by LISA M. GREEN
The fire’s going out again.
Outstretched arms reaching, stretching, to the sides, the ground, the sky. His arms. Beckoning me forward, not forcefully, but urgently. Who is he? Is it a sign, a signal, a summons? I wish I knew what he wants, but, as usual, I will not find the answers I seek.
The fire’s going out again!
Struggling through layers of unconsciousness, I drag myself onto an unwieldy elbow as I attempt to open my eyes. Total blackness looms before me. Well, that doesn’t make any sense. There should be at least some light filtering through the windows by now. Oh, right. My eyes are still closed.
The . . . FIRE . . . is . . . going . . . OUT, Rinni! Get up and help me!
You see, I should have expected the current lingering pain in the small of my back. At least my eyes are open now. Mori has never understood how to be subtle.
Wait, did he say the fire . . . ?
I’m on my feet in less than a second, all thoughts of the pain and Mori’s rude boot to my back forgotten.
“Give me the rod, and you go get more wood! Grab the smaller stuff for now. Go, hurry!” I scream anxiously.
When faced with trouble or disaster, I’m usually fairly calm, but my concern has been growing as of late. The communal fire, when properly attended, should never go out. At least, it never has before as far back as anyone can remember. The stares I’ve been getting out in the village are beginning to make me think that people are blaming us. Mori and I. We’ve been tending the fire since we were old enough to do it on our own. Kirris and Whelsi were the previous Tenders, and they taught us everything there was to keeping the fire. Up until recently, not once in all of our years as Tenders has anything out of the ordinary happened. Except for that one time with Bhradon, but that wasn’t my fault. Seriously, it really wasn’t.
There is so much more to tending than just watching the fire to keep it at a steady blaze. Mori and I are two of four Tenders for our people. The other pair, Jinsa and Prastin, has been doing this a little longer than us, but only by a few years. We share the responsibilities of gathering the wood from the Healing Tree, keeping it stocked in the firehouse reticule, and, of course, tending and watching the fire to be certain nothing happens. We also share the burden of day versus night shifts so that all of us can enjoy time with family and friends. And the two (now three) instances of the fire practically burning out have just happened to be on our shift.
It’s not that the fire wouldn’t burn out if we just stopped supplying it with fodder. But the wood from the tree burns long and bright, so that even a slow, steady hand is enough to keep things blazing for a long time. One portion of kindling will last for days, and I had just placed a fresh ration on the fire when our shift began last night.
Mori returns with the firewood from the container out behind the house, and we begin to stack the wood in the fashion that our predecessors taught us. Not easy when you consider how enormous our communal fire is. But we know what we are doing, and soon the fire is slowly building back up, albeit much less and much lower than it should be.
Everyone knows what that look in Mori’s eyes means. He has the uncanny ability to invoke shame and humility on almost anyone with just that look, even when they’ve done nothing wrong. Like myself, for instance.
“What?” My brain joins my ears in preparation for one of his lectures.
“Well, perhaps if someone wasn’t so busy snoring. Not to mention dreaming of strange men . . . .”
“I do not snore! It was my time for lie-down, so you should have been paying more attention. The fire doesn’t just suddenly go out. And I don’t dream about strange men!”
“Sure sounded like it to me: ‘What’s your name? Who are you? What do you want from me?’ And it isn’t the first time, Rinni. Of course, I’d imagine it was Bhradon, only I’m pretty sure the two of you have exchanged more than names by now—”
“What is going on? Did it go out again?” Julos, one of our Primaries, is standing in the doorway to the firehouse with a look of concern mixed with anger on his wrinkled face. I’ll deal with Mori later.
I believe that contrition is the best approach at the moment.
“Good morning, Prime Julos. I humbly beg forgiveness on behalf of my brother and myself for allowing this to happen once again. However, we do not know why it happened, as the fire was being carefully tended at the time.” Stop with the condescending looks, Mori. “Immediate and precise action was taken once the problem arose.” Listen to me sounding so formal. Gani must be having a stronger influence on me than she realizes.
Julos is not amused or impressed, I see. “Quick action is all well and good, but why the need to begin with? There is no precedence for this sort of thing. You know that our entire livelihood depends upon that fire! I’m beginning to think that something devious is afoot . . . .”
Now my amusement has fizzled and died, along with all sense of proper commune decorum. A tiny voice in my head is telling me I’m going to regret this momentarily, but it is, after all, a very tiny voice. “Primary, are you implying that Mori and I have somehow abandoned our people in thought and spirit by attempting to destroy them, in order . . . to what?” Surely that isn’t my voice piercing the very air within the firehouse. I never get this angry. “For what, Julos? What possible reason would we have for destroying our own people and ourselves in the process?” Sobbing and shouting in an alternating rhythm that even I can barely understand.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see that Mori’s contemptuous glare has softened into one of honest concern. I can tell that my outburst has made him uneasy, but my emotions have run completely off course, and I carry on with my bizarre orchestra of distressed hysterics. Luckily, Julos has maintained his composure and is rational enough to see the danger in allowing me to continue down this awkward path.
“Hush, my child.” Somewhere deep down, my brain balks at his use of the word child. I am no more a child than Mori. Even though we are twins, people seem to forget this fact when regarding me as an established member of the community. We are both of bonding age, despite the fact that Mori seems far too interested in Gani’s garden to find a mate. But I digress. To Julos, as well as the other Primaries, we must all seem as children. Yet his use of the word does not suggest age. I know this, but my experiences have left me sensitive to this sort of thing. One of the roles of the Primaries is to be as father-mother figures to the rest of us, guiding us as a parent would. They are our elders; therefore, we are their children in a sense.
He continues in a soft tone, softer than I’ve ever heard him use before. “Corinne, you and Morick are both dear to me, dear to us all.” Whatever that means. He knows perfectly well how much his entire family despises me. “Your role is so very vital to our community. Never have I meant to insinuate that you would be capable of harming our people in any way. I am merely worried that something is behind all of this. What, I do not know. But many things have been developing lately that warrant explanation.” At that, his words are cut off as an earsplitting alarm begins to sound.
Uh, oh. I know that sound.