67. Gathering together (II)
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
The barn had been on fire for three weeks. It started the month of the riots in America and, for a while, I thought that perhaps this was a political gesture. We are one province of the American empire and those who say, “I don’t follow what happens in Washington,” are as naïve as a man in the times of the Roman occupation who did not pay attention to what happened in Rome. Still, it would be a strange protest against our system, burning down a barn on the edge of the suburbs. This is not the countryside, this is the end of the city. The centre of the city is fifteen miles away, and technically we are in another district. The technicality means nothing: the city spreads as a solid concrete line from the centre to the periphery. There is no break in the houses, and it all ends here: a few fields beyond a cluster of houses.
I watched the barn from the first day. The fire was severe and impressive. The roof fell inwards on the blaze. The corrugated iron was dragged away by a tractor, buckled and destroyed by the fire. I could see it from half a mile away. I could also see a small knot of boys, good middle-class boys all, watching the fire from the crest of a hill. They did not set it; they were merely a Friday hunting party. It is what young men do, despite all the technology and all the bureaucracy. The young men go out into the fields to hunt, for other tribes and for women to abduct. After a little time, they moved away. I was left feeling uncertain and afraid. I was alone and outside the perimeter of the camp at sundown. I walked home quickly and when I returned to the cul-de-sac it was like a return to a small village fort. I was inside the perimeter and I was safe. Outside, the small bands of boys were still circling and seeking a victim.
The fire burned on and, despite the fire brigade damping it down, it took on a permanent and almost magical nature. I watched it over those weeks, watched the wisps of smoke rising from the hay. Soon the fire came again, it reanimated itself from underneath. Then it was gone again. The pile smoked on. Eventually, I would walk close up to it and touch it with my hands and feet. It was a friendly heat, the type that could be used in a Roman bath, but just slightly too warm. The fire still had the edge of danger.
The farmer broke the pile into smaller clumps and the heat lessened. In America, the cities cooled and elections began. Their fires, like my fire, were never really extinguished. The smoke turned from black to white and the heat lessened—the fire was still there. A fire in a haystack can burn deep down in the centre of the hay for weeks or even months without anyone knowing. It carries a secret fire under the dense material. Before the fire, I always looked on hay as a passive thing; it was golden under the summer sunlight and incidental. Now I looked at hay as containing a secret promise of destruction. The thing that feeds us retains an ability to destroy us altogether.
Roundabout the country, the suburban executives drive large 4-wheel drive vehicles. It is all a display and the pedestrian must move quickly from their path, lest they be smudged to a bloody mark on the road. This year, the farmer brought his tractors out for all to see—a simple warning. Usually, the crops were gathered at night, but this year he worked under the slight September dusk. I watched the work going on and saw that the crop was bad this year. It was a plague year, it was a year of fire, and it was a year of poor crops and weakened natural power.