Water the FirebyLawrenceD©
Sirens and the rule of law rang out from up over the hill. Couldn't be so divine as to bludgeon the heat of August nor smother the vengeful Despréaux fire, but the rain was a sudden blessing. All the lady angels in heaven, resplendent in their shimmering see-through gowns, must have been running through the sprinklers on God's lawn.
Mud squished between his toes and it felt good. Every time the thunder came creeping in over the sound of the bullhorn, it gave him some measure of satisfaction. Satisfaction that Nature could still muffle men, even if only for a moment or two.
He closed his eyes to the swiftly moving storm, imagining all that beauty and grace—fingers of cool water playing over their heavenly skin, stiffening those golden nipples and coursing down a pair of celestial thighs. And the sky opened wide every time one of those angels spread her legs to leap over His holy sprinkler. It fell from their fertile thatches into the Louisiana swamps and onto his sun reddened cheeks. Yes, it surely felt fine.
The girl was limp in his arms. Shaking her didn't help, she was despondent. He turned back and made his way to the dock, carrying her over the rotted pier that creaked and groaned with every step, protruding from the lake like the spine of a starving child. Heat and embers blew over the water and sizzled as they drowned. When she roused, he stopped and lay her down on the timber. The water below was in the midst of an emotional conversation with the rain that rushed down to meet it, and when her lips moved he could not hear what she'd tried to say.
His hand moved through her dark locks tearing hair that had become tangled from the rain. His fingers tightened and he drew her forward so that her face was mashed against his crotch. Her gaze was fixed skyward and she watched as his chest puffed out, the air oozing from his tight throat and coming forth on an elongated groan. The other hand clutched her wrist. She blinked back against the stinging raindrops, feeling only the water as it swam down 'round the place where she ended and he began. Voices echoed through the woods.
"I've found tracks!" came an agitated shout. "There isn't much time!" The girl's eyes went wide.
His legs shook involuntarily, his body shrank inward and the billowing coattails of his father's jacket spilled over the sides of the dock.
"Ah," he whispered. "Destiny." With that, he smiled down at her, and in a single deft gesture, shoved her over the edge into the water. In the same motion he had spun around, sweeping the coattails with a practiced flourish and presenting himself to those who had hunted him and now demanded their reward.
A booming voice announced its intent. Its rehearsed authority left no doubt of the fear it was meant to evoke. Yet, he felt no such thing. There may have been thirty guns leveled on him at that moment, but as he flicked the flint of his lighter and a small flame defied the onslaught from above, he suddenly understood his father's words.
Beneath the dock, she stared up fearfully at the figure barely visible between the cracks. And all those pistols went off at the same time. She clapped her hands over her ears and shut her eyes as tightly as she could.
Never had an idle gaze so thoroughly consumed a girl. The behemoth candy apple red Ferris wheel devoured the foreground and stole the last searing rays from the setting sun. His booth, by contrast, was hidden in its hulking shadow, where he busily turned cards and performed his magic for no one. His hair was wild, his gaunt features carving a splendid profile. But most striking was the heavy black trench coat draped over his frame. The bayou evening was anything and everything—ever mysterious—but cool, it was not.
She lingered to entertain fascinations about him. He was without question a student of his craft, whatever it wholly entailed. A few times he looked up to sweep eyes across the stubborn souls who lingered on the carnival grounds, refusing evacuation orders and ignoring the glow on the horizon.
There was scant emotion on his face but for the hunger that dwelt darkly beneath. Then the lids drooped, and his focus lit once more upon an upturned apple crate where he dealt a fresh hand. The cards were black, and they stuck to his fingertips. It reminded her of the way paving tar would melt under the relentless sun and grasp at the soles of her sneakers…of the way two bodies did much the same in the bedroom above hers most nights.
So it was when the carnival goers had thinned out to barely a trickle that he looked out over the gravel expanse, at last obliged to breathe her in. Her skin pricked from the heat, perfume stung her pores at the armpit. Night was rapidly shrugging off the sweaty stink of the day, and buried beneath her fevered nerves and a bludgeoned promise to be gone from town, was every notion to fulfill her desires by inhabiting the gypsy boy's evening. If not now, then certainly never.
Oh, but those best laid plans can be undone by time and plain old lustful impatience.
With no warning, he had folded up his station and disappeared within the shadows of a myriad patchwork tents and trucks, leaving her alone in the ash-swirling air at the edge of the carnival grounds. She heard clipped, rasping coughs, then nothing but gypsy silence—mosquito murmurs and the faintest whisper of an old French lullaby.
The weakly twinkling lights of carnival attractions flickered and went out one by one. Headlight beams shifted in and out of hillocks as straggling evacuees made their way down the highway.
Woefully disappointed with her hopeful conspirator—but mostly herself—she cast one last longing gaze up the alley between tents before turning to go. A lonely, oft-welded sucker rod reached some fifty feet into the black sky, its halogen torch piercing the night and bathing the cobbled parking lot in a bluish glow. Little more than a somber shuffle fed her feet as she zoned out to the crunch-crunch of gravel beneath her purple slippers. Her car, a foreign engineer's unrealized dream and discounted compromise, waited for her at the edge of the light, its backseat crammed full of her personals.
A few feet from the sedan the rhythmic crunch-crunch sound no longer matched her own footsteps. She inhaled sharply. Two snarling, drunken bursts of laughter—and then a footrace unfolded in the distance. Her eyes blurred and refocused. Silly girl, she heard her mind caution. Don't run. Silly, silly. How incredibly silly it would be to run. Just some rabble-rousing delinquents.
A flash, and a figure cut the air beside her, whirled around and planted himself on the earth like a mountain. Safety lay beyond, so near that her keys jingled and tugged almost magnetically toward her tiny pea green sedan.
"Waitin' a long time for someone to give us a lift outta here," said a voice behind her. The intent was as ugly as the mouth from which it oozed. The vagrant blocking her way was an older mutt, hunched and grimy. She sidestepped twice. Would they not leave off their cruel sport? No, but they followed her lead pretty-as-you-please, as though she were merely a dance instructor, and not their prey.
The girl locked eyes with her mortal barricade when suddenly those dark pools of lust began to grow round and glow with exceptional radiance. Heat licked at her bare legs and her car reflected an odd orange aura. Had the sedan been able to speak, its twinkling headlights seemed likely to proclaim, Wowwww! before darkness once again settled.
The dirty mountain crumbled, ran off and got swallowed by the dark. A loud raspy cough rang out from the rear and she bolted to her car. The way she keyed the door, pried it open and started the ignition in a singular motion, God himself may have been guiding her hand. Perhaps not, for she slammed its engine into gear and promptly stalled out. When she hazarded a lightning quick glance out the window, she froze.
He was peering at her, standing motionless against the glowing horizon until a hand moved to wipe the blood from its owner's lips. Black coattails spilled out around him on the gravel, and beside him a body lay atop a charred patch of cobbled earth.
She eyed her savior once more, transfixed. He was a gothic figure cut from the shadows, a creature as hot as the night. She may have gone on staring, but quite suddenly, he staggered and collapsed.
She managed to get him folded into the passenger seat, to push the accelerator to the floor, and a moment later the girl and her stowaway were driving like a bayou bat out of the swamp mist.
"I'm all kinds of trouble for my folks," she said with a haughty, nervous laugh. "But this might do it for good. Daddy's liable—forget the shotgun, he'd like to spit buckshot second he sees you."
"Salt Mine Trail," he whispered.
"The fire," she said. "We gotta get out of town. I have to find you a hospital."
He made weak protest, but she wouldn't have it. The wipers worked to a fevered whine just to keep up with the ash that cascaded down upon her windshield. After five miles the highway markings were no longer visible, and the car's wheels were nearly silent on a blanket of burned bayou.
Suddenly, the man beside her sat up. "Slow down." So startled was she by his sudden power of speech that she turned her head to gawk at him. "There!" he shouted. The car came around a corner and she barely reacted in time, slamming on her breaks and coming to a halt just as tiny flaming embers speckled the hood of her car.
The bridge had stood for hundreds of years, it was constructed entirely of wood and the fire aimed to devour it.
"Turn around," he said, and before she could protest, "Now! Do it now!"
The sign reflected in her headlights. She turned up Salt Mine Trail, despite her gut screaming out that they were headed straight into the glow of Despréaux. The inferno seemed to thrive just beyond the hills, but impulse had hold of the wheel and she pushed the accelerator to the floor.
"Follow the road to the end."
An old cabin haunted the back of the Trail. He told her to pull in. She stopped around the back side of the homestead, helping him out and up to the door. The woods smelled of mildew and smoke, but surprisingly, the ash was not falling there. A soft, sweet and inviting light bathed the porch and said, home can be here, even here.
For an uncertain moment she was held at bay before the threshold. He dragged himself past her, shuffling over the sturdy wood floor before collapsing into a cozy old black chair.
"Come in," he instructed.
She pushed her anxieties aside, stepped lightly and shut the wooden door on the noisy swamp.
"I'll need a washcloth and a bowl for hot water. Is there some way to heat water?"
He smiled gently. "Hot water? It comes from the hot water heater in the closet." Poor assumptions made her blush. "Bowls in the kitchen cabinet, towels in the bathroom."
When she returned, he had a photo album on his lap. His head was tilted back and his eyes were lidded. She paused hesitantly, but he seemed to sense her presence. Lifting his head and suppressing a cough, he smiled when she drew near.
His eyes wandered her body as she wiped the sheen of sweat from his forehead, then dabbed at the blood caked to his chin. He hacked painfully and turned away from her.
"What is it?" she said. "What's wrong with you?"
He reached for the hand that dabbed at his face and held it. Her mouth was very near to his and she watched his gaze trail along the line of her neck. Then he touched her there, dragging his fingers down her throat. A flush crept down her nape, and she felt her face redden, though the least of which was from embarrassment. His fingers closed around her neck. Taking the cloth from her hand, he let it fall into the water bowl and watched as a bead of sweat swam down her throat and crept hesitantly over his thumb.
He withdrew his hand and held it up before him to spy the dew lit upon his digit. She leaned forward, brushing his fingers with her lips and put her mouth over his thumb. He turned his hand so that he could caress her cheek as she sucked. His eyes were dark insistent pools, and they flashed as she fell into them.
"Will you have a look at these photos with me?" he said.
"What about Despréaux?" she asked, his thumb between her teeth.
"The fire will wait."
She gave back his thumb with a succulent pop, sank to her knees and hugged the arm of his chair. It felt good being that close. She longed to be against him, in his lap perhaps, but did he never tire of that coat?
The photos were worn and faded, mostly black and white. Posing children, large families and burly men gazed back at her. But as the pages turned, she was soon enchanted by a mysterious story that seemed to unfold beneath the wordless imagery. If she saw a caption here and there, it might utter a one or two-word description. The photographs spoke volumes.
Men with great beards tethered to boxcars engaged in feats of strength—My Uncle. A woman balanced swords on her fingertips and swallowed a quiver of arrows—Cousin Elise. Children rode bicycles through fiery loops. A grinning boy wore black tinted goggles and an aviator's hat.
"You?" she said.
"My brother." He smiled weakly and turned the page. A woman sat demurely, shyly looking away from the camera. She wore a patterned sun dress, sweaty and clinging high upon her thighs.
"Your mother. She's beautiful."
He shook his head. "She was the fire breather's wife just as I am his son. You see, Momma rode the fire out of this world just on a week ago."
She clapped a hand over her mouth. "Oh, how tragic."
He exhaled slowly. "You have come to know me at a strange moment in what remains of my life."
"The remains?" she gasped and shook her head. "You're hurting awful bad is all. Don't be saying such a thing like that."
He turned the page. The spread was pasted with newspaper clippings. In the center, a panoramic photograph, singed at the edges and corrupted by overexposure.
"My father," he said. The two words scrawled beneath the image seemed to agree. The slender man wore a black trench coat, and had been captured with arms spread wide, a top hat clutched in the tips of two bony fingers. The thrown back head spewed a violent serpentine flame that consumed the ashen sky. It was magnificent.
"He used to say, 'We shall water the fire, if only to weather the storm.'"
"So, you've inherited his cryptic nonsense, I get that. But, what does it mean?"
He shook his head. "I don't know, except..."
A droplet of blood splattered on the photo, and she looked up to see another clinging to the tip of his nose. He didn't seem to notice or care. His eyes hung over the still, unfocused and impossibly distant.
She got up to change the water and freshen the cloth, but when she returned he had relocated to a bed beneath a curtained window. He lay on his back, breathing softly. She switched on the television and claimed the old black chair for herself.
In and out of sleep she drifted, and some time later found herself blinking dumbly at a flickering screen. The reporter's hair was gray, despite her youthful face. She was silhouetted by the flashing lights of a police car, and standing before a hospital. Leaning closer to the television, she realized the reporter's hair was full of ash.
"…say the unidentified, badly burned victim has been transported in stable condition to St. Patrick's on Eleven Mile Corner. Investigators say the victim's burns were not related to the Despréaux wildfire which has burned an estimated six thousand acres, and continues unabated. A suspect's wallet was recovered…"
When next she woke, her body felt as though it had woven like thread through a time warp where so many hours should have passed, but with no corroborating evidence beyond suspicion and weariness.
He was waiting for her, because as soon as she looked to the bed, he was beckoning her to rise. Behind him she could see a glow through the curtain.
"Morning?" she gasped.
"No," he said calmly. "It's time." He struggled to his feet and she rushed over to help him.
"How do you feel?"
"I waive the burden," he replied. Taking her by the hand, he led her outside.
Crickets gave the time, chirping drowsily. A bullfrog groaned methodically about some sleight. She walked beside him, down a slope and toward an old uneven dock at the edge of a beautiful lake. The water didn't shimmer. The moonlight was overshadowed by a much greater radiance.
"I'm scared," she said and gripped his hand tightly.
They reached the end of the dock when he spoke.
"We'll jump together."
"You're crazy. This is my best dress."
"The water's cool. It will take the blood out of the fabric."
"Where?" she said. "What blood?" But he kissed her then, and words were words and nothing more.
Heat seared her throat and his tongue sought hers. Her head swam even as she kissed him back, seized by a desire that trebled instantly. His touch was kinetic and the sparks seemed to flit like lightning bugs behind her eyelids the tighter she clenched them and clung to him. Just as abrupt as the stolen kiss, he rent their embrace, shouted skyward and leapt into the lake with a huge splash.
"Oh!" She muttered a curse beneath her breath. The shoes came off, she took a few steps back and one big stride over the edge. Plunging through the cool bayou water, she kicked her legs and wiggled her body. She felt so light she was sure she could close her eyes and drift away from that oppressively dank old burning planet.
Hands sought her body, and his arms wrapped themselves around her waist. She broke the surface, staring into those wild dark eyes. Thinking of nothing to say, she sputtered and laughed and they kissed again. This time she let her body go slack and gave herself over the kiss and his embrace. He held her tightly as they sank beneath the surface, dropping together through the cool mossy water. Down, down, down until his feet touched the muddy bottom. Then he bent his knees and propelled them up from the lake bed.
They're laughter echoed over the swamp and caused the insects to cease their chatter if only for a moment.
"Are we really to die here?" she asked him, feeling strangely at peace.
"No," he replied.
She got an idea and her eyes brightened. "The lake will protect us."
He smiled. "It's time I tell you a story. Come here, I feel as strong as an ox. I will swim for the both of us. Put your legs around me."
She swam to him and did as he'd instructed. Her body was charged and the current thrummed in her ears as she squeezed him and pressed her lips to his. When he broke the kiss, he turned his head and cleared his throat. The way his brow bent forward said the pain was bad.
"Despréaux is my father," he said at once.
"It happened the night Momma died."
Her eyes got big again. "Is that what you meant by, 'she rode the fire out…'?"
"For her, the fire was the cancer. The cancer burned her up, and it was the most horrible thing I ever saw."
"Everybody around came to watch Pa breathe the flame. He came from a whole line of fire breathers, but no one was better. The old-fashioned way was to fill the cheeks with white lightning, any alcohol that could substitute for gasoline. Despréaux created the jacket."
"This?" she said, running her hands over the thick oily fabric that felt almost like flesh in the water.
He sighed and leaned his head against hers. "It was the only thing left after it happened. Night Momma passed, her screams were the most terrible noise. Wasn't a creature, man or insect, for miles who didn't bite his tongue that night. The screams chased Despréaux down the highway like he'd lost his mind.