by: Brian Kindall
THE SKY HAD FORGOTTEN how to rain.
Or so it seemed.
Nary a drop had fallen on our journey thus far.
The grass had grown dry and brittle. The dirt beneath our hooves had turned to powder. It all felt wrongful. Truly, it seemed as if some malign weather spirit was mad at us, or was at least enjoying the tawdry spectacle of our dry-throated suffering. Waterholes and streams were few and random, and we often found them all dried up – just cracked mud and fossilized bird tracks.
So it was with a giddy expectancy that one late afternoon I sighted a building of clouds on the western horizon. They scudded and clumped and rolled our direction, growing dark and heavy with promise.
“Il pleut! Il pleut! Mais je suis heureux,” I crooned. Although, in truth, it had not yet begun to so much as spit.
The evening swooped in fast, and with the clouds filling the heavens, a gothic velvet glow suffused the prairie. Was this our old familiar Earth? It appeared more whimsical and strange. The air was stagnant, the whole world seemingly held its breath.
As a child my mother had given me, as un cadeau du Noël, a miniature diorama. I would play with it for long hours, lost in my imagination. I manipulated a pair of marionettes – one of a knight, the other of a fair maiden – so that they acted out scenarios of heroism and chivalry in that fanciful make-believe world. Now, in this gloaming, I was overcome with a nostalgic sensation, bringing back to my mind my childhood toy. Only this time I felt myself to be the figurine. I peered up into that roiling purpled glow, but detected no puppet master working my strings. Still, the sensation remained.
Turtle Dove trotted abreast of me. Virtue had learned to ride in tandem behind her, and the girl sat on Genevieve’s haunch with her arms wrapped around the Indian woman’s waist. She smiled over at me, augmenting my growing happiness.
We rode side by side for a ways, myself in a state of naive joy.
Then Turtle Dove spoke.
“Le ciel est sec,” she said. The sky is dry.
“No, no,” I laughed. “It is fixing to rain. We had best to make camp, get under cover, and be ready for the downpour.”
“Non!” She pointed at the darkling sky, a suggestion of anxiety in her gesture. “No rain.”
We pulled up and assessed the situation. The clouds throbbed with electricality; the grumble of thunder swept toward us over the grassy swells – all indications of an impending tempest. Still, I had to concede, she was correct. There was no hint of water on the air, none of that usual wet smell of rain that precedes a shower. Just a sullenness mixed in with the stink of burnt ozone.
“Should we make camp?” I asked. “And hunker down?”
“Non.” She shook her head. “Attendez!”
“Wait for what?”
Turtle Dove turned her hand with her fingers pointed upward, wiggling them in the air between us.
I laughed. “What is that supposed to mean? Worms are going to fall from the clouds?”
She did not see the humor. A foreboding flash of lightning blinded me right then, followed directly by an earsplitting knell of thunder.
Once my blindness subsided, and I could find focus on the scene before me, Turtle Dove pointed toward the swiftly approaching storm. She turned her horse so she was squarely in front of me, and then, peering straight into my dilated eyes, she said, without hint of irony or accent – “Fire!”
At once, darkness consumed the world, punctuated heavily with flashes of bright blue light. A man’s eyes could not adjust quickly enough to the back and forth interplay of gloom and brilliance.
The skeleton shapes of girls and horses burned like ghosts onto my eyeballs.
The dead air came to life with wind.
“Stay close!” I shouted. It would be easy for us all to be blown asunder. “Stay together!”
The horses had worked up into a frenzy, rearing and prancing. They nickered in trepidation, and I heard the dull thud of one animal’s body colliding with another in the intermittent darkness. I feared someone might fall and get trampled.
“Stay still!” I shouted. “Do not move about!” But the thunder swallowed my words.
It was a most nerve-wracking circumstance. One instant you were alone in the darkness; and then in the next you were being pummeled with electrical light. The hairs stood out all over my body, the air crackled and sparkled, and I truly expected to be fried by lightning at any moment.
Soon, just as Turtle Dove had foretold, at a point where a lightning bolt had stabbed into the earth, a single flame began to dance in the distance. It appeared like the alluring radiance of a flower – albeit, in the garden of a demon. Another flame then came to bloom in another direction. And then another, and another – some close, some far away – all around us on that dry grass prairie. The wind whipped the flames up bigger and bigger. In no time, there was enough light to see the details of the panorama. Although indeed, there was nothing to see in any direction that did not cause the heart to pound with a doomful dread.
“Allons!” cried Turtle Dove.
She dug her heels into Genevieve’s ribs and galloped off with Virtue into the fiery maelstrom. The rest of us followed without question. Puck. Sabrina. And finally, me and Brownie. The woman was leading us through the encroaching inferno toward a corridor of darkness – a passageway as of yet not engulfed by fire.
The flames joined on one side and became tall and orange-red, sweeping toward us in a hot wave driven by the wind. Smoke blew thickly over the plain, causing eyes to sting and throats to burn.
We sped toward safety, endeavoring to outrun the closing blaze.
The thunder boomed and boomed, and then, curiously, it grew into a constant rumble that built to a crescendo with the pounding of our hooves. A dark mass poured out of the surrounding flames and hinter reaches.
Wild eyes flashed on every side.
“Awhooo!” I cried. For I was overwhelmed with a sudden terror. It looked as if we were running with the very fiends of hell.
But they were not devils – only bison.
Thousands of them, just as scared as ourselves, and just as desperate to outrun the devouring flames. They swarmed in a stampede and swept us up into their pell-mell tumult. I was stunned, right there in the midst of it all, to be taken by the overriding bovine odor – the repugnant reek of animals in a panic. The stench mixed with the smoke, creating a pernicious aroma that gagged me, even as I drove blindly onward with the herd.
I could see my comrades ahead, drifting farther away. Virtue’s blond hair. Sabrina’s and Genevieve’s pale rumps bouncing among the collective corpus of brown-black beasts. But there was nothing I could do to bring them back. It was as if we were in a violent stream, and were at the absolute mercy of the current.
The buffalo closed around me and Brownie. Their black horns sawed at the air along the horse’s sides, threatening to disembowel him with any wrong move, or misplaced step. He gallantly managed the helter-skelter.
It became apparent to me that Brownie was struggling to inch himself toward the edge of the herd, easing sideways through the bounding bodies, pressing toward the outside so that we would not be in such danger of being crushed.
“Good boy!” I cried.
The corridor was narrowing, the flames closing in, causing the bison to funnel through an ever-constricting gap. One could feel the heat of fire on all sides. We were nearly at the outer edge of the mob when a bison’s horn painfully grazed my shinbone.
“Ahhh!” I cried, and drew my legs up high out of the stirrups. But alas! This proved unwise, as it put me off balance in the saddle.
One somersault – bang! And then another.
My wind was knocked out, and I was sorely dazed. But I retained enough of my sense to get up quick. I leapt to my feet and spun around.
A bison lowered his shoulder into my chest.
I rolled backward, tossed something like a rag doll. Legs and hooves flashed on all sides of me. Flames. The stench. Even in the midst of it, I saw my mother’s face.
“Now my powers are all o’erthrown,” I sighed, and held up my palms.
But no. Brownie had stood by, my noble steed. He positioned himself between my battered person and the beastly onslaught. Rearing up. Making such a ruckus and racket that the animals shied away, parting around him. I struggled to stand. The tail end of the herd rolled by and then, of a sudden, Brownie and I were alone.
The thunder subsided, replaced now with the roar and crackle of hell.
Brownie stood heaving as I climbed onto his back.
We were completely surrounded by the conflagration.
Great licking tongues of flame; sparks spitting up into the clouds and stars.
Brownie paused for only one second, gathering, and then he raced off at a gallop. Faster and faster, directly toward the blaze. The heat closed around us like a clenching fist. Closer and closer. Brownie’s hooves driving over the well-churned sod.
“Go! Go!” I shouted. “Take us through!”
At last Brownie leaped – high, high as a winged myth – through that looming wall of flame.