I am excited to have my short story “The Fire Eater” (reprint) included in the Personal Bests Journal Issue 1. Thank you, Editor Davis Gardiner.
The book is available on Amazon:
The Fire Eater
The forests were burning, and nothing could be done to stop it. All hope seemed lost. Day turned into night as thick black clouds of smoke blocked out the sun. Days turned into weeks, and the fire grew in intensity. Everything was parched from lack of rain. Even the air burned.
Humankind’s greed had been the cause of many disasters on this earth. The constant overuse of fossil fuels disrupting the weather patterns, and the disrespect for nature in general were among few of the reasons that the forests now burned.
The indigenous people prayed to the Great Spirit, to send down the Fire Eater to save their homes and the creatures that lived on the land. Sad and frightened, the people packed all that they could carry from their simple lodgings. They gathered together their domestic and farm animals to herd with them. They needed to move to safer ground, up to the high mountains where the fire had not yet reached. There the snow melt streams and fresh springs would keep them safe for a short while longer, but not forever if the blazes could not be contained. The mountains were too steep and rugged, and there were no roads. They would have to travel by foot and horseback, leaving all motorized vehicles behind. Sorrow filled their hearts at the thought of having to leave all that they loved.
Chilam was only 17 years old, but she was as sensitive and wise as the elders. She lived with her mother, father, three siblings and her grandmother. They had a comfortable little cabin near the edge of the woods. They farmed and raised livestock. They had the Internet, and a few other modern conveniences, but she honored the old traditions, and the beautiful handcrafts that her mother made to sell. She loved her life and would not trade it for all the money and glamour in the world. She was beyond rich in her own eyes. The stars at night were magic to her. Diamonds dancing across the velvet expanse. Where else on earth could you reach up and almost touch the Milky Way? There the sky was bluer, the water clearer, and the air purer, except for now. Now that the whole earth burned. The earth that she knew and loved was dying.
Chilam felt helpless as she assisted her family in preparation for the arduous journey ahead. She tried to remember all the beauty that her forests held, and how she would run through them playing when she was younger. She feared for her beloved forest friends, the deer, the squirrel, the mountain lion and hawk. She had named many of them over the years, and felt connected to each one of them. They were her own personal Spirit Guides. She worried, would they be able to make it out alive? She could not leave it to chance. She knew what she had to do. She would go into the woods to look for her friends, and tell them to follow her to a new home far away from the approaching flames.
The day came for the village to move. They could not wait a day longer. Chilam was nowhere to be found. Her family looked everywhere for her but could not find her. In a panic they went to the village elder to ask for a search party to help them look. The elder said it was too late and that they had to leave now or be eaten up by the flames. Her family was heartbroken, but they had other children and grandmother to care for, so they left behind a message for Chilam, for when she would come back to the village. They were sure that she would come back. She had to be safe, they had been praying so hard. The Fire Eater would come and save her.
Evening was setting in as Chilam wandered deeper into the forest. Over and over again she called out to her friends, “Tahca, Zica, Igmuwatogla.” She was becoming tired and was starting to choke from all the thick smoke. She could hardly breathe when she finally sat down on a rock to rest. The rock was very warm to the touch, and she knew that was a sign that she had to leave soon or perish. She wept as she called out to the Great Spirit to save her and her animals. “Please oh Great Spirit, hear my cry and send the Fire Eater to save us.” She started to grow weaker by the minute, and finally passed out. Hawk found her first, and alighted by her side. He let out a great screech to call the others. Startled, she came to. She stood to her feet, and started following beneath Hawk as he flew overhead. He would guide her to safety, she knew he would. They came to a clearing in the middle of the woods where the fire had not yet reached. There, standing before her were many of her forest friends, all huddled together in fear. No predators, no prey, just creatures trying to survive this monstrous disaster. It reminded her of an artist’s images of Eden in the holy book she read as a little girl.
Suddenly, on the other side of the clearing, Chilam noticed a small trail leading away from the fire. She decided to try to lead her friends towards the mountains, where she knew her people would be going. She began singing a beautiful native song to them as she walked towards the trail. It was a song that her grandmother would sing to her whenever she was frightened as a child. The beautiful native language was soothing, as was the tune. The animals all lifted their heads to listen to the enticing melody. One by one they began to walk behind her. She had their trust. She tried to be brave, but her voice faltered as she continued with her song. She tried to imagine that she was like mighty Moses leading the chosen people across the Red Sea, away from the danger that followed them. If she could only hold on to that image in her mind, maybe she could keep her courage up.
Meanwhile, the village continued their trek, slowly snaking up the rocky mountainside. Families, elderly, infants, and the ailing, all traveling into the unknown. Each person doing whatever they could manage to try to help the other. Lifting, carrying, pushing, struggling for their lives. All, exhausted and parched from the hot air that followed them every step of the way. Hoping beyond hope that their efforts would not be in vain. Chilam’s family stopped to look back. They continued to quietly chant their solemn prayer. They were very worried, but they knew if anyone could manage to defeat the elements, that Chilam would be the one to do it. There was always something special about her, something spiritual about her, something mystical. They picked up their packs and continued on with the others, leaving a trail of prayer beads along the path behind them. Hopeful breadcrumbs to be followed by their daughter.
Night fell, but it was difficult to tell the difference with all the black smoke in the atmosphere. It had been dark the whole day. The smell of charred wood was beginning to overtake everyone. Chilam and her friends could tell that the fire was growing closer as they trekked onward. The animals traveled by sheer instinct, following the only sign of hope that they had, a young woman. She was their savior. They would not stop to rest, for if they did, the fire would catch up to them. They had no choice but to keep going. In the darkness they progressed by touch, using the trees’ bark like braille.
Just as daybreak tried to show itself through the thick fumes, a strange sound was heard in the distant sky. Chilam’s heart raced as the sound grew louder and closer. She had heard that sound before, she was sure she knew what it was. Then out of the smoke and fire appeared several large helicopters whirling overhead. She screamed and waved her arms while jumping up and down. Hawk decided to fly higher to try to intercept. The helicopter pilot almost lost control seeing a huge Red-tailed Hawk soaring towards the craft, then continually circling it. It was if the hawk was trying to get his attention, but how can that be? The firefighters were looking down, following the flight of the hawk when they noticed a human female and a group of animals on the trail below.
Then, as large streams of water came down from the helicopters, quenching the areas around Chilam and her forest friends, she noticed one of the mechanical birds come down to land. Out jumped several firemen and firewomen, suited for their work with gas masks and protective attire. One tall man, Jorge, came running up to her as the others fought the nearby blaze. Jorge raised his mask to speak to her. He was handsome and strong looking. Their eyes met and Chilam smiled up at him. Relief flooded over her weak body as she almost collapsed into his arms. Jorgeinsisted that she come with him on to the helicopter, but Chilam stood firm, crossed her arms and said in a stern voice, “No, I am not leaving my friends. They need me now more than ever.”
No matter how hard he argued, Jorge could not change her mind, and other than lifting her over his shoulder and forcing her aboard, he had no other choice but to join her. Chilam told him where her village was heading and asked that the firefighters go find them and bring them to safety. Jorge signaled to his copter crew to join the others and continue on in search of the villagers. Jorge was fascinated, and a bit startled at the strange array of wild animals that surrounded Chilam and seemed to be in her trust. She explained that they were all her friends and her Spirit Guides. She would never abandon them. Three of the helicopters went ahead to find and help the villagers, while one staid with the unlikely parade that was led by Chilam, and now Jorge as well. They still had a long way to go by foot.
As the weary group finally met up with the rest of the villagers, the fire was starting to be held in control, at least in certain areas. Many more fire crews had joined the original one. Dedicated men and woman from everywhere on the plant had volunteered to fight this horrific inferno. Helicopter and ground crews together worked day and night for weeks on end to contain the worst of the fire. There started to be a glimmer of hope, and the people of the village gave thanks. They would need to build new homes in a different area, but no lives were lost. The livestock and domestic animals were also safe, along with the many wild animals in Chilam’s care. It would take a long time for life to return to normal, but everyone was now safe, and a thanksgiving feast was planned.
After the disaster had quieted down, and things started to return to normal, Jorge would come to visit Chilam regularly, and in time she leaned that his family was from a native people in Central America, from a population related to her own people. They had many of the same beliefs and customs as her people did. Even some of their native language was similar. He too loved nature and the simple way of life. Needless to say, Chilam and Jorge fell in love, and eventually they married. Jorge grew to love all the forest creatures that he helped save. It was a beautiful relationship among all the living beings. They spent many afternoons in the forest visiting their friends together.
In the end, the villagers’ prayers were answered, and it became quite evident to all, that the great “Fire Eater” could come in many forms, even as a human in a helicopter.