I had been fighting wildfires my entire adult life. The adrenaline of fighting the most primitive of all living things on this planet kept me going back every day. The adrenaline from fighting a fire for three weeks will keep you going for the rest of the year. If you don’t think that fire is a living, breathing being, then you have never fought one or intently studied it. All fires need oxygen to breath, that’s how we put them out, we smother their ability to breath oxygen and they slowly die, the same as any of us would. All fires eat whatever their fancy in their path. They need to eat, if they run out of food, they die. We do this too, by letting loose young fires in the path of the big fire and let them eat all the food before the big fire can get to them. You take out the food supply, the being dies. Fires give birth to young, and they set them free on a floating ash to land in an area away from their food supply to find their own food and grow until they too give birth to new fires. Fires have long ago discovered the meaning of their life, and they have been doing it for billions of years on this planet, and they will continue to do it long after the human plague has subsided.
When you stand surrounded by a fierce opponent of a fire, you can hear it. Yes, there is the cracking of the fire, but that is not that fire, that is the sound of everything being consumed by the fire. The fire itself screams and bellows, it has a siren call that entrances you and calls for you to stop and let it live. When a firefighter loses control of a fire, there is always an investigation into what went wrong, what could have gone better and whether the fighter was at fault. All the investigations I have been part of, every firefighter has said the same thing, that they heard a call beckoning to them. This is always played off as not real, and their imaginations as the fire itself is too hard to hear over, it was always the fighters imagination playing tricks on them.
Several times I have fallen for this call and have allowed a fire to blow past me. As a thank you for stopping the fight, the fire had let me live. It could have consumed me as it does so many people who try to flee and try to fight it’s fury, but if you give in and surrender to it, it will allow you to pass. Like I said, fire is a living, breathing being that is conscious of its decisions and actions, but that is a story for another day.
It was because of the siren call, and my falling prey to it that I ended up out there on this day. I told you that we tried to starve the fire out, and well, that takes a group of people to go miles ahead of the fire and start small ones to eat up all the brush and kindling around, and then before they get too big, really barely larger than a campfire, we snuff them out. No hoses, no water, just us, our firestarters, and our thick boots and shovels. It is dirty work, but when you lose the Chief’s confidence, this is where you end up. It is you, the Plebs, the Old Timers, and maybe some volunteers to run you out some water and keep a lookout for the large fire on the horizon. Seeing the fire means it is rapidly approaching and it is our sign to move another few miles away and start again. There was no excitement in this, no adrenaline, just boredom and monotony. It is what has to be done to get back on the front lines and confront the demon again, and prove that you are better.
Johnny shuffled over to me on this day, dragging his shovel at his feet and simply said, “Fires coming.”
I looked up, saw flames licking the skyline in the distance. A helicopter flew just ahead of the flames and dropped water from the lake into the path of the fire. I let out a sigh and stomped at the small fire that I had going in front of me. A quick whistle and a point to the field in front of us got the same action out of the dozen others with Johnny and I. Everyone else jumped into their beat up location trucks and drove off to the next pre planned site. If there was a shift in the fire, or if it looked like the fire would get contained, they would radio ahead and either shift our location, or put us on standby.
“Jake, shouldn’t we make sure all the fires are out?” Johnny was a Pleb. First year, straight out of the academy, and always looking to do things by the book. Chief knew this would drive me crazy, so Johnny was the obvious choice to make me partner with.
“Look over there,” I told him, pointing to the raging inferno on its way to us, “That is a 1,000 acre fire that right now is moving towards us at about 15 miles an hour, and we are about 2 miles away from that. That means it will be on top of us in less than ten minutes. What the hell does it matter if the fires are out?”
Johnny looked at me. I couldn’t tell if he was scared to say something to me, or if he was trying to do the math in his head to make sure I was right. Either way, he finally spoke up, “What if the winds shift, and the fire never comes down here? We then left all these fires and they could turn into another. We’re already strapped, and Chief says…”
“Just stop. Get out of the car, we have two minutes to check all the fires out, then we are on the move. I’m not going to die for this fire, after not even being part of the fight!”
We both got out of the truck, and after about a minute, I could not stand it anymore. It’s amazing how far away you can feel the heat from a fire. “Back in the car now!” I yelled this as the sound of the fire was starting to become too much. Johnny could feel and hear it too, and I am sure he realized his decision to verify the fires out was the wrong one.
Both doors to the truck slammed simultaneously, as smoke started to infiltrate the cabin of the truck. Instinctively I shut all the vents to the car, turned the A/C off, and slammed the car into reverse.
“The next burn site is the other way!” all I could hear is the terror coming from Johnny.
“Yeah, you wanna drive through that?” As I asked, Johnny stopped looking through his side window at the larger fire to see that we had been flanked by a younger fire, obviously sent ahead of the parent fire. The street was ablaze on all sides in front of us, and the tar on the road was bubbling from the extreme heat.
“Ummm…ok….backwards is good!”
“Yeah, working on it!” The fire had reached us and was closing in from all sides. There was no choice left, I spun the wheel, and whipped the truck into drive, heading straight into a field not yet covered in flames. I wasn’t concerned about whether the truck could do 15 miles an hour through the woods to outrun the fire, all I cared about was not staying still.
I aimed the truck for a small gap in the tree line and floored it. It seemed as if we were opening up on the fire, which was good, but with an open field with nothing but dry grass in between us, the fire would speed up and gain. Through the windows, the sound of the truck careening through the field and the fire, I swear I could still hear that siren’s call. No way I could look back now, I couldn’t freeze again.
As the truck entered the woods, darkness instantly fell upon us, and it became near impossible to see. One branch broke the passenger headlight, making it pitch black on the right side of the car. Animals darted in front of the truck, running for their lives from the fire, and trees seemed to all but jump in front of the truck.
“Jake?” Nothing but fear remained in Johnny’s voice.
“There has to be an opening here somewhere, that will lead to an access road or a hunters trail that will get us back to a main road, and from there we will catch back up with team,” I did everything I could to keep my voice calm, and to not show how truly terrified I was.
I couldn’t even see the glow of the fire behind us, which means either the woods were too dense to see it, or we had gotten away from it. I let my foot off the gas, and allowed the truck to slowly decelerate.
“Jake, do you think the radio will work?”
I grabbed the radio, and tried to no avail, and a quick glance would tell me why. It had been bumped off of our frequency, probably from all the bouncing around in the journey down the hill. Looking down at it to set it correctly,, my gaze came off of whatever was in front of us, for only about two seconds.
I looked up, just in time to see the large oak tree that was about ten feet around in front of the car. With nothing to grip onto, the tires slid on the mud and wet leaves below them. There was no way for the brakes to stop the car in time. Luckily the crash didn’t do any damage to Johnny or myself. The truck’s engine however, stalled. After trying three times to get it restarted, I gave up.
“Johnny, get your flashlight and crash bag. We’re walking from here.”
Obediently Johnny grabbed his bag and forced the door open. I am sure his obedience at this time came from him knowing that he caused this. I grabbed my own light ready to head into the woods to find something to get us back to civilization. That whole track down the hill could only have put us a couple of miles into the woods and it should be shallow enough to have plenty of hunting trails scattered throughout.
We set off in a direction, that I am pretty sure was south, in silence. Myself in front, and Johnny trailing behind. No way he was going to try and suggest what we do now. I would have given him a week in the department after this. Even if he had regained his confidence, he would have never been able to make a decision on the fly, nor would anyone trust his decisions. Unless of course I were to cover for him and say that we just got overwhelmed by the fire on the way out, and that after we had packed everything up, we had never left the cab of the truck. Who knows if it would have done any good.
We walked in silence for 15 minutes, with the sound of the fire never really getting any closer, but never really getting any further. The woods can be deceiving though, and sounds that seem like they are miles away are directly on top of you, and sounds that seem like they are right next to you are miles away. A trained outdoorsman can tell the difference, but not me. I’m outdoors to fight a fire, then back into the serenity of my recliner.
“Jake, what was that?” Johnny finally felt like breaking the silence.
“I don’t hear anything, but it’s the woods, there are noises everywhere. Plus all the wildlife is on edge and moving about when they normally wouldn’t. Stop worrying about that, and worry about finding a trail, and probably about keeping your job!” I know it wasn’t the right thing to say, but it kind of was his fault we were here. He was lucky to be alive.
After only a few more minutes of silence, Johnny broke it again. “There it is again! Don’t you hear that?”
I stopped and was ready to start chastising him again, when in fact I did hear it. It sounded like a baby crying, but only more agony than a child should know, and louder than any human baby could yell. “There are a lot of animals that sound like crying babies when they are in peril. Raccoons do it, and I’m sure there’s a raccoon in pain somewhere near us due to the fire. Unless you want to join in their pain, keep up and find the damn trails!”
I knew it wasn’t a raccoon though, those are all over every suburban neighborhood for the fine dining they get out of the trash. Their sounds are something we all knew well, but it seemed to at least get Johnny to stop.
The sound again happened, and now there was no doubt that it was not a raccoon. It was directly in front of us, and after every loud cry was muffled tones that followed. Almost as if they were a quiet response to the crying. Johnny and I looked at each other, and as our lights scanned the area, there was obvious shaking. The cry seemed to come every few minutes, and were always followed by the same hushed murmurs. We stood silently not wanting to move, intently listening for the next below. As we looked at each other, we were both poised to run in whatever direction we knew the sound did not come from. I knew the fire still burned somewhere behind us, and knew that was not an escape option, that only running parallel to the fire or further down the hill. I was ready to do either as the next scream came. This one was louder than all the others, and there was no doubt that it was directly in front of us, something was dying in front of us. Johnny, startled, fell backwards and as he stumbled twigs snapped beneath his feet. The sound of the snapping twigs instantly silenced the screams from in front of us. Whatever it was knew we were there. The deafening silence seemed to last an eternity, but I did not know if I even wanted it to be broken. Silence meant Johnny and I would not need to face whatever it was in front of us.
After a while I leaned forward to see if I could hear anything. We had to make a decision, the fire would eventually be upon us, and even though that meant a large group of firefighters may come with it, Johnny and I had no protective gear on us. Our Firefighting Ensembles were left in the truck, along with our SCBA’s, we would easily receive third degree burns and most likely die of smoke inhalation before those firefighters ever caught up to us. I heard nothing in front of us, and nothing around us. As I turned to face Johnny and motion for him that we needed to continue down the hill, I felt it. I was being poked in the back with what I assumed was a rifle, and a voice accompanied the rifle.
“Do not move an inch,” the voice was calm and demanding, almost unemotional. As I looked over at Johnny, his eyes were wide with what I assumed he was seeing. He could not tell if he was too scared to run, or did not want to jeopardize my life again.
“Sir, we’re just fire…”
“Did I ask you any questions?” The voice immediately cut me off. “We do not care who you are. We care about what you have seen.”
Johnny and I neither knew how to answer. Our pause was taken as disdain, and our captor was not happy about it.
“Again, what have you seen?” This time with definite anger, and the barrel of the rifle pushed even further into my back.
“Seen? I saw a huge fire that is barreling down on us as we speak! I see someone with a rifle in my friend’s back. I see the trees around us that will soon be kindling if we do not get out of here.” I have no idea where Johnny’s anger was coming from, perhaps that it was for the second time in an hour he was being subjected to impending death.
“In front of you, what have you seen?” Less anger this time, and more angst. Perhaps reminding him of the fire was enough to get him to give up on intimidation, and worry about getting out of the area.
Before Johnny or I could answer, the cry in front of us happened again. When it did, the rifle that was so sharply put into my back fell away. Knowing that I would most likely die if we did not move soon, I gathered the courage and spun around before my captor could take action. As I turned I did not see what I would expect to find in the woods. I saw a man whose face was tattered and filled with lines of years of pain and worry. The face was blackened from what appeared to be soot from the fire that still threatened to encompass us. He was dressed in all black, designed to blend into shadows not into the woods, and most of all, he showed utter concern for the screams in front of us.
“Is your friend hurt?” It was Johnny this time who had spoken up. “Look, I am training to be a First Responder. I have my crash bag, maybe I can help your friend and then everyone can get out of here.”
It was at this point, I made up my mind that I would not share Johnny’s mistake. If he could put together rational thoughts with a mysterious armed man threatening him, while a fire rages behind him, and unknown screams in front of him, then he will be just fine to make the call in a fire.
“You have no idea what you are saying,” the man spoke, “You are not moving a single step forward.” The barrel of his rifle moved upwards slightly, intimidation was all this man knew, but I could tell it was not in his nature to do so. “No, it’s the only choice right now,” the man spoke quietly and started to sound as if he had been defeated.
“You both must stay behind me at all times. You both must not make any noise, or speak unless spoken to. When you are told to stop, you will stop and not move again until directed to. Is that clear?”
We both nodded our heads, having no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but hoping he would know the way out. After only walking a few minutes, the man told us to stop and not make a sound, and made us turn off our flashlights, our eyes not adjusting to the quickly darkening woods surrounding us. I am sure now that was by design, but the glow of the impending fire was still illuminating some of the way forward. What I saw next made me reconsider everything I had ever known before.
There in front of us was a beast like I had never seen. Laying on the ground was a creature that was about seven feet tall with the build of a man. Hair covered it’s entire body, save for some patches on his face that let the features show through, which oddly enough looked like a large man’s face. It’s face was distorted in anguish and pain, and we quickly found the source of the cries we had heard. The great beast arched its back and again cried out, not from fear or anger, but in pain.
“He’s hurt,” the man said, “burned badly by the fire, he had tried to reason with the fire, to save it’s home, and lost.” As the man finished his words, a large hair covered hand came out of the darkness and touched the beast, trying to calm it. It seemed to at least slightly work as it stopped crying, and looked up into the night sky.
“What do you have in the bag?” The man’s attention had now been focused on Johnny and his go bag.
“General first aid stuff, some equipment to make an air way, exasperate a lung, really just general stuff”
“See what you can do for him, please. He is a hero and we need to get him out of here before others come.”
“Wait a minute, you can’t be serious?” I was still in shock of what I was seeing, “What exactly do you think he can do? We aren’t trained in how to treat wounds on an ape!”
“Don’t call him an ape!” The man quickly got in my face, and in one swift motion the rifle was again pointed in my direction. “You have no idea what you stumbled into, and the only reason you are even still alive is because maybe your friend can help ours. Do not give me a reason to change my mind!”
He looked at my friend and then motioned for him to move to the great beast. “Do not look into his eyes, you will scare him and you are not worthy of gazing into the Pride’s eyes. Take a look at his wounds, and see if there is anything you can do. Do not talk to him, he can understand you, but he will not desecrate his mind by speaking our words.”
Johnny cautiously walked over to the being, and never once looked as apprehensive as I was. He instead looked intrigued, and in awe. Me, I was terrified and wanted out of this situation. It took Johnny all of two minutes to walk back to us.
“There is nothing I can do. He has third degree burns over three quarters of his body, it looks as if something has beat him in the chest to the point of his rib cage being pulverized, and I am fairly certain he has internal bleeding that will cause him to bleed out in a few more minutes. I can relieve his pain, if the morphine I have will even affect him. He is just so big, I don’t know.”
“No drugs,” that was all the man would say, and that was the end of that. He walked over to the second creature that was still standing in the shadows. The creature leaned down so his head was even to the man’s, and seemed to be listening intently. As the man walked away, the creature never moved. He was still hunched over as if he were still listening. His eyes shifted to the creature on its back, and it almost seemed as if they were able to understand each other without a word being spoken. There was a calmness about what happened next, the larger uninjured one made it to his partner in one step. It knelt down and placed it’s hand over the brow of the injured one. As he tilted his head back he let loose a bellow that trumpeted throughout the woods, a glow came from its eyes, and it looked back down at what I assumed was a loved one. It’s gaze lit the face of the injured and the anguish in its eyes went away. They both started to glow from their heads to their feet, and just as quickly as it started, the glow was gone, as was the injured beast.
“What the hell?” I know I wasn’t supposed to talk but after seeing something like that, I could not help it. The one remaining creature walked over to me in only a few steps, and knelt down to put his face at my face’s level. I could not move, as it reached up with both hands and placed one on either side of my temples. His eyes began to glow as they had before, and I could not help but look into its eyes, I knew I was not supposed to, but I was drawn to it. In an instant, I knew everything. I knew what they were, I knew they were not an ape, and I knew the sorrow that he felt in that moment.
“He just imprinted on you, I told you not to look into his eyes,” the man now looked at me, “There is nothing I can do for you now, you know it all and you know what you are now.”
The fact is I did know what I was. I was now one sworn to keep the secret of them. I was now one sworn to aid them in whatever endeavor they would need. I saw all of it, and I was not scared anymore. As I looked at the man in bewilderment, he appeared older. His face showed more signs of a harsh life, the hair I could see was now white and there was less of it.
We spent the rest of the night wandering the woods. In and out of caves, and through streams and canyons. I stopped worrying about the fire as it’s light grew dimmer and dimmer. I assumed all my former brothers were able to get it under control, but in reality I know now the fire just gave up for the time being, but it would be back again to try and take from my new companions what it tried to take that night. Periodically through the night we would stop as we heard more cries through the night, and every time my companion would leave us, there would be a glow from his area, and every time he would come back more distraught than he was before, but also a little different in appearance.
As the sun rose in the distance, we finally made it to a hunting trail. The man dressed in black turned to Johnny.
“If you go down this trail about two clics, you will come to a private road. Go down that road, and you will find yourself on Route 2. It should not be long until someone finds you.”
“I can’t leave without Jake, there will be questions. He needs to come back with me.”
I looked at Johnny, and then my companion. I knew what he wanted, and knew what I needed to do.
“Johnny, tell them what happened. Tell them we heard the cries, and that we went to make sure there were not any injured people. In the darkness, I fell down a ravine, and you could not get me to respond. After hiking all night, you finally found your way back to civilization. Yeah, they will set out and search for me. There will be guided groups into the area, and there will be helicopters abound all determined to find their missing man. They won’t, and after a few days they will give up and I will be added to the list of men MIA in the woods while fighting a demon fire. It’s okay Johnny, you will not be blamed.”
Johnny looked at me, longing to say something, but unable to find the words that matched the situation we had just gone through. He just nodded his head and went off down the train in the direction told. I never saw him again, and until now no human has seen or heard from me that was not an imprinted one. I tell you this now, as I have been released from my Pride, and a new imprinted one put in my place. I will tell these stories of Fires, Demons, Fairies and all the other creatures that you never knew existed or only existed in children’s tales. Most of all, I will tell you all that will listen to the stories of those you call Sasquatch, Yeti, Bigfoot or the Abominable Snowman, but I call them friends. My time is drawing to an end, my Pride showed me that night the end of my story, but not the journey. My journey ends soon, who wants to hear it?
Credit : Curtis Kammerer
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