“Fireman’s Carry” is excerpted from The Dead Are More Visible, copyright © 2012 Steven Heighton, published by Knopf Canada, an imprint of the Knopf Random Canada Publishing Group, which is a division of Random House Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
We shoulder the coffin of my friend Warren Reed down the front steps of the church and on toward the hearse’s gaping back door. It reminds me of the receiving mouth of a crematorium, that door—how a coffin will glide through and into the discreetly quiet, white-hot furnace beyond. I always wonder how they manage to keep such a ravenous blaze so quiet.
I’ve read somewhere that fire, to certain ancient peoples, was an animal, as alive and on the same level as humans, horses, birds, fish, insects, everything. It’s easy—especially for someone who has fought fires, and walked inside them—to imagine how the belief arose. Fire breathes air, like us. Fire eats wood as well as the flesh of animals, the dead as well as the living. It moves on its own, it has a voice and a vocabulary, it can seed itself and propagate, it can hibernate deep in the roots of trees and fully revive, it leaves a sort of bodily waste behind, it attacks, it withdraws, it can be tamed and domesticated, and finally, when it has eaten everything, it starves or else smothers or perishes by drowning. I’ve read, too, about a certain desert tribe who believed that while animals understood the language of fire, humans had somehow lost it, along with the other animal tongues—but that each person at the moment of death regained the capacity to understand. This tribe believed their dead should never be buried but instead burned, so the living flames could guide and sing the dead into the afterlife.
There will be no flames today, though—no furnace door. Firefighters seldom incline to the crematory option. Once we load my friend into the hearse, we’ll be getting into our cars and merging into the motorcade heading out to the cemetery on the outskirts of town, or what used to be the outskirts. Green and peaceful, breezy grounds, tall, stately hardwoods two centuries old.
My friend’s maple coffin is—do I need to say this?—heavy on our shoulders, though it’s not the burden it might be for an average pallbearer. There are six of us, and the five who wear full dress uniform (I’m the odd one out, in my formal civvies) are all in good shape, the way I used to be when I was signing in to the fire hall gym four times a week and carrying serious poundage into and out of burning buildings.
Then there’s the fact that we’re getting used to bearing these coffins and sliding them into hearses. It’s not what you might think, either—not fatalities on the job, floors and burning walls collapsing, chemical explosions. An occupational epidemic of cancer is what it is, cancer of the brain, cancer of the liver, plenty of lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, cancer from all the burning crud we’re inhaling in all the factories, garages, condos and offices we try to save. Still, my friend feels heavy in his coffin, this virtually bombproof carapace whose protection he could have used in life, on the job, but now has zero use for.
I left the department over a year ago. I’m doing sedentary work now, not exciting, but it’s a job, it’s safe, it pays decently, and to be honest I rarely miss the challenge and adrenal rush of what I used to love doing. Plus I work at home, meaning more family time and none of the strife and stress of working with others. That endless chafing of personalities. It was an awkward resignation, if you can call it that. (Did I fall or was I pushed? A bit of both. If I’d wanted to fight it, the union could have saved my job, I’m pretty sure, maybe after moving me to another hall.)
So we ease my friend into the hearse and there’s a curious interlude, nobody sure who should close the back door. Standing beside us in a too-big black suit, the funeral director’s assistant—a thin, fidgety kid who looks like he should be slouching along in loose jeans and an undershirt—hesitates too. Is it his job to close the door? This might be his first funeral. For a moment we stand looking around, then downward, the crew at their own spit-buffed parade boots, me at my laceless, matte-black shoes, shoes shaped like a platypus’s bill. They’re clean and new, not too informal, I feel, though suddenly I wonder. A couple of my ex-crewmates are having a look at them, and they seem to baffle the giant crew captain, Jack Steiger. He and I never got along too well, especially at the end. And yet he surprised me yesterday by calling and gruffly inviting me to join the rest of the crew as a pallbearer. Most people, I’ve come to see, surprise you more often, not less, as they get older.
Big Steiger aims a look of hard inquiry at the apprentice and nods at the door. The kid, helpless in the face of such raw, animal ascendancy, steps forward and swings it closed.
Room 303 was the last one I broke into, during my last fire, my last night on the job. I’d clomped upstairs in the dark with Reed and Steiger, full gear, hose and lifeline, breathing loud and laboured inside the mask. From between the room’s floorboards and out of the joins between the wainscoting and walls, spotlit by my headlamp, smoke hissed up in gauzy sheets that broke apart at waist level, scrolling and spreading through the room. And there was purple smoke, like a stage effect at a heavy metal show. A rooming house is about the worst place for a fire, short of a chemical factory. Narrow hallways, the wiring below code, a dozen rooms or more, each warehoused with the kind of fodder that fires dote on—aged mattresses, bales of newspapers and Reader’s Digest, paperbacks, LPs, dry-rotted furniture. This place was sensationally decrepit. Shredded Insulbrick over century-old clapboard. Packed with flammables and going up in a whoosh. We had four trucks out front, ladders deployed, crews fighting to dent the firestorm that had already blown out the lower windows, seeking more oxygen, more space to expand. The crews were spraying from all angles, triangulating the fire’s heart, trying to buy us a few minutes upstairs. In the south alley, another hose was drenching the side-door stairwell where we’d entered and where we hoped to exit, soon. For now the lower flight of stairs was a foaming, terraced cascade, like a salmon weir.
There were five of us inside. Truba and Santos were on the second floor and they would be moving fast, I knew, making sure the rooms were vacated and if possible rescuing any pets. Reed, Steiger and I had climbed to the third floor on the same mission.
It’s remarkable how many people take the time to lock their doors when fleeing a major fire. As if the whole event might be a burglar’s ruse. And it happens more often, not less, in the poorer buildings. We didn’t give the place any odds of surviving, and if it did survive it would be demolished, so I wasted no time putting my axe to the door, a necessity I always enjoyed: the arc and acceleration of the heavy blade overhead, powered by you and at the same time pulling your arms along for the ride, the big, gratifying crunch as you connect at the targeted spot, usually to the inside of the handle.
The door of 303 burst open, one blow. Though these old doors were solid, not veneer—crafted with conscience in a conscientious time—the wood around the lock was rotten, the whole structure weakened by a few dozen tenancies of constant opening, closing, slamming. I heard another door splinter nearby. As I pushed into the room, Reed, up the hall, was calling through his portable that there was a cat in 306. Steiger called back, “Grab it and let’s move.” I peered into 303. Those hissing plies of floorboard smoke were hypnotic. It still wasn’t too smoky to see: a fridge and, surprisingly, a freezer too. Red sleeping bag on a mattress on the floor, square Arborite table with an ashtray and two beer cans, a plastic church-hall chair. A steel dolly, the kind used to move large appliances. The pasteboard wardrobe seemed to be full of fancy stuff: swaths of what looked like red velvet, black silk. And on the floor beside it, two extra-large black plastic bags, as if for industrial garbage. Bags of tires?
I’m not sure why I did it—Steiger was hollering again that we had to move—but I walked over and investigated. I parted the thick, unsecured lips of the first bag and jerked back in disgust: a dark, scaled coil as thick as my upper arm. No need to feel it. I knew it was alive, or had been until moments ago—nobody lives in a single room with enormous dead snakes, though sharing the place with living ones seems almost as crazy. I backed away, turned and came out the door just as Steiger reached it.
“Something in there? We got to move now.” There was a problem with the voice amp of his mask. His voice was faint, tinny—a worked-up announcer broadcasting warnings on a distant radio.
“No, sir,” I shouted. “Yes. Snakes. Two, I think. Big ones. Huge.”
His eyes widened behind the mask. Reed loomed out of the smoke, a Siamese cradled in his arms, oddly silent, its squinted blue eyes running. Reed said, “What is it, Terr?”
“Snakes. Big ones. Maybe we should bring them?”
“They moving?” Steiger asked.
“Probably dead. Can’t be worrying about snakes.”
“Got to get this cat out,” Reed said, and he lumbered toward the stairs.
“And dangerous,” Steiger said. “Let’s go.”
“I don’t think they’re dead, sir.”
“Now!” Steiger said, and I followed him.
We pounded down the sodden, steaming last flight to the door. Heat radiated through the inner wall, fire on the other side. We clicked out our regulators. Truba and Santos stood squared in front of the door, blocking it like riot police. A small man, facing them, wanted to get past. He hopped once, comically, surprisingly high, trying to see over them. He was bald on top and the greying fringe of his hair was a fright wig of long, tangled curls. A gaunt, excited face—yet the left side of it was passive. He was yammering in French but his urgency didn’t budge the drooping half of his face, which looked years younger, lineless, uninvolved. Reed, with the weeping Siamese, pushed past this standoff and then Steiger did too. I shouldered in between Truba and Santos, adding my width to their wall. I grew up in Montreal and knew some French. Maybe I could help. The man wanted something from his room. This always happens, especially with the older, poorer victims. I said, “Puis-je vous aider, monsieur?” and he paused for a moment, startled, then thrust his contorted face at me and screamed, “Sauvez mes serpents!”
“Those are your snakes,” I said in English. He was shouting in French again and I made out a few details. He performed in clubs, at fairs, circuses. He and his serpents. They were how he earned his bread. He was in town for only a few months. He should never have come here.
“Ils sont dangereux, vos serpents?”
“Non, absolument pas!” he cried, and again he tried pushing past us.
Truba was getting the gist of the French. “Fuck his snakes,” he said. “Nobody’s going back in for a fucking snake.” And he leaned down over the man, his big gloved hand pointing upward as he enunciated, full volume, “Danger—okay?”
“I don’t care about it!” the man said with a dense accent. “Ils sont ma vie!”
Steiger was back. The heat was scorching through my gear now, into my shoulders and spine. Truba and Santos and I, and now Steiger, were a human bulkhead protecting this lunatic from the killing heat. Down one side of his double face—half-frenzied, half-resigned—tears streamed, lit silver by our headlamps, which were all focused on him. I felt for him. Steiger didn’t.
“Man wants his snakes,” Santos announced.
“Get him out of here,” Steiger roared. “Your snakes are all gone, okay? It’s over! Christ, this is a four-alarm fire!”
Steiger is a giant, like I said, a buzz-cut linebacker of a man with a big, groomed Asterix the Gaul moustache that hides his mouth even when he’s yelling commands. Once, in a competition, he bore two of the smaller men in a fireman’s carry, one over each shoulder. The most daunting man I’ve ever met. Even the platoon chief shies up around him. Though I’m not a big guy myself, I’ve never been the type to scare—but let Steiger, with those cold-forged eyes, level one of his alpha glowers at you and something folds up in your soul. It’s a myth that bullies lack self-esteem. Most bullies have plenty. I never took to Steiger, never liked his crude sarcasm about my choice of books and movies in the fire hall, and now I deeply disliked how he was giving the Look to this little man. I could see it: behind the man’s eyes the resolve was wilting and I hated to see it die, that rare, rallied courage, stronger than adrenalin, that gives anyone heroic strength for a short while. It might come never, or once in a lifetime, maybe more often for a woman, giving birth (I was there both times and saw it in Tricia, especially with our firstborn—a state beyond mere inspiration). Battling fires, I guess I’ve gotten there more often than most, twice helping to rescue the children of strangers, and one time also when my younger girl was brushing a horse in its stall and it shifted and pinned her, I leapt in and—so I hear—grappled that thousand-pound mare away from her and against the back wall.
Those states of pure, fearless purpose helped keep me in the crew for a long time—kept me there even with Steiger as captain. Though if it hadn’t been him, it might have been someone else. There’s always someone around to set you straight. To let you in on God’s private view about where to draw the line between what counts down here and what doesn’t. As for the official line: we save people or we die in the attempt. Dogs or cats if we can do it without dying. Budgies and gerbils if it’s possible and convenient. Reptiles, I guess, not at all.
So Steiger kept bawling at the man, who kept pleading back in a flinching little voice, and the heat went on building inside my suit. I fixed my gaze on the snake man’s face so as not to let Steiger catch and command my eye. Then I turned and splashed back into the stairwell, clicking my regulator into place. The inner walls were slick, sweating grease and creosote. Behind me, a moment of near quiet—then Steiger was ordering me to get my ass back outside and the snake man was yapping instructions in a higher, hopeful voice. Steiger thumping in behind me. I was taking the steps two at a time, no hose, no lifeline. At the first turning I saw Steiger peripherally, at the bottom of the stairwell, glaring up, hollering in a voice ragged with anger and disbelief. Someone was disobeying him.
The smoke was heavier now. I glanced up the second-floor hallway: smoke from under the doors that Truba and Santos had closed when they fled. The last flurry of words the snake man had pitched at me settled into sense: Don’t worry. Ils ont mangé. They’ve eaten. They’re sleeping. Ils dorment dans leurs sacs.
By floor three I was winded again. No one would last long up here without a mask, but the snakes still had a prayer, down on the floor, in a dormant state, léthargiques, tu comprends?, inside those bags. I pushed open the hacked door of 303 and ducked low, under the worst of the heat and smoke, and then got down on all fours. Sometimes in the final stages you have to wriggle on your stomach, a frogman searching the murky floor of a lake. My headlamp showed about two metres. I found the first bag and rose into a crouch and peeked in—that unmoving, monstrous coil—then gathered the neck of the bag in a choke hold. I was counting on heavy and it was. I remembered the dolly across the room but knew I might not find it in this smoke. I turned my back to the bag, braced my hands over my shoulder, heaved. I had the bag sealed but I hated not being able to see it. Understand this much—I wasn’t acting out of sentimentality. I’ve never cared for snakes. I’m more the mammal type. Horses, cats, big goofy retrievers.
I rose with a grunt that I felt more than heard, then stumped to the door, keeping as low as possible. I wasn’t sure if there was movement inside the bag or if it was just the contents slopping against my back. A hundred and twenty pounds, at least. I almost crashed into Steiger, who filled the doorway.
“We have to get out now!” The voice from his mask was minuscule, shaky. I couldn’t make out the face under the headlamp. The little voice commanded, “Leave the goddamned snake! These floors could go any time!”
“I’m not leaving it, sir,” I said. It helped that his face was hidden. It helped that my voice, a bellow inside my mask, now dwarfed his. “And I’ll come back for the other if the floors hold.” I trudged toward him, to get past. What else could I do? It’s not like I was suddenly fearless. Not at all. There was the fire, there was Steiger, there was a huge tropical constrictor coiled a few inches from my throat. But where I draw the line now is nowhere. Alive is alive. Why let a thing die for being what it can never help but be?
Steiger moved aside. I made for the stairs, my eyes scalded with sweat. A low, immense, steady moaning welled up from beneath us, as if the building were giving up the ghost—the sound of a fire that has found maximum sustenance and will no longer be deterred. From behind me I heard, “You’re finished now, Decker, you know that?” I started downstairs, thinking he must be close behind. At the second-floor landing I glanced up the hallway, flame visible through the smoke. At the final turn in the stairwell there was a fast crashing of steps behind me as if the captain were staggering, or being shoved downward, and as I glanced back I saw why—he had the other bagged snake over his shoulder, gripping it with just one hand. “You’re finished,” he panted, and his voice seemed smaller than ever.