Issue 2, Spring 2007


By Matt Maxwell


The fire is not indigenous to the region. No established roots; no history. But that is irrelevant once a spark begins inhabitance.

How it nestles in this area is unimportant save for historians: a stubbed cigarette carelessly flicked, a broken spark arrester from an ATV, wind-borne embers from an innocuous campfire, Mother Nature spitting lightning bolts, an inspired arsonist with a book of matches lit by the euphoric glint in his eye.

The spark is an immigrant in a field of sere grass. A sigh of wind on the upstart dweller is photosynthesis to a plant. It blossoms, opens. Consumes the blade of grass. Expands. The crackle is a song of Manifest Destiny.

The immigrant spark becomes a colony. It feeds on itself, temperature rising in its claustrophobia. It spreads. Feelers like mercury radiate from the center. The center has a tower erected in honor of its birth.

In an erratic starburst pattern, the feelers trickle. Latching onto dry leaves, dry grass, dry plants.

The wind yawns. The inhale dims the glow; the exhale rejuvenates, fills—is Jesus’ hand over the fallen Nazareth. The immigrant spark is a town. It has a fortress. The feelers—sentries, scouts, émigrés—conquer new regions in the glory of the town. And the fire, dropped like a seed, unwelcome, exerts its dominance.

Smoke wisps slink into the azure. The static of consumed vegetation is the Phoenix’s cry. A distant breeze, wending to the fire, passes over the infantile, impish flames, feeds it the elixir of Life. And the flames sprout

Running from the heat, insects slalom in a panic through the grass. They burrow into hard dirt. Crickets flit, some jumping into the fire. Small mammals pause, ingest the warning stench, and scatter. Birds avoid the smoke.

The original colony burns, the fuel turning crisp and black. Turning into carbon, ash. As it does, the fire, starving, falls into itself. Within moments, it dies: the tower is gone, only an archaeological remnant of its presence exists. But the offspring, rapidly increasing in intensity and population, expand its territory. It eats whatever lies in its destiny. A pond ripple, the flames flow outward from the center.

One tendril is stoked by an incessant tailwind. It flies forward. The settlers it leaves behind lodge in tall sawgrass and bramble. The flames caress branches, curling and massaging. A bramble falls, rolls to the foot of a decaying tree mausoleum. Dust-colored wood sneers black, resists the added punishment. But the fire persists. And wins. Ants and termites seep like blood from holes. The wood pops as the fire ingests more fuel. The settlers spread, oil on water, insistent on their own survival. They consume the resources until nothing is left; eventually, heat dissipated, they join their ancestral colony, unaware of the explorers they spawned. The original tendril, still at the guidance of the wind, careens through a ravine. The flames find hearty boughs and tasty trees. It becomes a city. There is perpetual movement, noise: flames roiling as Nature screams in anguish, apathetic sparks flicking upward into the wind’s cradle, to be released like rain.

The leading pioneers don’t relish their food. They eat enough to sustain their motion, leave what is left for their offspring. “Carpe Diem,” if they could understand philosophy. And like a candle burnt at both ends, they extinguish themselves too quickly, plow headlong into a rock outcropping. There is no food. They settle at the base, chewing on sticks, until those are gone.

The rock bears the scars of the fire’s company, black smudges like demonic tears on the sandstone.

Another tendril from the colony finds pine, the needles like gasoline—trees bundled into the apse as the choir roars. It is a pipe organ of a tornado. A crosswind bowls the flames into more trees. Another city is born, vast. A metropolitan conflagration. Choking smoke falls into the clouds. As the city grows, resistance arrives: humans, like gnats, buzz overhead and urinate on the flames; like a colony of ants they scuttle about the ground, building trenches and spitting water. In the battle, flames die. But some manage to leap trenches, find food on nearby soil, and thus birth a new colony. The wind coughs. Flames blast forward and deplete their enemy.

This is to be a battlefront, an arena of tree-hopping. The wind an ally.

Some flames manage subterfuge. They pretend to die, but under a soaked canopy they simmer. Resurrection is possible, given food and wind, the right combination. These scattered tribes bide their time; with a whooping cry they spring from graves, hoping to unite with family.

Another tendril moves opposite the battlefront. It eats vegetation along a dried creek, touches limbs from the other side. The flames form an arch and it moves west. The crosswind sends burning leaves into the sky, spinning incendiary trash. The flames, rooted in thick trees, become an urban sprawl. The wind shifts, and the flames smile, spread in tentacle waves. The roar is unremitting, an industrial furnace. Trees pop like gunshots, whorling leaves angry souls whisked in competing drafts. Underneath the cacophony are the screeches, whimpers, and cries of animals with no sanctuary.

This conflagration swells rapidly, consuming miles before the creek inhabitants have dwindled to sizzling embers. These embers, like their dead ancestors and similarly dying relatives, fizzle to extinction. They rage as their light and fury and heat dies. Are they capable of comprehending mortality? They understand their existence depends on fuel, are obligated by the rules of Life to consume the fuel. Life is supposed to continue, to find a way, when the fuel is extinguished. But it doesn’t. Resources depleted, the embers fade painfully into past, descriptions on the lips of warriors and archaeologists, memories of native animals.

The conflagration reaches, usurping all it lights upon. Wind coaxes it up a mountain ridge. At the top, a maelstrom of currents send meteor showers of sparks in all directions. The urban expansion assumes more territory. It’s a river breaking through a dam, reconstructing the landscape. Acrid density sends homeowners scurrying. Some coat their homes in water, hoping in a sheath, the water like latex halting the fire from impregnating their structures. Their rural abodes fall to the impending urban movement.

At the back of the conflagration, fires are dying. Scorched earth, a lunar landscape of soot, carbon, and smoke, remains. There was nothing left to consume.

And yet the flames search for food, even as they know they’ll perish when resources vanish. The desire for existence assumes precedence over future considerations: no tribal Indian folklore of acting on behalf of future generations. Imbibe on available resources; rail against imminent death as resources ebb; die to sustain own life.

The original colony is a memory mote, insignificant. Even the first few adventurers, the bits of embers clinging to life on solitary grass blades, are extraneous. Only the present matters.

The fires spread over thousands of acres, rending verdant forests and exclusive homes. Through battles, some of the fires are extinguished, towns and cities wiped out by war. Most fires burn themselves into oblivion, consuming until they reach an impasse. A few fires seethe for days, become autonomous governments, reigning their will across the land. But they are Napolean pushing into Russia.

And, eventually, all fires are vanquished. Their time to rule spent. Their lives geological imprints. But they don’t die without leaving stories. Millions are affected: insects, mammals, reptiles, aviary. Land demolished, families eradicated.

The ground is a new slate. There is benefit in this, though—a cleansing through irradiation. And Nature will replenish Herself, in time.