I was. That was why I left the shade of the trees and came there, where the wind was made manifest in vast seas of golden sheaves. There, I could remake the land in my own image, if only for a day. Even a single day as a god is a day worth having.
In my village, smothered in the old forest, my command of fire was nothing more than a trade, like the rope-makers or the young women who chewed the hides to make them soft again. I drove off the darkness. I lit the cooking fires and aided the smiths. My portion of respect and power was no greater than theirs.
I suppose I should have been grateful. I had heard enough stories from travelers about places in the world where calling fire would be seen as a disgraceful, alien act. A curse to be shunned or worse. I knew such stories were true, but I could feel the power in me balking at the words. I felt it uncoiling, straining against the narrow confines of my little life and my tradesmen’s lot. “Let them come and try to shame or bind us,” it whispered. “We will burn the world.”
I never said such things aloud. But, each autumn, when I made the three-day hike to the grasslands, then I gave voice to the power inside me. Even before my time the grasses burned most years, touched off by a lightening strike or careless campfire. It was always part of the natural cycle of that place, and for me, it became a calling and place of healing and renewal.
Last year, on the last day of my journey to the forest’s edge and the fields beyond, a rain shower filled the woods with noise, a steady staccato on the canopy above. It didn’t matter. The fields might burn slower, with great clouds of white building like land-bound thunderheads, but burn they would. Nature had its agenda and I had mine.
By the time I reached the edge of the forest, my hands were shaking. Normally, I simply felt uneasy towards the trees; it’s a mix of love and hatred for their potential to burn. But, the closer I got to escape, the more that uneasiness grew to a toxic loathing. When I finally saw the trees thin into scraggy brushland, I found myself tearing off strips of bark and burning it to ash in my cupped hands, just to dull my growing urge to burn every branch and twig within sight.
The heat from my outstretched palms had nearly kindled the frayed edges of my shirtsleeves when I finally pushed through the last of the briar bushes and willowy dogwoods that stitch the forest hills to the grasslands. A wide, shallow stream took a winding course along the boarder between the hills and the grass. Water is rarely a friend to me, but there I happily waded into the waist-high reeds and turned to scowl at the wall of trees. I raised my hands in defiance and half-dared myself to set the nearest trees burning. I imagined a swelling wave of fire that traced its way back to my village, burning the forest and my old life to downy grey ash.
But, while I can make fire, I can’t conjure food or medicine. Clothing or shelter. Companionship or purpose. Like fire, I can’t live on bare stones and earth.
I turned back to the stream and splashed my way toward the amber fields.
“Hello, old friend,” I said with genuine affection as I climbed the bank and reached the first grasses. They rustled and swayed in the gentle breeze as the last big drops of rain signaled the end of the autumn shower. I took it as a good omen.
I found a smooth grey rock and sat. I liked to be at eye-level with the grasses when I began. That way, I could imagine that each blade of grass was the trunk of a mighty tree, and that I was bringing fire to a vast, immeasurable forest.
I rubbed my palms together and began to stretch my fingertips toward the grass. Only once a year was I allowed this pleasure, and I tried to savor it, to be present and deliberate. I paced myself. Trying to call the fire slowly, gradually. I had certainly had enough practice reigning in my talent while lighting tallow candles and heating tea kettles. I could burn the field a blade at a time if I had the patience.
At first, nothing but a few ribbons of pale smoke wound their way up from the closest patch of damp grass. Then I narrowed my eyes and prepared to apply my will until the first tongues of flame appeared.
“Then, it’s true,” said a gravely voice, so near by I rolled right off of my rock in surprise. As I toppled to my side, a heavy net of thick rope with lead weights at each corner hit the stone where I had been seated with a wet thud.
I rolled free of the net and stood to face the thrower. Three men in soldiers’ gear stood not more than twenty feet off, drawing swords.
“The world has no place for your kind!” shouted the closest solider.
“And what kind is that?” I replied. I did my best to keep fear from my voice, but it still came out a little squeaky, I thought. I was no fighter. I wasn’t even trained in basic combat like the other men in the village. As long as I could remember, I was being passed about like flint and tender –a tool. The usual rules and traditions of education and apprenticeship never seemed to apply to me. You don’t train the washpot or the butter-churn. Why train me?
“You, monster, are an unnatural sorcerer. A disciple of evil. We heard news of one such as you in these lands and the villagers whom you have been plaguing told us where to find you!” said the solider. “You will be brought to justice for your crimes!”
“They… they what?” I answered, my mind racing. “What crimes? I heat soup pots and help in the shaping of horseshoes. What crimes?”
My indignation grew as I spoke. I knew that many of the villagers distrusted my gifts. I received more than my share of sidelong glances at gatherings and festivals, and more than once I found children hanging charms to ward off evil on my door, or tucking them into the thatch. I had even seen the miller’s wife toss salt after I had passed. But, I had never expected this.
I was no demon. I had no demonic pact. Fire came when I called. It always had. I spilled no blood and made no oaths. I called fire, and it came. Fire was my ally, and together we had served the village more than most.
“You have been a curse on those simple people and there is no forgiveness for monsters. You’ve already had more of our words and time than you deserve, creature.” With that, the lead solider raised his sword and charged forward.
When I worked with Geoffrey in the smithy, he would often ask me to heat a little section of iron no more than the length of a man’s thumb, to make it supple and malleable. At first it was hard. It would take all of my concentration before the narrow section of metal would glow a dull orange and Geoffrey would continue his hammering. Now, I can heat a bit of metal to a glowing glede with hardly a thought, rather it be a nail or a horseshoe or three sword handles in the hands of three noisy men at arms.
The advancing men screamed in unison and flung their weapons to the ground. Each man stared down at his weapon in shock and horror, as if it was a close friend who had just betrayed him in some hitherto unimaginable way. I smiled. I had never done anything like that before, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t wanted to try it.
“I am not a monster,” I said, finding new strength creeping into my voice. “But, I am also not going to roll over and die for you pack of half-wits.”
The soldiers looked at one another. I could see that some of the resolve had drained from their leader’s face, but in its place I saw a wild-eyed look like a cornered animal darkening his features. He quickly produced a small water-skin from the back of his belt and dowsed the sword handle. It hissed and steamed. Then, he reached down, protecting his hand with the leather of the now emptied water-skin, and reclaimed his weapon.
Whenever I would boil water for a midwife or for old Greta when she was preparing for a feast, I always enjoyed the fact that I could feel the liquid heating. I could feel the tiny streams of bubbles quickening and racing to the surface of the water. It’s hard to explain, but when I call fire I can almost perceive through it. Feel what it feels, in a manner of speaking.
So, if possible, I thought it in my best interest not to simply cook these fools alive. I imagined what I would feel of boiling fat and crackling skin if I loosed unchecked fire on my attackers. I shuddered.
The other soldiers followed their captain’s lead and began emptying their water-skins onto their weapons. I could, of course, just heat the skins themselves, but I knew the longer I toyed with such half-measures and determents the less my chances of survival. I couldn’t hold them off forever. Not like that.
I struck my best “evil sorcerer” pose and gestured menacingly. I felt ridiculous.
“Last chance,” I said, “leave me now or I’ll roast you where you stand.”
The leader of the band gripped his sword with both hands and gave me a look that plainly said, “you won’t have a chance,” and then he leapt forward.
I was never very fast, but I am faster than a man wearing chainmail and trying to swing a sword wrapped in a water-skin. I darted for the grass, just managing to sidestep a sweeping blow that looked more than capable of splitting my head like a rotten log.
I didn’t look back, but the moment I was among the tall grasses I thrust my arms out like wings and screamed for fire. In all my life, I had little more than whispered to fire. Coaxed it. To release all of my will and command the blaze with everything I had was euphoric.
The whole field seemed to be on fire all at once –an ocean of fire. I watched mountains of while-hot light spring up from nothing and overwhelm all the landscape. It was like a new day, a beautiful dawn of flame that made the old day seem like empty night by comparison.
I don’t know how far I ran, moving untouched through the inferno. It seemed like a lifetime. Nor do I remember when my legs gave out and I fell into dreamless sleep.
When I awoke, I was alone in a desert of ash, nearly naked and covered in soot. I didn’t know which way I had come. It didn’t matter. My village had sent those men. It wasn’t a home anymore. I got to my feet and turned in a circle. There was nothing but scorched earth and clouds of pale smoke that drifted aimlessly along the blackened horizon like masterless ships.
A knot grew in my throat, and with it came a thought: What if, in giving up all control, I had burned the whole world? What if that’s what I had always wanted? What if I am a monster?
As if in answer to my question, I heard the far off screech of a hunting kestrel rise and fall somewhere to the north. The world laughed my fears aside. I felt tired and relieved and very small. I wiped the soot from my eyes and started walking. Fire cannot live on bare earth and neither can I.
© March, 2013 Jarod K. Anderson
Jarod K. Anderson is a fan of comic books, John Milton, tattoos, pulp detective novels, herpetology, folklore, video games, and all things sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. Growing up, he wanted to be either a ninja or a maple tree. These aspirations led him to teach college English. Teaching freshman English led him to change careers. He lives in Ohio. You can find him online at: www.jarodkanderson.com.