From Fall Comes from the Forest 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, forgetting it was built of brick. The forester was the quickest to catch on. He rushed about as if 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 loose 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?” jumping up out of their sleep, they asked one another, these people stunned by fear, terror, and constant fatigue.
“Over there, can’t you see?”
“No. The forest.”
“Oh, the forest’s burning.”
“By the Villkija. The fir grove of Margiai.”
The government’s own 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 that could not be drowned or smothered, even if you threw every single shirt and coat 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, suddenly transformed 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 enraged wasps. A painful roar rose up from the forest. It seemed as if thousands of wheels spinning into a blur were tearing down a gravel 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 boundary of his own forest. The fire had whipped past a corner of it. It was spreading toward the river, but if the wind were to shift just a bit, his tended, thinned, and weeded fir grove of prime construction-grade lumber would blaze up quicker than you could smoke a couple of pipefuls. The fire would stop only at the verge. 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.
As morning came, the wind arose. It took a new direction and carried the streams of fire to a place where no one was expecting it. The fire jumped the ditch they’d dug. It had been started too close. The fire leaned up against the river, against the newly dug canal, and alongside it advanced deeper. It burned the length of the river and was approaching the bogs with their ever more sickly vegetation, which was still dense enough to carry the fire from tree to tree. These were small outspread pines, their knotty trunks thickened with lumps of old hardened sap and half-dead branches. They flared up like wicks of untwined rope, hissing and spitting flames out for several meters. Farther on, the small pines and junipers were more sparse and the fire rolled on along the ground, over the moss, the heath, the horrible mat grass, and tufted mounds of sharp sword sedge. They let it be, directing all their resources to the dry, mature cluster of firs. If here, too, they didn’t succeed, then the entire tract of several dozen hectares, including the private ones—Doveika’s property—would blaze up, leaving not a trace behind.
Like it or not, everyone had to go. The ditch diggers, led by their specialists, the foresters, and the warden, got down to serious work. Even the forest commissioner showed up. The police commander with his assistants. But there was no need for them. People worked like mad. The clouds of smoke crept, dense and threatening, blanketing the fields and buildings with cinders. Then they resorted to using the last means at their disposal—fighting fire with fire.
In an empty, cleared strip they poured out the gunpowder. No one could say how much the forest commissioner had brought. They carried it in small bags and poured it the way children at playtime pour a dike, imagining protection against a raging sea. Before them raged a sea of fire. When it was almost upon them, they lit the gunpowder and the flames leaped forward like two red and mortally enraged roosters. And the fire was smothered as if someone had blown it out with their breath. The people gaped, completely stunned, letting their arms drop in amazement. Then they applied themselves to turning over the sod, to stomping out the firebrands and embers.
There were more men, in the meantime, who were hurrying to the bog, and there, at a considerable distance, they began digging a ditch—not as deep as it was wide. It encircled the site of the blaze in a wide arc, leaving it to rampage at will and to perish on its own. The ring was drawn and closed in the fire. But no one could close in the snakes. They slithered in hordes, in bands, flung themselves into the canal, into the river and swam to the other side. How many of them burned, how many didn’t escape, there was no telling. But so many did escape that all the pathways crawled with them, and people going back could hardly keep up with beating them down with their shovels and clubs.
“Where the heck are so many of them coming from?”
“This here’s their kingdom.”
“That it is.”
“It’s hard times, a bad year for the snakes. Just think—here the fire’s scorching them, there the canal’s being dug. When they drain the water from the bog, when there’s no more moisture in the marshland, where will they go?”
“They’ll move somewhere else.”
“And where’s that?”
The forester Baikštys remembered what his elderly father had said when it was still early in the spring. Could it be that he really had seen snakes retreating from the forest? If he had seen it, why hadn’t others? Why hadn’t he himself, when he walked across the sizable tracts under his charge every day? He couldn’t understand it. And he couldn’t disbelieve the old man’s words any longer, now that his wicked prediction was coming true.