|Hilario to the rescue!|
Trouble came at lunchtime, about the time when the wind picks up out of the west.
The day was pure July, hot and dry. Combines swayed over the rye fields through the morning, swallowing up the grain and leaving a spew of straw in lines behind. The air was full of dust and flies.
Mari Valle saw it first, from her new pre-fab wooden holiday house on the lot next door to Bruno´s – her house looks out to the west, across the fields. Across the fields, when she looked out, stood a huge column of black. The horizon was smoke, and the smoke leaned east. The fields were aflame, and the fire was blowing toward our town.
Someone shouted, someone ran.
Edu had the church keys. He opened up the big door and grabbed the bell-pull. The bell sang out over the town and out to the tractors still in the field – something awful is happening! Your help is needed! Call home right away, come downtown!
Justi and Oliva jumped in their little car and drove straight at the flames. They have a crop out there, a field of standing sunflowers. José fired up his tractor, two of his uncles loaded into the cab with him. José Maria from San Nicolas was already working a field nearby. One of them called in the firefighters. Firefighters must come here from Villada and Palencia, a good distance. But until they arrived, this fire was our problem.
I heard the bells, I ran to the gate, I hit the driveway running and looked up and saw the cloud, it had turned white by then, it disappeared against the white light in the sky. But the wind was blowing, and inside the white cloud I saw a thread of black. A spinning dark thread, like a little cyclone. A great hot breath of wind came up the driveway then, and the stink of burning. I shouted for Patrick. I took off down Calle Ontanon.
|The blood runs cold|
Tractors emerged from the barns, some with plows, some with front-end loaders. They slowed to scoop up men with shovels and rakes, then they roared up the road to the tumberon. Their rooster-tails of dust vanished into the heat. A carload of young harvesters came flat-out from San Nicolas, their lunches left standing at La Barrunta. I thought I heard bells from San Nicolas, too, but could not tell for sure. Milagros and Esteban, Esther, Flor and Angeles, Mari and Joaquin, Pin and Feliciano and Modesto stood in the shade of the pumphouse and pointed and shouted. Hilario appeared, a pitchfork in his hand, pedaling furiously up the road on his bicycle. Every man, the able-bodied, the relatively young, was needed up there, and every one went.
|Modesto knows all about firefighting|
“The plows. They´re plowing a fire-break. They´ll stop the fire before it can follow the road down to here,” Angeles explained.
“The others, they´ll rake, they´ll shovel. They´ll get in front of it. No doubt,” she said, but her face was worried.
“How did it happen? How´d it start?”
“We don´t have anybody around here who´d start one on purpose.”
“Yeah. This isn´t Galicia, or Valencia. No one around here.”
“A cigarette. A spark off the machines, you know how many moving parts there are. And look at the fields, dry dry dry.”
“This happened before, I remember. Same time of year.”
“The bomberos will be here soon. They come quick these days.”
And as if they heard us say so, a helicopter appeared in the sky. It flew straight into the great smoke-plume, and touched down at the brow of the hill, where Justi´s little car was parked. It took off again right away, with a great canvas bucket slung from its belly. It headed for Villada, for the reservoir.
|the professionals arrive|
The wind shifted, the smoke disappeared. For a moment we thought it was over. A siren wailed in the distance, a big four-wheel-drive fire engine roared up the road from Fuente de San Martin. It slowed as it passed us. A man opened a door, shouted at Pin to get the hell in the truck and help.
“I have lentils on the stove!” he wailed. Many hands pulled him up into the cab, and the vehicle vanished up the road into the smoke. The helicopter came back, its water-bag bulging. It emptied itself over the hill, where we could not see. It went again for more, we could hear shouting from above.
I wanted to go there, I wanted to see. I was a news reporter for many years, I have marched right up to to dozens of bad fires, but this one I let go. Asthma. Kidneys. I would only be in the way. No one pays me to be nosy any more. If it started blowing wild, I would have to see to saving my home, my cats and dogs.
But no. The fire-break worked, the buckets of water, the firefighters, they worked. Soon the tractors reappeared, the cabs stuffed with shirtless men, guys here for the weekend, in-laws and brothers. Lucky this happened on a weekend, when Enrique and Victor and Hilario were here to help out, lucky there were extra hands around for the harvest, those boys from San Nicolas. Two thoughtful ladies even saved Pin´s pot of beans.
No one hurt. Fields burned black, but most of them were harvested already. Only the straw was lost, and maybe the tenant farmer at San Martin lost a half-acre of rye. The men were hungry, late lunches were laid out, families settled into an afternoon of fresh stories.
Two hours later, Patrick and I drove up to see the damage. The tumberon, an un-excavated Paleolithic tomb with a navigational mast on top, is blackened. It is one of Paddy´s favorite places, he walks there often with the dogs. It made him quiet, seeing it that way.
We went to the bodega and discussed the day´s events with Milagros. We stopped at the church, where Fran and Julia were mopping, getting the place ready for tomorrow´s Mass and guitar concert. They´d missed all the excitement. They´d been on siesta. They didn´t know about the fire, and nobody told them til I did.
Remarkable, Julia said, how the church was full of flies yesterday, and now they all were dead now. We´d left the doors open when the pilgrims were visiting, and dozens of flies came in out of the heat. Today, they all lay dead, dozens of them. We swept up their bodies and threw them into the street. Weird.
And back at home, out on the patio, more strangeness continued. The wind blew from the wrong direction, the trees creaked, but there were no clouds in the sky. Something was up there, shimmering. I called to Patrick to see – a flock of birds? Insects? Locusts? Whatever it was, it was coming down to earth.
From hundreds of feet up in the blue sky, hanks of straw came floating, spinning and flickering in the long sunbeams. The dogs barked and ran beneath the patio table. Straw rained down, pelted, even, carried on the wind. It carpeted the patio and orchard and driveway. Then it stopped.
Such a strange day: Fire, flies, and a straw-storm. Plagues.
I hope the sun goes down soon, before the frogs arrive. I do not know if our insurance will cover that.