I was driving along an empty street of no more than twenty sparsely spaced houses. Two of them were burning, or rather smoldering with a lot of smoke. Trees, mostly half-dead willows or withered pines, stood tall in front of the houses, behind picket fences painted flaking green or blue. I could smell burning peat: the aroma was something between burning grass and weeds and burnt wood.
The landscape, mostly brownish yellow, resembled a pot of porridge stretching out to infinity. It simmered slowly; the air quivered like water over the hot dust on the road and over the tired, dusty sea of grass, and I knew that invisible bubbles of smoke were coming up out of it all the time.
I decided that the village was empty because I could not hear dogs barking. The only sound was that of the wind rustling through the trees.
Then I saw that woman.
She was about my age, twenty-eight or a couple of years younger. Suntanned knees and forearms. Really beautiful. Not another pretty doll face, but someone who draws attention to herself immediately when you see her. As beautiful as a painting or an ancient sculpture could be. Her slightly aquiline nose did not spoil the impression but made her look like some oriental goddess. She was in a white summer dress. Her hair was golden-brown, not very long. She waved to me, and I pulled up to the house.
She told me she and her daughter were the last people in the village. They did not have a car to escape, so I was their last hope.
She invited me into the house to take some things out.
I entered the dark hall – after the burning sunlight outside, it was like jumping into cold water – and almost tripped over a smiling blond girl of three or four who was standing in the shade, chewing a pear.
The girl pattered out. In the sun, her hair looked as if it were made of pure light.
There were some broken plates and glasses on the floor. The television was on, without sound, glimmering in a nerve-racking hush. On the bathroom floor paved white, I saw red stars of blood. Maybe someone had cut their finger in panic, hurrying to pack up. On the window sill in the kitchen, I saw an unzipped leather wallet. It was opening its mouth wide like someone sitting in a dentist’s chair. I could see some paper money inside. An unfinished plate of mashed potatoes on the table looked sad and desolate. A bottle of salad oil lay on the kitchen counter, spilling the oil.
I put the bottle upright, careful not to smear my fingers, then picked up two heavy bags and carried them out.
A bunch of fragrant old pines stood behind the house. Those trees could catch fire at any moment. The smell in the air was like ham baked over an open fire, with touches of grass, moss, and dry leaves, and it was getting stronger, which could not be good. I scanned the area for spots of ash but did not see any. All the grass was dry and yellow but not gray. An ash area, even if it is very small and smokeless, might conceal a burning ash pit underneath, like a small piece of drifting ice may, in fact, be the tip of an iceberg.
Peat fires are so inconspicuous: you can see nothing dangerous except for smoke haze, but you know that the ground somewhere under your feet might be on fire. Even if the fire is not directly under your feet, it creeps towards you, blind and invisible, eating, fingering, dancing its way through the preserved plants, roots, leaves packed in the soil for centuries, though the moss dark green like bottle glass. If you are in a dry forest, the trees around you may suddenly burst into flames, and you will have no time to escape. The ground may collapse under your feet, sending you down into the burning void ten feet deep before you know it. Burning peat sometimes smells delicious, like smoky bacon. The treacherous smoke does not sting your eyes at all, while the carbon monoxide and methane released into the air are killing you, slowly and surely.
But now, things looked safe enough, which meant we still had some time. I started loading bags, packets, and crates onto the truck. There were not many.
I tried to strike up a conversation several times, but the woman remained silent and withdrawn. Now and again, I caught her taking quick glances at me, and I felt she was about to tell me about something messy, about something not fun at all to talk about. I could nearly see the words forming on her lips, but the only things she would say were “yes,” or “no,” or “perfect,” especially when things were really far from perfect. It is the kind of thing women sometimes do when they want you to feel guilty or otherwise bad when they want to be razor-sharp without losing their blue-eyed politeness. I did not care. Anyway, in the dense heat, it was getting difficult to breathe or talk or think. The moon-white, shaggy sun hung in the sky like a burner lit on a gas stove, and I felt my head was slowly turning into a fried egg, overdone or even burnt.
I was not quite sure if it was the sun heating the air and the ground under my feet, or the ground itself may just be getting hotter.
When I accidentally touched the woman’s hand, she flinched. Her fingers were strangely cold on such a hot day.
I asked her if we had taken everything she wanted.
“Yes,” she said. “We can leave now.”
“Did you take your legal documents? Bank cards? A change of clothes?”
She nodded. She was so self-absorbed she was not even looking at me.
“Family photos? Money? Valuables?”
“Are you going to rob me?” she asked with sudden hostility.
I could not tell if she was serious. She looked tense, unlike her daughter, who obviously enjoyed the situation.
“Did you take all your dolls and kittens?” I asked the little girl.
She smiled, the juice of a pear dribbling out the sides of her mouth then hid behind her mother’s leg.
“Kitty’s name is Miss Inky, and she likes eating pickles,” she informed me with a naughty sparkle in her eyes.
“You haven’t locked the door yet,” I said to her mother.
The woman demonstratively slammed the front door shut and dropped the keys on the porch.
“There won’t be any door pretty soon,” she said.
She paused, thinking of something. I could not help examining her beautiful features, her posture frozen in momentary anger, two parallel lines between her eyebrows, her thin, pursed lips of a woman who was going to spit on someone’s grave.
“This whole damn village is going to hell, where it belongs,” she added, with a hint of metal in her voice, and I knew that no matter what I would say next, her anger would unfurl like a black umbrella.
Speaking to an angry woman is not my strong side, so I just shrugged and climbed into the truck cabin. I drank warm water from a plastic bottle there, then got out again. Something was bugging me. Something was not all right.
“You should take a supply of any prescription medication you have,” I said.
“I took absolutely everything I need,” the girl’s mother repeated, raising her voice as if blaming me as if challenging me to argue and say something against it. “What are we waiting for? Hurry up!”
“Is everything all right?” I asked and waited for an answer, but she did not respond.
I walked a few steps towards the house and stopped. I had a feeling that the ground under my feet had become strangely resilient as if it was made of stretched rubber or sponge, which probably meant that fire was slowly kissing the surface from the inside, and the thing I was standing on was not firm ground anymore but a thin roof of dirt and sand resting on burnt, flimsy skeletons of ancient plants. The ground trembled and sort of breathed, slightly, so slightly that I wasn’t sure whether I just imagined that it gave under my foot or not.
“We forgot to take Papa,” the little girl said behind my back.
“Hush, it’s a secret,” her mom said quietly. “Where’s he?”
“He’s sleeping in the weeds behind the barn. He’s really drunk again.”
At first, I did not understand what they were talking about. Some part of my mind that was no longer conscious just registered the words while I was focused on the ground under my feet because I was almost sure there was an active fire beneath me. The last thing I wanted was to get swallowed by a peat hole. Burning peat holes can be six to twelve feet deep. Though the peat in the bottom may be burning powerfully, there are no signs of it on the surface: no smoke, no heat. If you fall into one, no one and nothing can help you. The edges of the hole crumble; you can’t get a grip. Even if there’s a fire engine near, no matter how strong a water jet is squirted down, it will explode back as a steam jet.
“Let Daddy have some rest,” the woman said to the girl in a hushed, sugary voice. “He must be tired.”
“Of beating you and ripping your hair, Mom?” the girl asked.
“Yes, my sweet.” She put an arm around her daughter’s shoulder, stroked the girl’s head, and pushed her gently away from me. “Now get in the truck.”
They got into the cabin, the woman quiet, her daughter giggling and whispering soothingly to a frightened black kitten that was trying to writhe out of her arms.
At that moment, I noticed how the woman held her left hand, trying not to touch anything: I think her little finger might be broken. I noticed a fresh purple bruise on her neck that looked like a thumbprint. There were also some old bruises on her arms, but they were almost invisible on the suntanned skin.
My throat felt tight. The realization cut through me like a knife.
I stared at her in disbelief, then I looked back at the house. The next moment, the nearest pine caught fire, turning into a flaming praying mantis forty feet tall. A column of pure, smokeless flame shot up to the sky. Billowed by a sudden wind, it separated into a dozen hungry tongues that, for a split second, hesitated, hung motionless in the empty air, trembling, powerful, alive. Then flames spiraled up. Some hissing branches jumped onto the roof of the house. Smoke billowed up, turning the sunlight from white to golden and the color of old bronze. Tufts of pine needle ash were falling on the ground like gray hair cut from someone’s head.
Maybe I still had time to rescue the man who slept dead drunk behind the barn, tired after beating his wife. Or maybe not. Most probably not, I said to myself in panic.
Flames appeared under the tin roof; they flowed like water, eating their way down. It all happened so unbelievably fast, or probably the time stopped then, congealed into one incredibly long moment. When I think of it now, I feel that moment still lasts; in some other plane of existence, it will never come to an end.
I looked at the woman again. Her eyes were dry but unfocused as if she were near-sighted.
She didn’t say anything. She knew that I knew, and she knew I was scanning her face for any signs of guilt or remorse, but there were none. Instead, she looked deadly tired, exhausted to the point of despair, to the point of not being able to be afraid of anything. Or care about anything. She was holding my stare without looking away, so I had to look down, strangely embarrassed.
Then I did the thing I have not been able to forgive myself ever since: I started the truck.
Flames leaped onto a woodpile near the house. Then, forming a humming vortex, they reached up to the sky.
The next moment it was too late to change anything.