Published in Issue 11 of Visionary Tongue, Summer 1998.
Nothing had burned in quite some time. So, the Volunteer Fire Department stood empty, fallow. I played in its shadow, which wavered in the heat. It hadn’t rained in weeks.
The building dominated the hill upon which it sat, like a castle. It towered over the entire neighbourhood, and I was its ruler. I clung to the rusty railings on its sides, the ones that reached to the top of its bell tower, its turret. I gave speeches there to all my subjects. Dim light from the building’s dusty windows inspired wonder in me. What went on behind them? The firemen put piles of burned wood behind the station, and I would spend lazy afternoons watching ants eat it.
It was as if I were the lone ant with a whole colony at my disposal, waiting for the colony to return. Because, even a child, as I was, knew that eventually something would burn. The siren would scream and men would come running in droves to solve the problem, to silence the screaming beast that the station was at times.
Until then, the castle was mine.
In the morning, when blue sunlight fell through twin windows in the turret. I drew pictures with sidewalk chalk. Since it hadn’t rained in so long, I had to wipe off the previous day’s drawings or else draw on top of them. As morning turned to noon, I began to enact the stories told in bright colours on the concrete. If I drew astronauts there in chalk then the grounds were my safe haven from alien attack. If dragons, then surely there was a princess in the tower, whose eyes shone even as sunlight through blue marbles. Everything was just so.
By noon I had drawn and conquered whole worlds, and Mom’s lunch time cooking was adequate reward. No one else on Poplar Street had any children, just Mom. Other people brought this fact to her attention often, with concern. She would concentrate on her gardening or turn away from afternoon conversation with the other wives. She would look toward the station, with its sunlit turret burning in the light.
‘Some children are just… solitary,’ she would say, and that was that.
With the colony gone, I was at liberty to make my own ants, thousands if needed. Mine was the right to start wars with them if need be, and then destroy them. I could always remake my playmates, dragons and all.
When lunch was over I had that liberty at hand again. Mom let me go back up the hill to play around the station.
‘Stay where I can see you,’ she would say. She was usually down the hill in the garden in case I needed her.
Mr. Mann always rang the one o’clock siren. Whole worlds burned. Mother could wait; there were things to do. That siren always meant certain peril. The princess was screaming because her wicked Father had locked her up again. Red Alert! Invaders from Planet Moon have arrived — you’d better call Captain Space! The Queen ant was gone; the drones have learned to spar.
Every day at one, I’d run as fast as my little legs could fly to the top of Fire Station hill to finish my play.
‘It’s all good.’ Mr. Mann would say as he descended from the wire box on the turret. He was a black spot way up there, moving slowly downward. ‘As you were,’ he would say, and then drive off in his rusted station wagon. Mom always waved as he passed.
When the battles had all been fought (which sometimes took quite a while) the station was safe again. The Princess was free. The aliens were on the way home and all the drones were working dutifully. When I was certain the place was safe, it was time for marbles. Quite a simple game, really, but I had to finish before sunset.
Mother said it was when the shadows grew. So I put my marble circle inside the shadow of the station. When the turret covered it up completely, I knew it was time to go home. The rules were simple: be the first to knock all the blue marbles from the circle. I usually won.
That was a typical day for me, until the bird fell.
I was playing marbles when it happened, just like any other evening. I was winning. However, even the best contestants sometimes get nervous. I had stopped twelve pirates from stealing Mom’s watering can. This was important because, if the pirates got a hold of it, rain would never come. I thought that these pirates may have caused my upset state. I felt as if someone was watching me. I could feel the other ants’ need to return to the colony. I tried to shake the feeling.
I tossed my shooter marble into the air, which caught the light and sparkled. Three more blue marbles and then I could go home. I heard the ruffling of feathers. I heard the bird take flight. By the time I turned toward the station to see where the bird perched, it was headed toward me.
‘He wants to play my game!’ I screamed. ‘No!’
The bird slapped my chalk circle with the whole of its body. Its bones cracked and all my marbles scattered away. As they spiralled into deeper parts of the station’s shadow, feathers came down to rest on the cooling pavement. The bird was still. Feathers fluttered, marbles rolled. The bird was still – swallowed up, as was the whole affair, by the growing shadow. So, I went home.
‘Don’t touch it,’ Mom scolded ‘Birds are nasty animals.’ Mom was from the South. ‘Nasty’ is a southern word. People like to say it there. I had never been in the South but I knew I wanted to go. People there would ask me what life was like where I’m from, since I’m not from those parts. I would tell them – nasty – and I’d say it in that hushed tone that Mom always used. Then we would all get along.
‘Nasty’ was one of the few words that Mom said in that tone. Nasty, along with ‘different’. She always used that one whenever she spoke about Mister Mann. Even though we both liked him very much, he was still ‘different’, he ‘wasn’t like us’. But those words weren’t nearly as upsetting as the one word she used least and whispered most. There was one word that hurt her to say: ‘Cancer’.
The next day was Saturday. On Saturdays Mom and I always went to Victoria’s house. She lived on the other side of town. Victoria’s Mom and mine discussed things over tea, while we played in the backyard.
‘Why didn’t he get up again?’ Victoria asked several questions after I told her about the bird. I told her everything.
‘He couldn’t get up because he doesn’t have hands to prop himself up with and his legs aren’t really big either.’
Eventually, Victoria lost interest in the bird. She told me that her Mom said, ‘Sometimes everybody falls down. Sometimes they get up and sometimes they don’t. That’s why we have angels.’ Victoria made me promise to remember, because her Mother had made her promise to remember. I promised.
It was very hot. Victoria and I were tired of being outside so we went upstairs to play with her dolls. Victoria had the most magnificent dolls. A corner of her room held a box packed full with their twisted-together little bodies, a whole swarm of them.
Her favourites were the plastic ones. They had clothes that you could change. I could tell which of them she did not like because they were naked. Their clothes had been stolen for Victoria’s favourite dolls. The bad dolls must have been naked for quite a while because some of them had much darker skin than their clothed companions. Light from her window had done that to them. It was so hot and they were naked. The dolls had gotten sunburn; Victoria was mean to them.
I didn’t like those plastic dolls. I liked the larger, stuffed dolls that lived at the bottom of the box. Their clothes were sewn on to them; they could never be naked. They were not plastic so they could not break.
‘Those have big heads,’ Victoria said. ‘I hate them.’ She saw that I had taken a liking to the stuffed boy doll. She let me keep it. He had red hair.
As Mom and I walked home, I heard the siren ring at the fire station, but it was too hot to play. The next day, it was still too hot to play. Mr. Mann didn’t test the siren because it was his day to go to church. His church was all the way on the other side of town, so he never made it to the station on Sundays.
Mom said it was time to start sewing again. Whenever summer was almost over she would sew warm clothes for when it got colder. She said that this year, it was time for me to learn to sew.
‘This is the kind of thing that Mothers teach their children.’ Mom was crying. ‘I know it’s early, but I’m going to have to make your fall clothes, and your winter clothes now, while you’re here, while I can measure you for sizes. I’ll make the winter sleeves longer and then sew them up. Your Father can let them out for you.’ Mom was shaking. She began to water from the eyes so much that she couldn’t see the needle enough to thread it. ‘You’re growing so quickly now!’
It wouldn’t be long before I was the tallest kid on my block. However, it wouldn’t be long before I wasn’t the only kid on my block. The end of summer brings school and I did not want to go to school. Victoria said it was horrible. I wouldn’t even see her there, and I knew that. I wouldn’t see Mom anymore either; I’d be with Dad. The cancer meant that I would have to leave. Mom never really said that, but I knew. I wouldn’t get to play games at the Fire Station once the summer ended. I wished it never would.
‘You are good at sewing,’ Mom said. We practised by making a big coat for my new doll, just like the one Mr. Mann wore.
‘All fire men have big coats’ she explained. ‘It keeps them from burning up in all the fires that they always walk through.’
So, my new doll was a fireman too. He had a big sooty coat. I took him with me to the station the next day. He helped me draw in the morning.
I drew a circus. My red-haired doll watched intently as I scribbled clowns on top of yesterday’s space ships. An old wizard had his beard rubbed off (with help from my doll’s rag-like qualities) and a new hat drawn. There was a ringmaster, with people marching all around the circus tent, like insects ready to crawl away with a treat. I drew lions roaring at the sky. At lunch, I asked Mom if I could have a needle and thread of my own. Instead of marbles, I wanted to play with making more clothes for my new doll. He would need to stay extra warm when winter came. Mom agreed. She gave me a very big, very dull needle with a large eye and really thick thread, just for me.
I got back to the station just in time to see Mr. Mann climb so slowly up to the tower.
And the siren screamed.
He was just a little black speck up there. He began to climb down again, rung by wrought-iron rung. When he got to the bottom, where I was, he pointed to the sky.
‘Looks like rain today. ‘Bout time!’ he said.
‘Yes. That’s where the angels are.’
Mr. Mann’s laugh resounded from deep within his coat. He got into his rusted car.
‘You’ve got soul,’ he said, and then drove away. Mom waved to him as he coasted down the hill. Finally, he was gone.
I bolted around the station, to where the marble circle was. The bird was still there. Ants were crawling all over him. They had come back to the station because there would soon be lightning, and then fires. That meant more scrap wood in the pile behind the station. There would soon be work for them to do. They were just biding their time keeping company with the bird. But, I scared them away.
‘Bird,’ I said, ‘you’re not going to get up are you?’
‘Well, of course. Silly me.’ It had been two days and the bird had scarcely moved, except for what little movement the ants had caused trying to carry him home. Their bird had only drifted slightly outside the circle, which was still filled with feathers.
‘You can’t get up because you don’t have hands. And you can’t stay up because your legs are weak. I understand. I brought you this doll. He has arms and legs, good ones! I thought they would help you.’
‘Well, it looks like the ants are already helping you. But, why aren’t they bringing your feathers? It must be time for you to get a new coat. Can I have your pretty feathers? They would go so well with my doll’s outfit.’
The sun was sinking more quickly than I had expected. The shadows were moving differently. I knew, because Mom told me, that this meant the end of summer was near. The leaves would change colours soon, and birds would fly south for winter. Mom always said that the South is the best place to stay warm, it’s always summer there. That must have been why she said that birds were ‘nasty’, because they were in the South all the time. I wanted so badly to fly south, to where it was always summer. Never any cold school months.
I was working faster than the sunset, I had to; at dark the ants would come back. Even so, rain began and it was almost dark before I finished. When I did, I decided to climb to the top of the turret and ring the siren.
I wanted the whole world to know that summer was going to die and that the birds were moving away. Whenever the siren went off, and it was not one o’clock, everyone came running to the fire station to see what was the matter. Once, Mr. Mann rushed so quickly that he forgot to put his clothes on. He was in his underwear, almost naked.
Everyone would rush here to save the summer.
The sky darkened from thick evening rain. Water was all over the ladder, so I had to climb carefully. When finally my doll and I brought ourselves to the top of the turret, I flipped the switch on the big red box, just the way Mr. Mann always did.
And the siren cried.
Wind picked up, making the rain fall faster and at an angle. It drummed on the station roof and slapped on the street. Everything smelled of humid concrete. And the siren cried.
I wrapped my hand onto the rusty ladder pole, so that the wind wouldn’t blow me over and did what I knew had to be done. I threw my doll into the wind. His new feather wings were shiny and wet. They caught the lightning flash from the sky and glistened.
‘Fly south!’ I screamed, louder than the siren, and he did fly. I was surprised. I had wondered if the stitches would hold, but they held.
The sky roared with triumph!
Mothers always taught well, and the sky really was full of angels.
Then, the wind shifted, and the rain began to push my feather doll downward. Because of all the feathers, he fell slowly. The glimmer of wet feathers faded and faded, a black spot falling away from my outstretched arms. As all the cars began to swarm around the fire hall, he hit the sidewalk.
He did not fly south. It must have been bad feathers.