“Fire Artist” by Karl Zuelke

Willow Springs issue 79 cover shows photo of a pink dress against a concrete background.

Found in Willow Springs 87

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OUR FATHER and one of his buddies burned down the lumberyard back in the forties. Grandma told the story a hundred times: "The whole neighborhood was headed up the street toward the commo­tion, and here come Vernon and Richard moving the other way. I knew they was mixed up in it right then." She thought it was funny.

So maybe it's been running in the family. My brother, Phil, the fire artist. Dad the adolescent arsonist.

WE WERE LIGHTING little grass fires, seeing how big we could get them and still stomp them out. One got away, of course, and some­body called the Fire Department. Flames thirty feet high, smoke in brown coils racing for the blue, sirens on the way. It burned itself out in five minutes. A minute before the trucks rounded the corner, Phil lit the field again and we took off. "Shame if they come running all the way over here with nothing to show for it," he told me. We hid out in a tree house peeling open wet Playboys and drying them in front of the fire built on flagstones we hoisted up there. Phil could control a fire when he meant to. We both knew how to do that.

IN THE PORCUPINE MOUNTAINS the bears were thick. One walked through the middle of camp and crapped in front of Curt's tent. There were peanuts and a purple foil granola bar wrapper in it. So we took care and hung the packs properly, and the bears were up the trees all night, swiping at the packs and grunting, frustrated. We saw where they tried to bite through the rope. They watched us from the woods, red eyes sparking back the firelight.

PHIL GOT IN A WRECK on a motorcycle and graduated high school in the ICU. His friend died in that wreck, a good kid too young to be heading off in that fashion. It still hasn't left, that vision of my brother's face—I mean smashed—the wires and tubes, the equipment all whistling. Phil got a pile of money from the settlement. The plas­tic surgeon rebuilt him, and he looked the same. That in itself was amazing. He and Curt went backpacking down a canyon in Medicine Bow that August. Dad couldn't believe it, couldn't think of a thing to say. I don't remember why I missed that trip. An elk tripped over their tent rope and bugled. The stream had deep, clear pools crowded with trout they could see but couldn't catch, so Phil tied an M-80 to a rock. Ethical angling was hardly my brother's forte, but he and Curt had cutthroat trout every meal for six days. They buried the fish in icy patches of old snow that kept them fresh.

WE DID THE SMOKIES A LOT, and once a big sphinx moth flew into the circle of the firelight, eyes glowing like they had electric filaments. It got too close and went down in flames like a little fighter plane. It was dramatic and terrible because it was heavy-bodied and five inches across, and the smell wasn't good. After it happened again, we learned how to pull them away from the flames. We'd see their little red eyes shining as they buzzed in from the woods, then we'd grab them with a flashlight beam and park them safely on our shirts. They sat like gray corsages, vibrating. We each had four or five. Once the fire died down they flew off, one by one.

PHIL DID THE GRILL at Mom and Dad's barbeques and was good at salting and seasoning the roast and cooking it to perfection. He had a feel for how flesh and fire work together. Cooking is the con­trolled breakdown of the molecular structure of food, so it’s all about destruction from the beginning. The art of it is permitting the disin­tegration to only progress so far.

THE THREE OF US MET some Lakota guys in the Black Hills, same age as us. Everyone you meet in mountain country is friendly. East or West, almost always. We hung out a couple days, shared their vodka and our bourbon and cigars and each other's food, and it was great fun. Caught fish, and one guy was deadly on squirrels with a pellet pistol, so there was fresh red meat and plenty of it. Phil cooked up those squirrels, and our Indian friends had to admit that here was a guy with the touch. They told us their tribe's white buffalo woman story around the fire one night, and the moral basically was that you should have a good heart and be respectful of the things that come your way. These dudes could party, but they weren't joking about this. It was easy enough on that night. Spicy pine-roasted squirrel, good company, taking turns sipping a bottle of Four Roses, around and around. The fire all lively, spitting and popping.

WE TRIED OUT TAR HOLLOW in Ohio because we didn't feel like driving so far and we heard it was worth a look, and it was. Great woods, lots of genuine backcountry in the middle of nowhere, good trails, and hills not so high but rugged. And no people. We had good topo maps and needed them. There were spider webs every six feet, the spiders so thick we hiked with branched sticks waving in front of our faces, and they clogged up with the webs, studded with all these thorny little spiders you couldn't flick off because they were buried in the web mass. We stuck the sticks in the fire, and there was this siz­zling white flash for about a second, then the webs melted into goop. When we were hiking Curt pointed to something on a rock and said, "That moss has taken a lichen to that rock," and we heard it five hun­dred times more on that trip, and on every trip after. I still think it's funny. "That moss has taken a lichen to that rock." You'd think you'd get sick of it but somehow you don't.

ONE SPRING just before the leaves opened, me and Phil did a weekend in Red River Gorge, in Kentucky, and it snowed this heavy, wet spring snow. It was beautiful, the soft clumps of snowflakes drop­ping fast, piling up on the heavy evergreen rhododendron leaves next to the lacy green hemlock needles and the cliffs. So lovely, but it did completely soak everything, and it was the one time I ever saw when he couldn't get a fire lit. We tried every trick. Everything was wet. Nothing burned. It was that five inches of warm, soggy snow. He hated that trip and always talked about how sopping wet and miserable it was—we were equipped, it wasn't that bad—but I know it was because he couldn't start a fire. Nothing would catch. I finally said fuck the fire. I walked down to the bank of Swift Camp Creek as it was getting dark, and he was back in camp carving up all these wet sticks with a knife to expose the dry wood inside. I took off my glasses and closed my eyes and put my face up into the strip of quiet gray sky narrowed by canyon walls and let the warm snow sifting down through the tangle of twigs and branches fall all over me. My fleece and Gore-Tex shell were warm, and my feet were dry in my boots, and there was the chill tickle of snowflakes melting on my face, and it was one of those moments you get sometimes when you're out there. Just happy. Blood flowing through your ears.

IT WAS A DRY HOT SUMMER at home, and when you're a fool you assume that's how it's going to stay everywhere. Well, it rained. It always rains in the Smokies. It's the wettest place in North Amer­ica outside of the Pacific Northwest. Curt couldn't find his rain suit because all his stuff was in boxes from moving and getting evicted all the time, so he cut a hole in a garbage bag for his head and two more holes for his arms and that was his rain suit. He went sloshing up the trail in his ludicrous green garbage bag, and he got soaked, and his lips turned dark purple, and he got even slower and denser than nor­mal. We stopped early, stuffed Curt in his tent and sleeping bag, and he was down there shivering like a poodle and getting all sleepy and delirious, worried about Shawnee Indian attacks, then slipping into fog, and it didn't look too good for Curt. Hypothermia is no joke. We got a roaring fire going in the rain and spooned hot instant chicken soup down him and saved his life.

ALL OF US WENT TO COLLEGE, but Curt didn't last. He met a girl and married her with no warning. There was no hope he would graduate. She had grown up in some mean-ass trailer park and want­ed to accomplish more with her life than eight kids before thirty and another trailer. I give her some credit. So why did she marry Curt? Bad judgment. Delusions. Look, he didn't wear a tie at his wedding. He had never worn one in his life, and it's not like it was some kind of statement or anything; it just never occurred to him. One time she hosted a dinner party for all three of us, with our wives, and it was nice, and silly, and there were too many candles on the table, and I felt bad for her. The cooking was unbelievable, but the whole night was still one long la-de-dah until we started telling camping stories. The women rolled their eyes at each other but at least it wasn't Zom­bieland anymore. I'm happy for her sake their marriage didn't last more than a year and a half. She has some good-looking husband now whose whole life she arranges like a vase of chrysanthemums. I see her around now and then and she's nice to me and seems happy to talk. Her daughter is so pretty you have to deliberately drag your eyes away.

BACKCOUNTRY RANGERS in the Smokies carry shotguns they use to shoot feral sows and razorbacks on sight. We were struggling up Eagle Creek, and near the top—boom!—a gun went off and the slug tore through the brush not thirty feet from us. Guns have a bad sound when they're aimed in your direction. Something extra in it. It'll turn your spine to jelly. Before we could yell, a second shot hit its mark, and here this squealing pregnant sow came rolling down the moun­tain and died right next to us. The ranger was a good guy, and he was embarrassed about a near miss with hikers, so he pulled a knife from the sheath on his belt and carved both back straps out of the dead pig, washed the blood off with his canteen, and wrapped them for us in a clean cotton bandanna. That night we were careful to choose maple and hickory for the fire, and we dug up some wild ramps, boiled sas­safras roots for tea, and I hiked halfway back down the mountain and gathered the colony of chicken of the woods mushrooms we had spot­ted earlier. Phil knew exactly how to treat those straps. That was a feast!

PHIL MAJORED IN FINANCE. I majored in biology, then English, then both. We took turns studying in France. We didn't see much of Curt in those years.

THE MOSQUITOES ON ISLE ROYALE were fast, aggressive bit­ers and thick as smoke. Repellent, gloves, and head nets kept them at bay, but you had to lift the net to eat, and you can't put 98% DEET on your lips and eyelids. That’s where they found to bite. Some wolves were after a moose calf. We heard them talking as they hunted in the woods near and around us but couldn't get so much as a glimpse. A great brown gangly cow moose burst out of the pines onto the trail above us, and swung that big long head around, with her red calf trembling between her legs, and it would have been magnificent except that you could see the fear in her eyes, and the poor calf quiv­ering in terror. Do you try to run the wolves off? Good luck with that. The spruce wood campfire that night was bright and flamy and crackly, and we could hear wolves howling.

AFTER HIS MBA, Phil got a position in the finance department of one of the big oil companies and moved to New York, then New Or­leans, then Wyoming, then back to New York, then to Atlanta, then Houston, then New York for the third time.

"What's with fucking New York?" I asked him.

"I hate it. But you go where they tell you." He used his power to fire people. Responsibilities got reallocated according to him. He had a great track record and got noticed.

THE TOURISTY ATTRACTIONS in Yellowstone are ringed with fences, warning signs, and wooden walkways, partly to keep the vacationers safe, partly to keep them from filling the pools with pen­nies and cigarette butts, but most of the fences and warnings were designed by attorneys to preempt lawsuits. Hike fifteen minutes into the back country and there's plenty more hot water, without the fences and boardwalks—geysers, clear hot blue pools, sulfur vapors hissing out of a little hole in a rock. It takes a special kind of crazy to stand at the edge of a thousand-foot cliff with your toes hanging over, but standing at the edge of a hot spring is easy. It doesn't matter that falling into it will cook you as dead as a jump off a canyon wall. Curt was lucky that the stream he tripped into had cooled a bit after flowing a quarter mile across a meadow. His boot protected his foot, but the skin on his lower leg above his ankle turned red and blistered. Phil had tossed a couple plump aloe leaves into the first aid kit, like always, and their juice kept the pain away. In the pool where the hot stream joined the cold one, a dead snake floated, its meat boiled by the volcanic heat it had blundered into.

WE WERE IN THE MOUNTAINS in Montana, and Phil wouldn't pay attention to the plants—these tall parallel-veined plants in the lily family with tiny green flowers. Looked like they grew out of spots where patches of snow had recently melted. He kept knocking the ones in camp over, not on purpose, just didn't notice. "Be careful with those, man."

"Oh, you're right, yeah." But he didn't care. It was just me and him that week because Curt couldn't afford the flight. I needed a break because we hadn't seen a single other person in four days, and wreck­ing those tall fragile lily plants was pissing me off. So I climbed way up the side of the cirque and lay down in the thin grass and watched the shadow of the mountain behind me crawl up the mountain in front of me as the sun set. When it got dark the stars fizzed over the silent sky. I lay for hours just digging them, whirling slow around the black dome of the firmament when suddenly they popped into three dimensions. I wasn't looking at them like paint splattered on a ceiling but was in their midst, in the stars and of them. It was totally mystical. Although I expect anyone with the patience and attention span to lie on his back for three hours in the mountains zoning out on the stars can have this experience. Hardy has Tess talk about the same thing, which is when Angel first notices her. There's nothing special about it and yet there's everything special about it. We're not observers, we're part of it, that's all it means. The wind shifted and some clouds blew in, and I caught a whiff of the cigar my brother was smoking. I worked my way back down to camp in the dark guided by the strange orange glow of the fire five hundred feet below. A cold misty rain started, but he had camp squared away tight. "Where you been?" he said.

HE ORGANIZED TRIPS to Iceland, Italy, Patagonia, and he climbed to the summit of Grand Teton, all while I was grinding my way through graduate school. I went to Alaska with him, charging the expense. You’d think with all the time off he took that he'd get in trouble, but apparently a guy with the know-how and cojones to organize expeditions for the money boys, and sometimes with the power to fire them, and who looks good in a suit in New York City, a guy like that will thrive in an oil company. We hiked up  this valley to a glacier, and there was no color: no green plants, no red plants, no blue sky. No flowers. Just rock, scud, ice, shadow: infinite gradations between dense black and dazzling white. A spruce tree in Denali at­tains a diameter of three inches after a century of growth, but that night he found wood enough for a small, clean fire.

IF YOU ASK A RANGER anywhere in southeast Ohio about moun­tain lions in those big stretches of national forest, they'll clam up and shrug and act like you're dreaming. The rangers know they're there, but it's not official so they won't acknowledge it. There's plenty of deer, surprising miles and miles and miles of nothing but low, rough hills, and vast endless trees, and hardly any people. They're there, though. One followed us all day. We never saw it. Just heard it rustling in the leaves always about the same distance behind, way too close for com­ fort, heard its belly gurgling once, heard something like a cat purring but two octaves deeper, got a ghostly whiff of its dense, musky meat-­breath. And there's that feeling you can't put your finger on, you just know something's back there, your neck hackles tell you. If a cougar doesn't want you to see it, you don't see it. Doesn't mean it's not there. Them eyes burning a hole through your shirt.

CURT HAD A JOB with a tree-trimming company. He was pushing a wheelbarrow piled full of leaves and sticks to the chipper and the wheel caught a branch on the ground. He kept coming, just enough time for a long thin stick to work its way just like that up his shorts, through the flaps of his underwear and right down deep through the slit at the tip of his penis. A one-in-a-million shot. It broke off. He had no health insurance. It took him a year before it hurt bad enough to go to the ER. The laser procedures, surgery, recovery in the hospi­tal, ran him a bill of forty-five thousand dollars. I'd have paid that bill for Curt myself, but I didn't have it. 

PHIL'S WIFE, Rachel—beautiful, intelligent, supportive, accom­plished in watercolors, plays the piano. Willing to move half a dozen times in ten years. When she took the girls and left him, for the usual reason, it was a week after a major promotion. He came clean with me after the divorce." So I burn through women," he said. “Can’t help it." Both his daughters seemed fine with it. I wonder if they knew him better than I did.

SUMMERS WHEN WE WERE STILL KIDS, we'd carry our gear to the big park across the road and set up the old pup tent in the woods where we knew it wouldn't be seen. It was dark green canvas, and had a smoky, mushroomy smell and wooden poles. We would sleep there, sometimes for weeks on end, often with our heads out watching for meteors or inside with rain pattering on the taut fabric. Curt would climb out his bedroom window and join us. We smoked cigarettes, sipped warm beer and bourbon we stole from garages, ate through bags of donuts, and read our Playboys by firelight, comparing what­ ever scant information we could gather about what it meant to be men. I would retell stories from the books I'd been reading. Huck and Jim on the raft. Captain Nemo using treasure for ballast. Boys cast away on an island, the emergence of humankind's innate savagery. All kinds of stuff gets shot at you like flaming arrows, and what they carry ranges from saintly and wholesome to venal and violent. It all hits. What spreads will depend on what's flammable in the target. While those fires lit in him way back then were contained, they kept on smoldering.

CURT NEEDED A SHOT, but the nurse felt there wasn't meat enough on his ass to hold it, so she tried his upper arm, which was worse. She had to run the needle into his thigh.

CLIMBING UP THE VALLEY of Hazel Creek, we were amazed at the height of the trees, eighty, ninety feet before the first branches. We hit this spot where the creek plunged over a waterfall, and it was hot, and we hadn't seen a soul in three days, so we dropped our packs and stripped our clothes off, put our water-shoes on, and waded in the pool below the falls. It was all very sylvan and frolicsome. I looked up, saw this young bear looking down on us, and it walked around the falls and stood next to the pool we were splashing in. Something happened right there. Like, something crossed through the air be­ tween me and that bear, a psychic wind, and I knew the bear wanted to come swimming with us. I was going to let him if he behaved. There's way more to animals than we give them credit for, and I think if you have the capacity for it, the empathy or whatever you might call it, you'll see, and once you catch sight of the spirit for the first time there's no going back. That was my first time. You'd think living with cats and dogs would show most people, but most people either really don't care about them, or they turn their pets into cutesy-poo, so they're blind forever after. My brother turned around, saw this bear standing not fifteen feet away, staring at him, and he about leaped out of his shoes. It’s understandable. He fell backward into the icy water and got up spluttering, and the bear ran off. It looked over its shoulder at us before it was gone, and this is going to sound flaky, but I don't care: That bear's feelings were hurt. It was the funniest thing ever, but there was also a sadness to it. In your whole life you only get a handful of openings like that, and that's if you’re lucky.

YOU DEVELOP A LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP with your pack, but Curt lost his. We had all bought them when we were sixteen and seventeen, used them for almost forty years. We got him a new one, set him up with our spare gear, paid his share of the food. He wasn't sick with anything specific, but I'd known him since we were nine. Seemed like he was withering. Lost his thump. We had to take his load on, he barely carried anything. The big wildlife stayed hid, but the little creatures of the Smoky Mountains were there like always, the tiger swallowtails, the Diana fritillaries, the salamanders, the big pink and gray millipedes and the smaller yellow and black ones that give off a sweet smell of cyanide, and there were the same streams clogged with downed trees and round, dark, wet rocks with bright patches of moss, the gurgle of tumbling water, the warm air fragrant with sap and mushrooms, the endless dark and bright shades of concentrated green. Curt got nostalgic about this trip before it was halfway over, and it had to be because he sort of figured it was the last one. He dropped dead at work a month later with a rake in his hands. Just fell over dead. As a memorial gesture, my brother paid off all his bills.

WE WERE IN COLORADO, too high for me. I was sick with the altitude on top of a two-thousand-foot drop off, with the wind blow­ing straight at us but deflected straight up by the cliff face. Here came an eagle from way below riding that wind, wings spread, not flapping, rising straight up and fast. He went tearing by and saw us, and it was one of those moments you can get when you know to stay open for it: absolute astonishment on the face of an eagle. We didn't belong there. But as he rose, my spirit, I suppose you might say, followed after, and the eagle was looking down at me like, sure, come on. You can do this too. I snapped back when I started losing my balance, and he and Curt grabbed me and probably kept me from going over the edge. But, oh gosh. I flew with an eagle—just for a second, but I did it. Anyone can. Eagles fly with their bodies, and we can't do that, but it's all about the spirit, really. The eagle showed me that. I tried to share it, but they just listened politely and shook their heads at me. They both thought I was an airhead anyway, but it's okay. I am. I didn't expect anything different.

HE CAMPED ALONE MORE OFTEN. He still led exotic trips with the execs, but fewer, and he was pulling down more money than ever. But so what? All we know is that he should never have built that fire where he did. If you use these places and don't try to under­ stand them, you make mistakes. The Coast Range in August is not the soggy Appalachians. I try to make myself believe that smoke did the work, not the flames. You can't control where smoke goes. To one with fire in his heart, flame is loyal.

OUR FIRST TRIP EVER was with our dad, in a canoe. I was maybe ten. It rained like crazy, and I can't forget one moment: 4:00 a.m., the worst of the thunder moving past but with lightning still flick­ering above a heavy downpour, the tent leaking like it was made of rice paper, the three of us sitting up shivering at each other through the last of the storm flashes in our wet sleeping bags, miserable as cats in a washtub, and our old beagle dead asleep and snoring like a lumberjack. It was so ridiculous we started laughing. In the morning, eight-year-old Phil took it on himself to get the fire going. He found dry tinder someplace, after a long night of rain, and some live coals under the main log in the fire circle. It was a timid, smoky fire, but he already knew the life of flame and nursed it to strength enough to fry three full pounds of bacon and a whole box of Bisquick pancakes for us and the dog. Thirty years later, Dad said it was still the finest breakfast he ever ate.

THERE WERE THOUSANDS of sassafras seedlings scattered through the understory, so I suggested we might make tea. I told my nieces that since the little plants kept breaking off when we tried to pull them up, it was probably because we hadn't asked the tree for its root, shown it proper respect, and given it proper thanks. If you do that, I said, one might just offer up a root.

Your dad would have been proud to take you camping, I told them. Young women, both. Filled like brooks with the laughter of waters. A nice fat root had given itself up. It was plenty for a pot of tea. We washed it off in the creek and put a pan of water on the fire.

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