It was the morning before his eighth birthday and sunrise was heaving the darkness away when the first scraps of smoke were spotted over the low westerly slopes of the mountain.
Gil was sitting in bed gazing out the window at the sky, as he so often did, when he noticed the pale smudge against the dark rim of the trees, far away on the horizon. He squinted at it. It seemed to move and bulge but he couldn’t be sure. It might be a trick his eyes were playing on him.
He settled his chin on his fists, stacked one on top of the other on the windowsill at the head of his bed, and watched. Sunlight crept over the mountain peak, dripped down its slope, slow like honey. He was already too warm in his pyjamas and had begun to sweat, but he did not take his eyes off the far away line of trees. And as he watched, Gil saw above the light smudge among the trees a much darker shape, moving gradually upwards. His throat constricted and he felt his heart judder as though a rabbit was trapped there.
The dark plume rose into the sky, ballooning as it went.
He had listened to the grownups many times, as they sat on the front porch or around the kitchen table, and spoke of forest fires they had fought. Wildfire. That’s what they called it. And he imagined it as a savage beast, driven mad with rage, as unpredictable as it was fierce and almost impossible to stop. The grownups spoke of houses burnt and of houses saved, of animals killed and those left alive. Of screaming horses and screaming babies. Of the searing heat, the shrouds of choking smoke.
He jumped down from his bed, almost tripping in the knot his sheets had made around his ankles, and ran along the hall and downstairs.
He yelled this as he charged into the kitchen and almost collided with Mr George the local butcher.
A group of his father’s friends and other townsfolk had gathered around the kitchen table, serious faced, hush-voiced. A map lay open there and they bent over it, pointing, stroking their chins, making marks with a red pencil. They looked up briefly then bent again to the map. His father stood in the corner talking quietly into the telephone. Gil heard the words smoke and trail head and and easterly wind would be worse. His father nodded and hung up, turned to Gil, unsmiling.
“We know, lad. We know.”
Gil watched the others hefting the keys to their trucks in their palms, eyebrows drawn, tense to their toes.
“You sleep ok?”
“Dad, I want to come with you.”
His father shook his head and looked over at the others, gestured towards the window with his head. They filed out of the small kitchen one by one to their vehicles, started them up in a chorus of rumbles and grunts.
“Back to bed, Gil. It’s too early. We’re going to go down to the fire and see what’s to be done.”
“Let me come with you!”
He wanted to help. He could help. He was eight-years old. Almost.
His father bent and kissed the top of his head.
“Back to bed. I’ll be home this evening.”
He dug in his jeans pocket for his keys and was gone through the banging fly screen door.
The kitchen seemed suddenly too big.
“Are you going back to bed or do you want me to make you some bacon and eggs?”
Granny Oliver, a tiny wren of a woman, had been perched on the draining board by the sink and he’d not noticed her there behind the crush of shoulders and hats. She hopped down and got a pan out of the cupboard.
“It’s early for you to be up but I’m making myself some breakfast. I’ll make you some too.”
She moved around the kitchen like it was her own, opening cupboards for seasonings, rummaging in the fridge for eggs, bacon, butter, milk.
The boy sat down on one of the kitchen chairs and swung his legs. He liked Granny Oliver. She wasn’t his grandmother but everyone called her that. She was old. She was often at the house. He could have taken care of himself, he was eight almost anyway, but was happy she was here today. The fire scared him, even though he was eight-years old. Almost. But there was something else. An excitement, a rising in his blood. Because this fire was different. This one was on his birthday. For his birthday. Almost. That had to mean something. He felt a warmth as he thought about the flames and ate his bacon, drank his milk.
After breakfast he went back to his room, jumped onto the bed to watch the smoke rise. He breathed onto the glass to frost it then traced a line at the top of the smoke plume. The mist on the glass faded quickly and he sighed. He needed something more permanent. Rummaging around in his bedside drawer he found a green felt tip, made an appreciative noise in his throat. Then back to the window, where he marked the top and the sides of the smoke on the glass with his pen, wrote in tiny letters “0618 hours July 27”. He stuck the end of the pen in his mouth and considered what he’d written, then added a ‘G’ to initial it. He rolled back on his bed and nodded at the green marks.
Gil spent most of that day in his bedroom, watching the cloud of smoke bloom on the mountain. Granny Oliver checked on him a couple of times, asked him whether he’d like to eat, but otherwise left him to his vigil. By the time she came back to ask him to come down for supper the window was covered in green scrawls, now joined by red and black.
“Wow,” she said.
“That’s how I keep track of how it’s growing, see?”
He pointed out the key information as she sat on his bed and listened.
“Yes, I see. Clever. Supper?”
They ate fried chicken and mashed potatoes that night and talked of other things. Afterwards, back in his room, Gil watched the sun redden and sink beneath the glowing striations of smoke that hung over the wooded slopes.
The fire fighters came home long after he had gone to bed, soot ground into their heat-reddened necks, heavy-legged and calling for beer. Though he had tried to stay awake long into the night Gil had fallen asleep fully clothed curled up on his pillow. His father peered into the boy’s room, crept in and covered him with a blanket, tucked it around his sides. He looked down at his son a moment and smiled, then reached out and brushed the damp hair from the boy’s forehead. He slipped out again and downstairs, leaving the smell of wood smoke and burning juniper folded into Gil’s dreams.