Annie Lampman is a creative writing professor at the Washington State University Honors College and fiction editor of the literary journal Blood Orange Review. Her work has been awarded a Best American Essays Notable; a Pushcart Prize Special Mention; first place in the Everybody-Writes contest; an Idaho Commission on the Arts grant; and a wilderness artist’s residency through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Whom the Lion Seeks
by Annie Lampman
After ten years locked up, Ezra thought he’d put the curse behind him. There were days, weeks even, when he’d no longer thought about of the sizzle of hair under a flame’s slightest touch, no longer dreamed about things burning down around him. But wasn’t that always how it happened? Right when you thought you’d made peace with a thing, right when you thought you were better, moving on with life, that’s when it would hit you again square in the face saying, what do you think of me now?
Several years back they’d had an opening on the prison work crew, so he’d signed up. The labor had done him good. Distraction from the dark reaches of his own mind. But then the depths of the decade-long drought hit, dry years accumulating into the worst fire conditions anyone had ever seen, and they converted the work crew into a North Idaho prison fire unit. When Ezra had protested, the guards shrugged their shoulders. Take it or leave it, they told him. And he gladly would have left it—chosen to stay in his cell forever over facing flames again—if it hadn’t been for his window’s southern exposure, heat bearing down, burning him alive just as surely as fire. Maybe it’d been the universe’s way of saying he needed to face it. He’d been reading books about healing past traumas. They said you could never move on if you didn’t deal with the past—“no healing without dealing.” And he needed to move on.
After training for weeks, Ezra, with a good “safety record,” was appointed fire crew boss. By the beginning of June, grass fractured underfoot and the Clearwater River—usually visible from the prison yard—had slipped completely out of sight, its rock banks left chalked white and exposed, the river valley a cauldron of shimmering heat waves. And one mountain storm was all it’d taken—lightning strikes by the hundreds, all that dry ground, all those drought-starved trees like tinder.
Spotter planes flew from dawn to dusk calling in one fire after another after another. The calls for inmate fire crews came in just as fast. One trip after the next until it was routine: the storms, the urgent fire calls, the unending drives to smoke, sweat, and char—the long familiar smells of Ezra’s nightmares.
He closed his eyes and tried to breathe through his nose into his lower stomach. That’s what the books said to do when the past came flooding back: Breathe deep. Exhale. He leaned his head against the prison van’s window glass, his stomach churning as the driver took the corners too sharply, rushing the crew to the newest blaze. The nausea always came on as soon as they started climbing out of the valley—the road cornered like a snake winding its way up the mountainside, banking vehicles toward cliff edges as if to throw them off its back.
Eighteen and strung out, Ezra had been driving too fast through the dark. At first the man walking the roadside had just been a blur through the windshield, but then Ezra had recognized him with a quick stutter to his heart—like the thrumming of a woodland grouse you felt first in your throat and then inside your own chest like a second faulty beat. His father, after all those years, appearing out of nowhere. Motor roaring, tires spinning and catching, the car seemed to hover in the air a second before impact—shoulder gravel crunching beneath the tires like broken glass, the man’s pale face in the headlights. Except it hadn’t been Ezra’s father after all. It’d been a drunk out-of-work logger who looked like some version of Ezra, of his father, of what they’d all become.
The van driver took another corner hard and they all lurched sideways in their seats. Ezra’s fists clenched tight. The books said to think of something light to replace the darkness, something good, something right now: “be positive in the present.” Ezra breathed in but flashed on Patrick as he always did—the only truly good thing he’d ever known in his life. Memories that only led further down into the dark. He worked to relax his shoulder tension, released and refilled his lungs, but the only “present” thing he could find to concentrate on was the sour, stale-smoke stench of his crew in the van’s oven-like heat.
The newest fire was up Isabella Creek drainage near Aquarius Campground. A two-and-a-half-hour drive to timbered mountains that stretched all the way to Montana. Forest Service crews that stayed all summer at the work center just a mile up from campground, perched right on the North Fork’s banks—waters running ice green and frothing all year long.
Ezra unfurled his fists, catching the only positive safe memory he had, pulling it out like a polished rock kept in a pocket, even if a distant memory wasn’t exactly being “positive in the present.” He was a child again, tube-floating the St. Joe River, face held underwater, eyes wide open watching trout nest against rocks, whipping river silt into a cloud when his shadowed silhouette caught them dozing. Young fingerlings nibbled bubbles clustered on his arm in quick nosings, the smooth flick of their bodies through water an effortless glide. A whole world going about its business underneath him as if he didn’t exist, his presence real only in drifting shadow as he spun without weight or direction, cast loose.
But then, like always, it became the two of them again—Ezra and Patrick—like a tape circling back and playing the images most worn in: the two of them along the Joe playing pirate, playing Huck Finn, playing search-and-rescue performing heroic feats. The two of them spinning on the tire suspended from a weeping willow growing next to the river, water below them like a promise, Patrick’s blonde head whipped back from the g-force, wispy hair in his eyes, willow branches brushing their faces, hands gripping the twisted ropes until they unraveled at high speed, kicking them free. The two of them—Patrick four, and Ezra six—lying side by side in tall grass, listening to crickets, dreaming of floating so far away they wouldn’t ever be found.
Long days in his cell—all the monkeys in the zoo howling, smashing against their bars—Ezra had kept a medieval history of art book until it was overdue, returning to Bosch’s painting, The Ship of Fools, over and over again, examining every detail as if he could find hidden meaning in its brush strokes: people caught in their folly—a man puking over the side of the ship, two drunks naked and imperiled in the water, even the monk and the nun caught in their own foolhardiness. Eat! Drink! Be Merry! Floating to nowhere, the scene somehow even more grim and foreboding than Hogarth’s Gin Lane whose streets were filled with corpses and whose happily drunken mother let her baby tumble from her lap to its death.
“Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise.” That one he remembered himself. His father stumbling home drunk, paycheck long gone, his mother weeping and begging while his father raged into the night. During school recitation, the nuns taught them that verse and a few others he still remembered: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom to devour.”
He’d wondered then how they knew—the nuns. Their eyes on his in pity, in warning. How they’d known it was him whom the lion sought, flames crawling up the wall, licking the fray of curtain edge, climbing hungrily for more, gobbling up faded roses and wallpaper pansies in seconds, then impatiently moving on to walls, framing, the roof—all of it, the whole house, consumed in moments. A blink of an eye.
But there had been no secrets, not like he thought. Once, when it had been really bad, when all his father had been able to find was a chain to remind Ezra and Patrick of their sins, there had been talk of someone from the church “taking them in,” but his mother would have none of it. Told them to mind their own meddling business. Said, “Let they who’ve not sinned throw the first stone.” Only the stones of his father’s sins were so heavy they buried them all.
His father had been gone for a month or more—that’s why Ezra wanted so badly to help his mother, to help Patrick. Build a fire to keep Patrick warm while he slept. Build a fire to make the house warm when their mother returned from her night shift. Build a fire. A six-year-old’s faith: if he could just do this one thing he could right all the wrongs. Their father would come back home, clean the equipment grease from the folds in his hands and pull Ezra and Patrick into his lap. Their mother would bake bread, humming like she did when she was pleased, and they would all sit together and eat, and they would be warm and full, and they would be happy.
The kindling took easy. The curtains even easier.
He’d called and called until his voice went hoarse, his cries like the bullfrogs he and Patrick hunted along the Joe’s marshy banks, but Patrick wouldn’t come out of the bedroom, wouldn’t come out of the house. By the time the neighbors came running, by the time their mother came, the house was already devoured. While Ezra watched, the smoke turned toward him, opened its mouth and roared.
Just before Headquarters—a tiny logging town, last civilization until Montana—the prison van met up with the lead fire crew from Timber Protective, following their red crew-cabs another hour out past Aquarius and up the drainage road. Ezra stared out the window as they bounced over water bars and ruts; it was as though they were driving through a tunnel of green—the woods so thick, so close together that fires burned through the crowns, hundreds of feet from the ground, as if held aloft by the air. The wind was a furnace blast through the window. He looked straight ahead, trying to focus, readying himself for the action.
At the bottom of the burn, they unloaded and geared up, Ezra’s stomach steadied by the smells of the fire: oil and chainsaw gas, smoke and char, talcum dirt and weedy heat, and behind it all a hint of green unburned forest. Ezra balanced a chainsaw over his shoulder. The others carried an assortment of Pulaskis, combies, rhinos, and rogue-hoes—fire-line digging and scraping tools. A Forest Service crew had come on early that morning—the fire bad enough all fire entities had been called in: federal, private, prison. The Forest Service boss said they’d set the east-side line so Ezra and his crew should take the lower west end.
The conditions were bad: windy, hot, dry. But not just that—it was eerie, threatening. A dark sky full of warning. Smoke hanging like a tattered shroud over burning trees.
Ezra and his crew hiked the line they’d been directed to. Spread out on the section above them, the Forest Service crew were blackened and smeared as if they’d been burned themselves. Ezra was surprised to see a girl—long blonde hair in a braid down her back—heaving away with the rest of them. She stopped to right her hardhat that had slipped to the side, and glanced down to where Ezra and his crew had stopped to set up. She gave a quick wave and smile as if welcoming them to a picnic. Everyone else kept their heads down, attending to business.
Ezra had been warned it was a bad burn, could tell it with one glance, but early in the morning the wind picked up and by the time they were a few hours into sawing and digging line to flank the fire, burned out snags had started falling, dislodging boulders that came barreling down the steep slopes like god-sized cannonballs. At one point, it got bad enough Ezra told his crew to get behind the standing trees and stay put. There was no way to work without getting crushed.
In the mayhem, the fire jumped the upper line and the Timber Protective crew lost their heads, calling in heli bucket drops and fire-plane retardant drops, misdirecting everything in the smoke. Ezra knew enough to maintain radio silence; the inmate unit was the lowest in the fire hierarchy, but even if they hadn’t been, this was no time for discussion. It was time to keep your head down and watch your back.
The heat as thick and choking as smoke, the air like dust, every now and then Ezra would look up from digging and see the girl somewhere up above, narrow shoulders heaving Pulaski against baked ground. She didn’t stop once, swung the tool over her head with everything she had, feet planted wide apart, braid whipping with her effort, as if she alone would stop this fire.
They all worked until afternoon before pausing for a small break. Ezra’s crew caught up with the Forest Service crew up above and as the men pulled out canteens and candy bars, the girl wandered over and sat next to Ezra. “Claire Rosen,” she said, smacking her bubblegum and holding her hand out, gloves still on. He shook her hand and she gave him a brilliant smile before breaking out a smashed sandwich. She worked her gum into a ball with her front teeth, took it out of her mouth, and carefully placed it on her sandwich baggie before taking a bite.
She flopped backward, lying in dirt and clumps of bear grass, chewing and talking at the same time, swiping at wisps of hair that had loosened around her face, little strands of blonde getting into her eyes, her forehead and temples smeared with soot. Told Ezra her older brother worked on a Missoula fire crew, said she couldn’t wait to tell him about this. She talked about the summer, about the conditions. How they had it much worse than anyone in Montana. When she finished her sandwich, she popped the hardened gum back in her mouth to chew it again.
Late that afternoon, a hotshot crew from Montana showed up. The fire had jumped another line, was burning heavy into federal forest. The superintendent hiked the line to assess the trajectory and conditions. Trees were still falling. It had turned almost rhythmic by that point. The thumping heave of Pulaski splitting the dirt open like a wound, the shuddering whoosh and earth-shaking thud of another tree falling and rolling at them. It’d been like this all day.
The superintendent hiked down to tell Ezra what he’d already told Timber Protective and the Forest Service crew: they should all leave—it wasn’t safe. He was writing up a report detailing the conditions as well as Timber Protective’s lack of organization and planning, etc.
Ezra wasn’t surprised the superintendent didn’t like the conditions, wouldn’t commit his crew. Who would? But it wasn’t Ezra’s job to question, to critique. His job was to work, to get the job done. When the hotshot crew left, he told his own crew to keep their heads down; they would continue until Timber Protective directed them not to. It wasn’t his fire to call.
He watched for the Forest Service crew and Claire to pack up, but they stayed on after the hotshot crew left. They were young, wanted to show their mettle, prove themselves. At the end of the line, Claire leaned on her Pulaski and grinned down the mountain at Ezra. Smudged and disheveled, she fist-pumped and yelled, “Oh Yeah! Fuck Montana!” Everyone grinned. They were together in this.
They battled side by side for hours, through the rippling heat and smoke, chainsaws spitting black oily wood into peach-colored chips on the fresh-churned dirt dark with moisture that within an hour dried to dust. Hoses strung out like white intestines across the hillside, spreading a ready net of water, everything still burning, the ground hot underfoot. Cedar trees burned inside out, punky heartwood consumed, nothing but an outer shell left standing.
By early evening, they bore the marks of the battle: white reverse raccoon eyes gleaming out of blackened faces, singed-off eyelashes, boots baked stiff from the heat, saw slashes in their steel toes, yellow fire-proof Nomex shirts drenched with sweat, green pants crusted brown, fetid with smoke. The smell of the burn, of smoke and charred wood, an overwhelming presence.
Claire was glassy-eyed, looked as if she’d been rolling in an ash pit—even her hair grey with soot. Ezra walked up to her and gave her his extra canteen and last packet of Kool-Aid. He told her it wasn’t his business, but she looked like she could use a rest. She nodded and sat. He sat with her, told his crew to continue on up the hill. She drank her Kool-Aid, pushed the hair out of her eyes, smiled at him despite her obvious exhaustion. Said she’d now logged more fire hours than her brother, said she couldn’t wait to rub this fire in his face.
She was so young, talking about her brother. Everything still coated with the sweetness of simple sibling rivalry. Who got the biggest slice of pie, the biggest scoop of ice cream.
You would have thought that after Patrick, Ezra would never have struck a match again, never flicked a lighter open thumbing it to flame, but instead he hadn’t been able to get enough. All those lost years, dark years. He burned everything—tried to burn himself, light his flesh like a candle, flames inked into his skin, but it was never enough. He’d wanted to die engulfed in flames. The hell the nuns had always warned about, a way of going home, a way of forgetting. Booze, heroin, fire, flight, what was the difference? It’d all gotten him to the same place. The nuns had said it over and over again: said if they didn’t watch out, the world would eat them alive and spit out their dry bones. It was the way destiny worked—a curse in the blood, a curse in the air like a kiss, leading you all the places you never thought you’d go.
But he was here now, he reminded himself. Fighting flames, cauterizing the past. Claire was talking about how she couldn’t wait to go swimming after they got off the fire. Dive in the North Fork and wash the soot off. Said she loved the water, could fall asleep back floating, that she’d once accidentally dozed off and floated down some rapids, waking to rocks and whitewater. Ezra smiled, thinking how he could add this moment to his own memory. These things—each tiny good thing. Maybe one day there would be enough to offset everything else.
They were still sitting when he heard it—almost a whistle, all that air rushing through needles. He knew it was close, knew it was coming fast. He lunged on instinct, but Claire didn’t. She was still talking about the river, had taken her hardhat off for a moment to tuck the loose hair back under it—not that the hardhat would have done any good anyway, not with the force of an uprooted seventy-foot grand fir whooshing past Ezra almost gently, catching him in the back of his leg, its heavily needled braches pinning him momentarily from moving.
It buried Claire so completely they had to saw their way in to her. Ten feet of green flat-needled branches. A smell like Christmas. Ezra pulling branches away so frantically they made him stop, get out of the way.
By the time they cleared the branches and bucked the trunk off of her, it was dark, nothing but the fire’s orange smoke glow and their flashing headlamps. A scene from nightmare—the very hell the nuns had warned of. Flames joining themselves and rushing on.
The men maneuvered her body in a sling down to the ambulance that came from two hours away, sirens screaming, even though everyone knew there was no rush. No call for haste or announcement. No call for anything but mourning.
They pulled the crews and the hotshot superintendent filed his report. Local newspapers picked the story up—the first local wildfire fatality in decades. There would be an investigation. There might be charges. Suits. But other than a few police interviews—the prison wildfire crew suspended for the rest of the season pending the investigation—Ezra was removed from it all. He sat on his cell bed, sun glaring down like a punishment, remembering the purple wad of bubblegum between her teeth when she’d smiled. The most beautiful thing he thought he’d ever seen.
Copyright 2018 by Annie Lampman