirty seconds.”
The farmer managed a nod. He whispered his plan.
The moth launched a few sparks which ripped the hose into pieces. The farmer wiggled his knees.
The fire roared through an elderberry.
A few seconds more – the fire screamed – and the farmer crawled to freedom.
He hiked the prospector's road with the fire bugs sitting on his shoulder. The flames roared uphill towards the house he had built for his family. The bugs admired the whirling fire Dervish and the wind storm it created. Soon the farm was obscured by smoke.
Miraculously, whenever the wind shifted and he glimpsed his roofline, it appeared intact. He lumbered to a jog, panting and gasping through the smoke. He prayed his wife had evacuated in time.
But she hadn't. She was wielding a garden hose when he staggered up the drive. He grabbed a shovel and threw dirt over smoldering leaves. The bugs disappeared as the fight began and nearly he could forget about them. Only later did he realize that they had lain down to take a nap in the depths of his trouser pocket. Again he thought about crushing them, and again his gentle nature forbid it.
By morning it became clear the house would survive. The fields burned again but this time the arsonist was arrested and put away. The farmer never told anyone about the fire bugs, not even his wife. He did, however, develop a most peculiar habit. From that day forward he kept his chimney lit six days a week but never, ever on Sundays, no matter how cold.
It became the fire bugs permanent vacation residence.
His wife thought perhaps he'd gone loopy from the smoke and trauma and had him visit a psychologist. After he successfully identified some ink blobs as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince's birth mark, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz Musical (but not the movie), and whatever intestinal organ his cat managed to filet out of gophers before eating them, the psychologist told her to never mind his odd behavior. Fires are romantic, the doctor said. Why not enjoy them?
So she did. They would pop corn in the chimney in a wire mesh popper. Some kernels would inevitably escape and zing around the living room and the farmer would chase after, laughing, with a water spray bottle. When the carpet once caught fire they put in tile. The flying kernels became a game, like having fireworks in their own living room. Later in the evening, when the fire calmed to a sensible glow the farmer and his wife would snuggle in a blanket, sip Chardonnay and watch the flames consume the black oak rounds. Sometimes the coals seemed to be singing. She found it most romantic indeed and thanked God for the man she had married. But the farmer never wanted to make love there, in case, he said, someone should be watching.
And that was all right.