Part Four- Where There’s Smoke . . .
Things ain’t better.
There, I said it. I was expecting, hoping, that a few more weeks passing by might cure my friend of his yen for the people and the village that rejected us, but it’s all just the same- maybe worse. He don’t eat regular and he’s always at that same spot, watching the comings and goings of the village and sometimes I can’t drag him away for hours.
By my best estimation, it is early July- not that I’ve done much by way of keeping count, but thinking back, I reckon that to be about right. And it sure feels the hot and sticky of mid-summer. If I’d been wily about it, I’d have kept scratch lines on some of that parchment that ol’ Brown offered me before I left the farm, but the very idea of writing down things that no one would ever read was too much just then, so I hadn’t taken any. O’ course, if I was in any way wily about time, I wouldn’t still be wearing the busted watch I found in the dirt all those weeks ago. I just can’t get myself to part with the onliest symbol of my past that I still have. Guess I’m a might like my young compadre in that- my useless watch means lost home just the same as that spot bordering between village and wood means it to him.
That’s where we are, by the way- sitting facing the village, our backs to the wood containing our hollow. We’re watching the village, which is buzzing with something. There is much more moving ’round and we can see that the long house has a garland of flowers draped ’round its eaves. Mostly, when we’re watching the village, he doesn’t talk, doesn’t want me to talk, but today he makes comment.
“Trav, good food.” He searches, squinty eyed to the left side of his brain before continuing, “Please the sun day,” he tells me.
“Mid-summer festival?” I ask, giving him the words.
“Festival. Yea, sun! Grow that food!” I mock cheer, punching my fist in the air. “We used to have it, too. We called it Fourth of July. Maybe people always have to have it- in our blood or some such.”
“Good food. Want somethin’ to eat. Want somethin’,” he states miserably and yeah, I get that. He’s pining especially hard today because the food at mid-summer is maybe is maybe the best he got all year, and maybe this was the day he used to feel the most a part of the place, and now he’s watching from out here.
Sweet smoke is in the air. Smells like they’re barbequing, which- oh but I miss that- checkered tablecloths and potato salad and a greasy cheeseburger- with too many onions for the bun to contain- and pie. And sweet tea and cold beer and ambrosia salad- fruit and fruited gelatin and marshmallows and whatever that creamy thing they add to it is.
“Yeah, I want something, too,” I commiserate.
So we sit there, wanting and watching and the smoke smells better than I remember the smoke from the village ever smelling- no bitter food smells, only the wood. I think on camping and picnics and s’mores- made with thoroughly burnt marshmallows- and ants and getting caught out in sudden summer thunderstorms- getting soaked to the skin with warm summer rain, but not caring.
It doesn’t smell like rain- it hasn’t rained in weeks- but there’s a few clouds forming on the horizon and I’m hoping for a good loud storm to rattle our bones and shake things up. Maybe between a good storm and the heartbreak of being on the outside of the mid-summer festival my friend will be convinced that there’s nothing here for him anymore. I glance at the storm clouds again and, boy howdy, but that’s moving fast. And, it’s a might strange how it’s shaped and- Oh no! That’s not clouds.
“Mudboy! That’s wildfire,” I blurt, using his old nickname without thinking of how I’ve sworn it off. “We have to make sure they know it’s coming! The village’ll burn!”
“Cook fire, Trav, Cook fire,” he tells me. “Good July festal food.”
“No, look.” I point to the gathering darkness. “You can see the flames through the trees.”
He squints carefully at the place where I’ve pointed. Then, he stands and sprints for the village. A few hundred yards from the village, he meets the Big Fellow who acts as sentry and I can see that my friend is signing furiously, trying to get the Big Fellow to take heed, but the Big Fellow just clocks him and he goes down. I’m still about 100 feet from them and I know my signing is nowhere as good as the boy’s, so I’m gonna need a different tack to get the Big Fellow to let us warn the village.
That said, if I had my druthers, I just want to beat on the Big Fellow like a drum until he is squishy for hurting the boy again. Then, I want to grab my fallen friend and leave the rest of them to burn, but I know my friend would never forgive me for letting his people go out like that. For want of a better idea, I tackle the Big Fellow anyways. While we are scuffling- my eye is blackened for sure and my left arm is bending the wrong way just now. My friend comes around, gets up and hops on the Big Fellow’s back as he’s bent over me landing a few kidney punches. Then he jumps off and high-tails it back towards the woods. Strangely, the Big Fellow leaves off his pummeling of my person- which he certainly did seem to be enjoying- he leaves off and chases after the boy.
After I get my feet back under me, not sure what to do- head after the Big Fellow or try to get someone in the village to give me the time of day, I hesitate. Then I remember that I can’t hardly form a sentence in their sign language which is somewhat different than Brown’s, I follow the Big fellow. By the time I catch up with them, my young friend is a little ways into the wood and teasing the Big Fellow, keeping first one tree trunk and then another between them. The boy is playing keep-away with something that flashes bright whenever a bit of sunlight glints off of it. It is a polished knife, one that the Big Fellow is known to brandish about menacingly just to make his already imposing figure that much more daunting. Now, I get what the plan is- lure the galoot close enough to see the fire himself, but I’m stymied on how to further things. They seem to be at an impasse. So, I jump on the Big Fellow again- an oldie but a goodie- and at least I’ll go down fighting.
And, if that don’t beat all, I made the right choice, because me distracting the Big Fellow allows the boy to come round the trees and get right up in the Big Fellow’s face with the knife poised right at his neck. We all stop stock still, but for all the breathless huffing we can’t help. I’m still half up on the Big Fellow’s shoulders, his one shoulder digging uncomfortably into my belly- hard to breathe that way.
“Hey, look,” my friend says, as he points through the trees at the approaching fire. The Big Fellow doesn’t turn his head, doesn’t listen- typical. So the boy uses the index finger of his free hand to push the Big Fellow’s chin to the side, pointing his face to what he needs to see. The Big Fellow gives a hissing growl which suddenly stops- I reckon when he spots what we been laboring so hard to get him to take notice of- and then he goes slack. I let myself fall back to the ground, not needing to weigh the galoot down anymore. The boy steps back and offers the Big Fellow his knife back. He takes it and runs for the village. We trail right after. They just better appreciate what we just went through to save their hides in the village.
They don’t. Sure, they abide when my friend translates my instructions of how to dig a long trench as a firebreak and wet down the nearest buildings with river water to keep sparks carried by the wind from bringing the fire over the firebreak. Charlie Neff’s rambling Kuwaiti firefighting story came in handy, but once the village is safe, they don’t ask us to stay, they don’t give us gifts of thanks, they dont even ask us to join the stinking festival that they are still gonna throw. The Old Mother just hands us some bitter bread wrapped in some stinky cloth and send us on our way. We’re sweaty, we’re hungry, we lost our hollow and all the supplies in it to the fire and we saved their whole village, but we just get bitter bread wrapped in stinky cloth and an invitation to leave.
I didn’t have to drag my compadre from the village this time, he finally understands that they don’t want him, never wanted him in their midst, so setting our backs to the village was a piece of relief. We do linger in the nearby fields to gather some provisions and we also stop by our favorite swimming hole to get clean and get our fill of drink before we start traveling. He thinks that there is another village upriver some days walk, so we start walking along the bank. A lot of the wood is charred and gone but some spots are just as they were. It is in one of those oases of untouched woods that we settle for the night.
As I stare up at the starless sky- the smoke hasn’t cleared because the fire’s still burning a ways away- as I look at the stars, I realize that I’ve officially picked up a sidekick- he don’t have anywhere much to go but with me, just like I don’t have anywhere much to go at all. It doesn’t matter that I’d only set down next to him hoping to find someone half-sane to talk to and be amicable with, we’re together now and I could no more abandon him than leave behind my right arm.