From Autumn Comes Through the Woods by Marius Katiliškis
 

    

ROUSED before midnight by the mad howling of the dogs, the inhabitants rolled out of their beds and charged through their doors. Each one of them thought the fire was in their own yard. The glow, like the red-hot bottom of a pan, was a domed lid right above their heads. Perhaps it was the Basiuliškės barn, which stood apart from the other buildings? Others thought that the dairy had gone up in crackling flames, having forgotten that it’s built of brick. The ranger was the quickest to catch on. He rushed about as though the shirt on his own back was on fire. He sat his child on the bicycle and sent him off to the forestry office. And, unable to wait, he ran to Doveika’s and used his telephone to call the warden for help.

     And what about the warden? All he could do was pass the news along to the forestry commission. The commissioner—here was a bureaucrat of note, and his brain could deal with this sort of matter. Organize the containment of the fire with local manpower. No one was even talking about extinguishing it. Who extinguishes a forest fire? Whatever a fire has taken—it’s taken it for good.

     A gigantic red shield was suspended above the black and frightening forest. The restrained dogs thrashed about on their chains; those running free retreated backwards, tails down, squeezing into corners, sad moans straining through their teeth. The horses snorted restlessly. The roosters, misled by the light, crowed, while cats sent strange red bolts shooting from their eyes. That same light climbed up the walls of the houses and glimmered in the windowpanes.

     The village elder ran from yard to yard and urged everyone who could lift a shovel or an axe to run and listen to what the warden had to say.

     “Burning, it’s burning!”

     “What’s burning? Where’s it burning?“ leaping up out of their sleep, they asked one another, these people stunned by fear, terror, and constant fatigue.

     “Over there, can’t you see?”

     “Basiuliškės?” 

     “No. The forest.”

     “Oh, the forest’s burning.”

     “By the Villkija. The fir grove of Margiai.”

     The government forest was burning. Not somebody’s barn with crops, not a grain barn with bins overflowing with the fresh harvest, not stables with animals perishing in the flames. People breathed more easily, even though the fire there was devouring hundreds of barns, hundreds of granaries and stables. There the fire was on a rampage and could not be drowned or smothered even if you threw every single shirt and tunic from the entire district on top of it. They didn’t resist the elder’s orders, but they didn’t rush as they might have if a neighbor’s farmstead had been burning. They got up, went, gathered. They didn’t have time to do much of any good before dawn.

     The fire traveled in a wide swath. And not along the ground, not over moss and grass. It traveled along fir branches and peaks. Small dry lower branches sounded a fast and strong rat-tat-tat, as if just taken out of a vat of gasoline, and a fir tree that suddenly turned into a single ball of flames, its needles hissing and rattling, blazed all the way up to its tallest growth. Rivulets of sap streamed down the trunks, splattering their angry drops like an enraged nest of wasps. A painful roar rose up from the forest. It seemed as if thousands upon thousands of turning wheels were tearing down a stone highway. People’s shouts were lost within it. Plumes of fire jumped upwards and columns of embers reached twice the height of the trees. 

     Morose and dejected, Doveika crept along the edge of his own forest. The fire had whipped past a corner of it. It was spreading toward the stream, but if the wind were to shift just a bit, his tended, thinned, weeded fir grove of prime construction-grade lumber would smolder away more quickly than you could smoke a couple of pipefuls. The fire would stop only at the edge of the fields. The shovel fell from his hands. What could you even begin to do with it—your feet just trip over it. No one was listening to him. No one even heard his voice. A desultory crowd flitted about among the trees and couldn’t figure out what they should be doing and where. Salvation came only when the ditch diggers arrived.