The priest’s finger moved over young Salva’s forehead. Up, down, right, left. North, south, east, west. He left on him a cross, a cross of ashes.
‘Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’
Then the boy got up from the cold stone floor to join his mother, who also had an ash cross on her forehead, like everybody else.
The cross of ashes. A premonition of the day to come. Outside, not far away, the fire was raging for the third day in a row. While the prayers of the funeral mass continued, one could sense the smoke in the air coming ever nearer. They saw it when they left the church: a black column looming over the horizon.
Some neighbors were standing in the atrium, watching the fire. They stood aside for Penelo and the man with him to pass through: they had come to fetch him. They hesitated a moment over whether they should pick up young Salva, who was in mourning, but in the end they did, because they needed every man they could find.
‘Come on,’ Penelo said to him. ‘Let’s see what we can do.’
Young Salva did as his cousin said. It would be better to be at the fire than suffering at home watching the time go by. Better to be doing something.
The baker, who was also going along to help, caught up with them, and it took less than ten minutes to get to the spot where the teams were concentrated. The fire had almost reached the side of the road.
‘This will be great!’ said Penelo. ‘You’ll see! A fire is one of the best things in the world.’
Nobody knew the history of the fire, but this is how it goes: the fire started as a small ember among the broom. It burned fern, it burned bramble, it caught the grass, it caught the leaves. It was on the brink of dying out at several points during the first night, but time and again it found the strength to endure, and it survived. At daybreak it had taken charge of two small hills and innumerable fields and pine forests, and was now going after what was left. Then the wind joined forces with it, made it grow and gave it a direction and a purpose. By that time, the teams had arrived with firefighters and tractors, and also sawyers from a nearby lumber yard carrying their mechanical saws gleaming with grease. But it was a little too late. The flames were already in control.
It was chaos. The team leader had to shout to be heard above the noise of the flames behind him.
‘Impressive, isn’t it?’ said Penelo to young Salva.
The two boys watched the flames rise over the treetops, the trees falling to their knees as the saws cut to their souls. Standing on a nearby truck, an agent from Agriculture was measuring the speed of the wind with a pocket anemometer. The wind was blowing fast, and he covered the tip of the tube with a finger and took the readings to the right.
The wind was gathering momentum.
Pieces of bad news were beginning to come through the walkie-talkies, sounding like crazed dogs: the wind seemed to be creating secondary fires everywhere.
Finally, a squad leader, a tall man dressed in Nomex, approached them.
‘I’ve got a job for you,’ he said, sweating in his orange garb. A walkie-talkie crackled at his waist. ‘I need a line of defense at Saia Wood. D’you know where I mean or must I explain it to you?’
‘We know,’ said Penelo.
‘Well, pick up some axes and spades and come with me. If we don’t stop it there, the flames’ll go around by the cemetery and cut off the road behind us.’
There were six of them going, seated in the payload: the squad leader, Penelo, his brother, a man from Agriculture, a novice guard, and young Salva.
First they took the road, where they ran into a group of people coming to warn them that the fire was making straight for the cemetery.
‘Go to the graveyard!’ they shouted at the squad. ‘Go to the graveyard! Let the rest burn!’
It was the cemetery, not so much the houses, that mattered to them most.
A little further on, they had to take a forest path and drive up toward Saia Wood. The truck swerved and juddered all the way up: that was the route to the cemetery.
The forest path ended at the cemetery, so they got off the truck and walked through the graveyard among the funeral niches. Apart from the squad leader, there was not a man among them who didn’t have relatives buried there. They continued down a small hill.
On the way they met some old folks from the houses in the foothills. They were coming from the river, laden down with buckets of water. A woman started to plead with them:
‘For the love of God, I beg you! Stay here with us and help us save the house. It’s all we have!’
‘We’re going to the top!’ the squad leader explained to them. We’ve got to stop it there or it’ll get to the cemetery and then the road!’
‘God help us!’ screamed the woman.
And leaving them behind, the squad walked up the hillside. The fire must have been on the other side of the slope and in half an hour it would reach the top. If they weren’t able to brake it there, it would tear down the hill, taking the houses with it. As they went up they could feel the fire near them, as if they were climbing the sides of a volcano, but they still couldn’t see it. Young Salva felt the weight of the axe and the spade in his backpack. The squad leader, a strong man, was the first to arrive.
‘Take a look at this!’ he yelled.
The flames were creeping up the other side toward the peak where they were standing. With the wind blowing in its direction, the fire spread out, filling its lungs and opening its arms. Up it climbed, devouring the exploding pine trees that exuded resin as it passed. When a pine tree burns it shoots out huge sparks and its smoke is black as pitch. That’s how a pine tree burns.
The slope was so sharp they had to open a line of defense somewhat behind the crest. They had to hurry or they would have problems with the whirling fires forming on the leeward side of the hills – the firefighters’ greatest enemy.
‘Over here! On the double! I want to see you dig!’
The fire was progressing at a rate of forty feet per minute as the men dug as fast as they could. There wasn’t much time to finish the job before the fire crowned. The firebreak then had to be backsloped somewhat, to cut off the pieces of hot ash tumbling down the hill, and to get the short timber into parallel lines so it wouldn’t roll away when it caught on fire.
That took twenty minutes of exhausting effort. No one could go on any longer. The men worked as fast as they could, but the fire moved even faster. And then the worst thing that could possibly happen occurred. And it happened in a flash.
It was felt on everyone’s skin: the wind had changed. Slowly, the air began to revolve around them and started to blow right at them from the direction of the fire. It was now hot air, the breath of an animal. The needle-like pines were falling rapidly to the ground, while in the woods the chestnuts and oaks were majestically aflame. The firebreak was still not finished and the wind was already crossing through it, carrying with it small pieces of ash that passed over them like tiny, luminous insects and ended up nestling in the dry scrub, which also caught on fire.
‘Stop! Stop! It’s not worth it!’ shouted the man from Agriculture. And the six men left the useless break as it was, watching helplessly as the fire roaring over them lit up the scrub from behind their line of defense.
‘All that work…!’
And then, as they watched, mesmerized by the flames crackling among the brambles, the fire shot up behind them. It crowned the top of the hill, and, fed by the wind, was now ready to descend the slope toward them.
‘We have to get behind the old folks’ house and try another line there!’
The fire’s speed increased from 75 to 200 feet, which was already perilous. They had to hurry, and the six men, carrying fire swatters and mattocks, scrambled down the slope. When they got to the bottom, the old folks ran out again to meet them, beside themselves with desperation.
‘Boys, don’t go! Our house is about to burn down!’
But there was nothing to be done. In a very few minutes the flames would devour everything, and the animals, who knew this, were frantically rushing around in their pens.
‘Grandpa! You’ve got to let the cattle loose!’ yelled the squad leader at the old man.
At first, the aged man didn’t hear him, but then he agreed. He’d understood.
‘These old guys are nuts!’ Penelo shouted. ‘May the devil swallow me whole if they never make it out of here and get burned to a crisp along with everything else.’
The squad leader and the old man walked toward the pens, gently pushing aside the woman, who wasn’t too keen on letting them through. The leader opened the heavy door with two blows of his axe and one by one the old man began to set free his six cows – giving each of them a kiss before he sent them off, as if they were his children – and then the pigs and the hens, who were running around in confusion in the middle of the threshing floor with no clue how to get out.
The black smoke from the pines, the black smoke of resin, was blowing into them.
‘Got any gasoline?’ asked the squad leader of the old man, who seemed to be in a daze. ‘Gasoline!’
‘Have you got any gasoline!’
The old man nodded and pointed to a lean-to where he kept all his tools.
‘You!’ commanded the leader, looking at the rookie of the group. ‘Take the old folks to the van and start asking around for reinforcements. And the rest of you, grab the gas cans and come with me. We’re going to give it one more try.’
‘What do you mean, one more try?’ shouted the man from Agriculture. ‘There’s nothing else to try! Let’s get out of here!’
‘Last try, I said. Anyone who wants can come along.’
‘You guys can do what you like. I’m going off to the trucks,’ said the other. And he got hold of the elderly couple and left with them, shielding his face with his hand because ash was getting in his eyes.
Carrying the gasoline cans, those who were left retraced their steps 900 feet to a wheat field. The squad leader checked the wind and saw that due to the inclination of the slope, it was blowing in from the side and they seemed to be in a good spot for what he had in mind.
‘This is gonna be tough,’ he explained to them, ‘but we have to make the attempt. We have to give it backfire. We’ll set the fire from those high rocks all the way to the bottom and pray the wind doesn’t change again.’
The firebreak positions were assigned and young Salva was placed next to Penelo, who was all enthusiasm.
‘The smell of gasoline is the best smell in the whole world!’ shouted Penelo, who was a mechanic and loved cars. And to tell the truth, the aroma of gasoline got to Salva as well, traveling up his nose and into his head.
‘This’ll burn sky-high!’ said Penelo, when he saw all the grass soaking in gasoline.
It was the voice of the squad leader.
‘Start climbing and get behind it!’
Young Salva pulled the fuse out of his pocket and began to set fire to the dark stream. The flames leaped up rapidly and the men had to move several steps back. The wind began to drive one fire toward the other.
‘It’s burning just great!’ exclaimed young Salva. And they both stood watching the fire for who knows how long.
When they came to their senses the others were nowhere in sight.
‘Where have they gone? Where the hell have they gone?’
They couldn’t see for the smoke, and when they got out of its way they didn’t like what they saw.
‘Shit!’ exclaimed Penelo, scanning the area around them. ‘The wind’s changed again!’
Before them the scrub and the chestnut trees were on fire, and the wheat field was on fire to their rear. They were trapped.
They shouted for the others, but no one responded.
They were unable to breathe. Their eyes were streaming buckets. Their tears were stained with ash. Young Salva pulled up his bandana from around his neck and covered his mouth, but it made no difference. He was coughing continuously and could hardly open his eyes.
‘The ground! Throw yourself on the ground!’ yelled Penelo, and young Salva threw himself on the ground.
‘Breathe through the grass!’
Young Salva found a little oxygen among the sweet, smudged grass. As he coughed incessantly, the tears falling from his eyes wet the dry earth. He saw Penelo lying next to him, digging a groove along the ground with his hands, and young Salva did the same. You can breathe better if you put your mouth in a groove. The smoke, now coming from a different wind direction, was even darker. Gusts of hot air were blowing above him like a storm of sparks. Leaves burning like flaming tongues and the glowing red embers of branches were falling on top of him. Then he felt something running along his body, along his arms, and along his side. It was something cold and living, he could sense it in his hands and in his hair. When he opened his eyes he saw what it was: fleeing from the fire, dozens of desperate serpents and toads of all kinds were crawling over him. Snakes slithered up his arms and continued on their way without attacking him, so terrified were they. Young Salva closed his eyes. He was normally afraid of snakes, but he didn’t mind these. He even felt a certain pleasure as he sensed that something living and terrified was making contact with his body. His fear subsided and he felt transported – to an unreal, intimate place, like his own tomb. ‘That’s how my father feels,’ he thought, ‘in a place made of smoke, of ash, of wind.’ Absurd thoughts crossed his mind, and as his terror faded it was replaced by a feeling of security, of strength – so much so that he thought the fire would not kill him. Then he felt a gentle caress on his head, a warm hand stroking his forehead and his hair. The hand of his dead father. And the tears he cried no longer seemed to be tinted with ash, but were pure, untainted water. Maybe because they’d streamed so much, maybe because they came from a different place in his eyes.
He felt someone tugging at his feet, and when he opened his eyes he was on the grass. Penelo had pulled him from the midst of the flames and dragged him off to the spot where it was a little easier to breathe. When he opened his eyes, young Salva realized where he was: in the middle of the cemetery. He gazed in sorrow at the faded flowers being scorched and consumed by the fire, at the bouquets and wreaths lying on the stone. Branches were falling all around and it was snowing ash.
‘You were unconscious! Do you want to die or what?’ said his cousin, nervous and angry.
But the wind was probably not out to kill them this time, because it offered them a solution.
It was the wind that dispersed the black smoke, and by blowing the wheat spikes away from the field behind them, it revealed the path to the river.
‘Over there! We can jump in the river!’
They escaped at top speed through the wheat swirling around them, shaken loose by the hot, furious wind in a whirl fire of ash like a hive of flames. Still stunned and coughing, young Salva ran blindly, pressing his bandana against his mouth. He was treading soft dirt, ploughed dirt, fine and soft as flour.
‘Look at those willows there!’ shouted Penelo, his mouth to young Salva’s ear. ‘The river must be nearby!’
And it was. The willows, whose only desire is water, did not deceive them. The river was there. When they reached it, all they could do was fall into the water. They were totally exhausted. The trees on both banks were aflame, so close they could feel the fire pulsing. The heat licked their faces and hands. Above their knees in water, they followed the river downstream. The tunnel of fire seemed endless. The short, wide trunks of the willows were burning, and as it was the end of March, they were covered in silver catkins that caught fire and dropped into the water. Young Salva and Penelo walked endlessly over pebbles and sand until they finally left the thick of the fire behind them.
Now they were safe.
In the clean field, where the sirens of the Civil Guard Rural Patrol and the Civil Defense Land Rovers were spinning furiously, young Salva, kneeling by an ambulance, pressed an oxygen mask to his face as if he were dying from thirst. As he breathed in the oxygen, he seemed to feel his lungs expanding and his blood growing colder.
‘Breathe slowly, kid, breathe slowly,’ said the medic standing next to him.
‘Get these people out of here! Get moving!’ yelled the corporal in charge of two Civil Guardsmen.
The medic shook his head.
‘You’re in a bad way, kid. If you could just see how you look…’
Young Salva realized that his shoes and pants were burned.
‘That hand… that hand of yours should be looked at. I’ll bandage it up for you, but tomorrow you’ll have to go to Lugo.’
The back of young Salva’s hand was raw.
‘Does it hurt?’
It was Penelo, looking as if nothing had happened, drinking water from a plastic bottle that one of the Guardsmen had given him.
Young Salva shook his head.
‘That’s enough oxygen, kid,’ said the medic, taking off the mask. ‘Or you’ll be floating off like a balloon.’
Penelo and the Guardsmen laughed.
‘That was a good one, eh?’ said Penelo. He was as happy as a lark. He’d been afraid as well, but he liked that.
‘Where are the others?’ he asked the Guardsmen.
‘The others have already gone down. There’s nothing to be done up here. We’re going back ourselves.’
Later, on their way back, sitting in the payload of the van, Penelo was singing to himself. Behind them, the fire burned triumphantly on all fronts. Nothing could be done to stop it. It had devoured the road, the cemetery, the neighboring houses… the emergency team had to retrace its route by a kilometer and could only trust that the planes, which had not yet arrived, would do their job.
‘It’s going to be a long night. We might have to come back tomorrow.’
Young Salva was in a pensive mood.
‘You know what, Penelo? Back there, in the middle of the fire…’
‘I was afraid,’ came the man’s hasty reply, as that was what he thought was being asked. ‘But that’s a good thing. You have to be a real man to be afraid.’
‘I saw things…’
‘It’s the smoke,’ said the man from Agriculture, who was riding with them. ‘The carbon dioxide. You breathe it in for a while, you start losing your grip. It makes you see things that aren’t there. It’s like a drug.’
During the night young Salva was still conscious of odor of the smoke, and the pain in his bandaged hand kept him awake. Lying in the dark, he could see the flickering glow of the fire through the window, and on the whitewashed wall where photos of his grandparents, the old clock, and novena cards of the Virgin Mary and other saints were hanging. When he heard the planes, he went to the window to watch the fresh water of Belesar falling on the tortured hills. Then he went back to bed. His scalp and his forehead stung where he’d felt the fire caressing him. He passed his burned hand over the same place where he’d felt his father’s warm hand, but all he felt was pain, intense pain.
The next day the entire region woke up to an unexpected silence. The hills were razed and hushed, and there were no birds to be seen. The fire was moving somewhere else, far away. Young Salva’s mother woke him up to go to the cemetery with her.
‘Get dressed and we’ll take a look,’ she said.
They walked through the devastated countryside. In places where no pine trees had burned, the ash was white as a snowfall of confectioner’s sugar. The land had been scorched as far as the eye could see. The higher they climbed on their way to cemetery, the more devastation they saw. There were many more people from the neighborhood cleaning up the gravestones with wet rags and replacing the flowers that had been consumed by the fire. It’s said that ash contains all the strength of what has been burned. The ash that covered the whole area was still hot, and young Salva felt the warmth through his shoes. After she had cleaned the portrait on the gravestone, his mother, kneeling in the ash, began to whisper her prayers. And young Salva, who never prayed, stood at her side and looked around him. He breathed in the scent of the burned cypresses, that scent unique to cypresses that is like a strange perfume, and did not make the sign of the cross so as not to touch the wound that covered his forehead and was still hurting him, and which, he thought, would probably stay with him for the rest of his life.
Translated from Galician by Carys Evans-Corrales