WHEN FIRE REIGNS
Robinson is a sculptor, poet and fiction writer. Her poems and
fiction appear in Horizons, Creations, L’Embarcadère
and Archipelago. Winner ofthe 2007 Archipelago author’s
grant, the Visa/Passeport Youth Literary Prize and
an honorarium awarded by Groupe Beauchemin, she lives in Montreal
and Vancouver Island.
I finished writing
the Captain exams. The next day, I was transferred to Pumper
7 (Station 7) on the corner of Parliament and Dundas Streets.
At that time Station 7 was the busiest hall in Canada, and it
was not unusual for three trucks in the hall (Pumper 7, Pumper
4 and Aerial 7) to log a combined total of close to 10, 000
calls in any one year. Pumper 7 was the busiest truck in Canada
logging over 4000 calls in one year. Captain Peter Hart told
me these things over coffee, in the kitchen, the night he retired
and I started as Substitute Captain. I had heard about Station
7, expected a white night.
it was quiet, too quiet. The crew surprised us with a song and
a fire truck cake. The frosting said "Happy Retirement,
Peter!" Peter shook his head as the men patted his back
and gave him the cake. The men sang on. Tears welled up in Peter's
eyes. He asked me to cut the cake. I took the cake out of his
hands, cut even sized pieces, put them on side plates, grabbed
clean forks, and served everyone. We sat down. Just as I sliced
a piece of frosting the phone rang from Control.
but Peter responded. False alarm. "Get plenty of them,"
said a new young recruit by the name of Kevin Delaney. He slurped
cold coffee and went on floor watch. The rest of us resumed
eating Peter's cake.
more false alarms.
happy hour, a distress call. "Lady not too badly hurt,
already known to us, Rose Petal," said Jesse Grimes, a
cop and my friend since high school. "Control's overloaded,"
he snorted. "Welfare day." I imagined ambulance drivers
trying to keep up with the ODs. "Would you take this call,"
he said, "as a favour?" I cleared my throat. He muttered:
"her boyfriend's married to my cousin. He's a decent bar
owner, a good client."
fire truck responded. No beater, decent-looking or not. One
shut-eyed Rose Petal, thin, moist, hot, asked why the cops hadn't
come. "Hm," she added, "they had to be chasing
real bad guys." Kevin went to her and we went to the truck
and five minutes later he came out and we returned to the hall
without a record of the call.
Kevin snored by the phone. I nudged him, told him to catch a
wink in the bunk. Put a veteran firefighter, Jack Knight, on
floor watch. The rest of us sat in the kitchen, watched the
film Deer Hunter on TV.
into Deer Hunter, Jack took a call at 4:12 a.m. to an apartment
building on Shuter Street. Kevin came down that pole like a
caught lover, suspenders down, eyes wide. Three trucks responded.
Pumper 7, Pumper 4 and Aerial 7.
arrival, the third floor of a 5 story wooden structure was almost
fully involved in fire. Kevin and I rescued a family. Then I
saved a stranded man. When I got down from the ladder Kevin
tugged me. I turned to my right. On the north side of the building
there was a walkway about 4 feet wide to the next building.
I noticed a man in the walkway. He bore a striking resemblance
to the guy on the book Dahlia raved about the day before. "My
heart rejoices," he shouted. I shot a look at him. He turned
around and ran. Fuckin' nut might've lit this place up, I muttered.
Poets . .
love is that of a child
For the milky hard teat of a young mother
My love is stronger than the finest tree
My heart weeps to the end of her dreams as she sleeps
* * *
lines scribbled on the inside of a metal case unscathed by fire.
Four lines. Four lines Dad couldn't forget. Each time he remembered
them a slow anger rose, burned and spread like virus in his
the Shuter Street fire, the days slipped by, cloudless, long,
hot and humid, filled with orders. Pass the mop. Clean the truck.
Check the oxygen tanks and Scott air packs. Cook breakfast,
lunch, supper. Wash the dishes. “Lady in the hall”
(this meant the firemen had to be gentlemen, not say, for example,
profanities). Dad gave orders with his eyes. Yes, Captain Tom.
Sure thing. His men followed the orders a little less sad each
day, a little more concerned one day he would chuck his stub
in and go home, never to return.
work kept Dad going. That summer there were many house and bar
fires, two mighty industrial fires. The usual high number of
motor vehicle wrecks, to which cops were slow to respond except
in high profile cases. Summer was also the season city councilors
encouraged journalists to take front page color photos of men
fighting fires. (Of course women fought fire, too, but there
were few of them and they did not sell newspapers.) Public appreciation
for firemen, smog hung over the city like yellow phlegm. The
crabs of cancer ate citizens with the rapidity of starving armies.
Foot fungus mushroomed and perfumed bodies stank. Fire in the
summer heat took its toll on the fittest of firemen, who collapsed,
now and then, like flies. Unbearable heat turned the best of
window screamers into withering lilies. Lilies, Dad
would say, and smirk. The fires kept Dad sane, his mind off
summer heat drove some people crazy. At the fire hall, I sometimes
sat on my dad's bunk, caressed his wrinkled brow as he thought
of a policy like Montreal's where firemen only responded to
fire and car wrecks, people under trains. At summer's end, Dad
took a fire call but when he arrived at the house, there was
no sign of fire. Kevin and Jack stood behind him; he knocked
on the door and Jack called out. No answer. The front door was
slightly ajar. The firemen entered the house. They called out,
but no one answered. The men dispersed. Dad used his walkie-talkie
to tell his men from Pumper 4 to take care of the hoses and
drive back. Suddenly, a man sitting perched on bunk bed swung
a crowbar at Jack and knocked him out. Kevin who was nearby
soon found Jack and spoke friendly-like with the attacker. Kevin
could pacify the most fearful dogs and men, and the attacker
was soon subdued.
half a minute, if that, Dad came. I slipped into his hard, tense
body. He was tired of people other times their pets attacking
firemen, and, at times, him. If we are attacked, Dad thought,
we should be armed. The cops came late, did not take kindly
to one of Dad's hurt firemen, but remained blasé until
their animated discovery of dismembered bodies. Kevin made a
small remark that lifted tension away from my father and set
the cops to work diligently. I stepped out of Dad, grateful
Kevin was nearby. Every man has vices. If Kevin had any, Dad
assumed, his were off-duty -- not in the Captain's log.
night drunk, Kevin climbed our tree, fell, climbed up again,
threw cinnamon hearts at my window. Down below, I stretched
out on the hammock. My younger sister came to the window, plopped
herself on the bench and opened the window past a crack.
Kevin sang horribly out of tune. "You are here, oh Dahlia
. . . Dahlia . . . "
sorry, Dahlia, I'm late. You look beautiful."
not Dahlia. It's me, Iris. You can sleep in our tree-house.
I'll bring you a blanket."
left and reappeared opening and closing the back door gently.
She strode out on the yellow dry grass carrying a rucksack.
She wore her oversize Dinosaur Jr t-shirt and my denim Capri
pants, too big on her, now ripped of course, and brown leather
metal bracelets, and a small nose ring.
me help you," said Kevin, offering a hand.
tapped his hand out of the way and climbed up into the tree-house,
her red hair falling in waves on the floor. She stood up and
went through her rucksack. "Blanket -- better than just
planks -- and ginger ale, for the dry pasties in your mouth,
upset stomach in a while."
approached her from behind and touched her hair.
you are." Kevin smiled and leaned into Iris and she jolted
back. She took his finger and rubbed it over the tiny diamond
in her nose.
got a nose ring?"
do. Dahlia never wore a nose ring, or this." Iris stuck
out her tongue, flashed a tiny star. "Dahlia wore fake
"In her ears.
She dumped you for a mediocre poet--"
his rat hole with gas, threw a lit match and left her . . . asleep
. . . to die."
Kevin's face screwed up.
up to the tree-house and squatted in mid-air in front of Iris,
my arms folded.
the front page of The Sun, no, not you, the rat,"
Iris muttered, "sorry. We'll talk when you're sober."
stomped around Kevin, fudge, apple, feather, thumb, honey, ginger,
chili, finger, blue, berry. More random words. My sister's silence
broken by a lingering lilt of desire, her light eyes gazed into
Kevin's black eyes. Desire forced down words like cold, water,
soft. You aren’t how I was, I told her. You
don’t play dead. Or smell fragrant. Or let your hair fall
in your eyes. Anyway, I thought you had the gene, or choice,
to be a lesbian. Ah never mind. You can’t even hear—see—me.
Iris leapt into Kevin’s arms and kissed him on the mouth.
He stumbled, managed to catch her but lost his balance and landed
on his knees, forcing his weight backward, to prevent Iris from
smacking the planks.
shut his eyes for a moment. Held her as he very slowly got up,
placed her arms at her side. He felt her strong, short legs
slither down his and then he opened his eyes. “Little
T Rex,” he said smiling, wavering, knowing that she really
was my kid sister. I remembered he had called her that since
she was very young. Little T Rex (Tyrannosaurus Rex).
eyed Kevin. "Get rest," she said.
Kevin woke to the sound of Iris scuffing the old planks. Kevin
opened an eye. “Dad knows that you slept here. I told
him. He says to come down and eat breakfast with us.”
did not save her. I did not rescue your sister.”
sat up and looked at Iris. “I wanted to kill him.”
rat who claims to be a poet and isn’t even a wisecracker.”
went to the shit-hole wanting to kill the bastard for taking
Dahlia away from me. I got as far as the smelly front door and
realized that Dahlia left, broke our engagement, which obviously
meant nothing to her.”
walked closer to Kevin and sat down. Iris said, "So you
said, “I left. Saw a rat enter a hole beside the door
and enter the stinking apartment. Worst thing I can say. Maybe
the rat knocked over a candle.”
said, “You were too good for her.”
leaned back and glanced at Iris. She leaned over to kiss him,
and he noticed her long red hair, which was hanging wet down
her back. She wore another Dinosaur Jr shirt this one a tank
over a bikini and a figure nothing like a child's. Kevin noticed
that she did not have Dahlia's flawless beauty. He saw Iris's
freckled face, her pale mouth, neck, eyes somewhere between
green grass and earth color. Rough, small hands. Short, athletic.
Still young; heading for seventeen. But that sense of knowing
what she wanted unlike Dahlia's uncertainty and passivity appealed
to him. Iris kissed his cheeks, her leg grazing his thigh. She
turned her head, caught him looking and smiled at him. "Get
a move on then," her breath inferno cinnamon. "I want
you for breakfast." She smelled like dandruff shampoo and
a wet dog.
Kevin reached behind him, shook the ginger ale bottle. Iris
knew, fought with him to unscrew the cap. Though she was quick
and feisty, Kevin had the upper hand and doused her and she
reached up and slipped a piece of mushy ripe apricot in his
mouth. She was so close he kissed her. A great true embrace.
Her teeth bruised his lip.
groaned inwardly, trying not to alert Captain Tom, who might
appear at any moment as Iris's dad. Dahlia was dead, shifting
in and out of the tree’s crown. Kevin turned away, kissed
Iris. Dahlia’s dead, he repeated, in his head. In life
there was no fire in her, and now, edging near blastoff, Kevin
was also aware that he was so powerfully attracted to Iris that
even when the ghost of Dahlia and threat of the father plagued
him, Iris affected him in other ways he couldn't control. Kevin
let go but not until Iris hugged him.
July 2001 we received a fire call at approximately 4:10 a.m.
to an apartment on Shuter Street. Three trucks responded. Pumper
7, Pumper 4 and Aerial 7. I drove Pumper 7.
arrival, the third floor of a 5 story wooden structure looked
involved. I parked the truck, called Central to let them know
we had arrived, asked Captain Tom Wood if a couple of guys and
I could go inside.
that Dahlia might have been in the building. I did not say something
on the way there because I did not know for sure it was that
building until I drove up and recognized the facade.
journalists hounded the Captain. He told them to leave us to
do our job, ordered more experienced firemen to go into the
building and me to stay with him.
I approached the Captain, said Dahlia's name. He said, "What?"
quickly assessing the structure and visible occupants. I said
"Dahlia" over a crowd of reporters and the screaming
coming from upstairs.
Tom called up for a ladder. For a second, I looked up. At the
northwest corner of the building on the fourth floor there was
a man, a woman and a baby hanging out a window. They were obviously
in deep distress screaming that the fire was at their front
door. "Kevin, come on."
Tom!" I panicked. For a second, if that, he looked disapprovingly,
because of informal address while we were on duty, but mostly
because of my state of panic. Dahlia was in there. She had to
be. Captain shot his hand behind him, said, "We are going
to rescue them now." He turned around and walked on.
foot ladder was raised to the 4th floor and Captain Tom climbed
to the top along with me right behind him. We soon realized
in the haste to raise the ladder away from the wall, and with
poor visibility from the amount of smoke in the walkway we were
about 6 or 7 feet to the right of the window. Captain Tom yelled
down to pick up the ladder (with us on it) and to move it to
the left as he pulled the ladder away from the wall and moved
it one foot at a time towards the window. All the time the screaming
from the man, more from the woman, was getting louder and louder.
It was the only time in my career as a firefighter I wanted
to abandon the scene, to go, on a guess, a horrible guess, to
another potentially fatal scene.
waiting for the baby, my worry ceased, just then. I imagined
Dahlia unlike Lily one, two, three, four, five . . . to infinity.
Dahlia was not Rose Petal. I imagined Dahlia, a fireman's daughter,
alert with a damp towel over her nose and mouth, keeping low
to the ground, using good judgment, finding safety. What I thought
was what I pretended. Dahlia would be trapped.
* * *
above, Kevin below, we reached the window and I looked behind
the baby, woman and man. Sure enough the fire was coming through
the doorway of the bedroom. I told the woman to pass me the
baby but don't let go till I say. When I had the baby I passed
it around to Kevin and he took it down to the ground. The woman
backed out of the window onto the ladder in front of me and
I crawled around her so that Kevin who was back could take her
down. Down the ladder, she changed into what we firemen call
a lily. Daisy was her name, if I am not mistaken. Kevin
and I were not too worried about her physical health. She screamed
all right. Priority was, get her out. Half way down, she let
go of the ladder. Daisy was one those women who fall into us
because we are life savers, we are modern day heroes, but mostly
so they can feel like a princess for a minute, or two. Kevin
caught her fall. He made her girlhood dream come true. I'm glad
though the Lily held herself together earlier when
she was holding a baby.
man was next, and as I started down with him, there was another
man on his balcony about 10 to 12 feet to my right. After going
back to get him, and we were on our way down, I looked over
at the bedroom and saw that the room was fully involved and
the fire was coming out the window.
was no doubt in any of our minds that night, that those three
persons would have perished either from the fire or by jumping
if in the last 5 to 10 minutes we did not rescue them.
a couple of weeks later the parents and their baby girl came
to the hall for a visit and to thank us.
holding the baby and thinking if it had not been from our combined
effort that night none of them would be here.
would be here if only I . . . if only I got to her sooner.
fire inspectors’ report on the cause of the fire was inconclusive.
The man whom I saw in the walkway was the poet on Dahlia’s
book. He talked Jesse and the boys around circles. Finally told
them one story and stuck to it, proved sound. He was a tenant
in the building. According to another tenant, the poet did light
a match and eye it for "longer than a respectable second
or two.” No amount of Jesse's help could beat a confession
out of either man. Jesse was sorry, really. Manpower to keep
the case going is spent. There are after all, says Jesse, other
bad guys to chase.
Dahlia, my little
flower . . .
I find the fire starter, or starters, every cop in this city will
come to whip into shape. Then I will do the unpardonable, and
I do not remember
escaping the fire. That is worse than not escaping it. Did I
look back, stagger, and look back at the room engulfed in flames?
I can remember moments
before the fire. The little rat I would have screamed about
and would have called you here to dispose of. But the wine had
its effects on me; I felt slightly dizzy but mellow. André
had written the last four lines and went for his late night
walk in the city, like he had done so many times after writing
a poem. I remember feeling a headache move back a little, falling
asleep with my clothes on. In a dream, the rat knocked down
a lit candle and gnawed on a wine-dipped fish scale until the
candle flame caught its tail and it scurried away.
In a dream, I slept
in the fire.
Next thing I remember
is the lifting of my charred body out onto a stretcher, and
later, liberation, looking down at Kevin, and then my father,
after they heard that body was mine. In both instances they
were like young boys with overdeveloped imaginations fleeing
their nightmares, reaching for Mother, whom they saw had changed
so dramatically. Their faces contorted at the horror of finding
a pirate queen. Worse, a ghost of a pirate queen chastising
them for failing to rescue me from the fire. She came to steal
their secrets to happiness. And she succeeded. They fell to
their knees and retched.
on the morning sky a ball of blue fire glimmered, the rise of
the last smoke. I appeared as I was then, an apparition. Iris
did not see me. She looked up: “you think that I torched
you, right? Isn’t that right? I did not set the fire, Dahlia.
Just so you know. I guess if it’s true that the dead become
ghosts, and you, oh, just happen to be near me, you may know things.
Like nobody, at least nobody I know, set the fire you were in.
The papers point to André. Oh! The free publicity helps
him finally make a success of his words, plus who can
deny he loves to see himself like a bard in the papers? The more
insane those writers picture him the better.”
looked around. The remnants of the burnt building a black tangle,
the metal case a funeral stele, people walked by. A fire inspector
collected the metal case. Iris crouched against the parking
meter. She buried her hands in her face, held her breath, tears.
She stood up and threw gravel stones, charred pieces of glass,
past the yellow tape, at fire damage. Dahlia, Iris shouted in
her mind, you stupid girl, why did you come here? There was
nothing for you here.
God, you were selfish.
* * *
heard whores on the street talk of fire in my tenement. I ran
home. When I saw the blaze, I panted for air, worried about
my metal case, a gift from my mother. She traveled with it during
the last world war. Before the case was hers it belonged to
an RAF pilot who fathered my mother and wrote to his mistress,
my grandmother, love poems. I kept the history of the case a
in the evening, a fireman's daughter said to me the four lines
scribbled inside the case were written about her, yes? Yes,
I told her. I wrote them for her. That cased the deal, a last
night with her.
metal case is destroyed, or stolen.
my heart rejoices. Such a beautiful woman fell asleep in my
arms, happy. She died happy.
took her life. Saved her from all the hot and bother of discovering
what a liar I am, a cheat, worse than a rat.
not set the fire though I can honestly say the fire set me on
a different course. Why wait to be burned to purify? I have
decided to start being a loyal, honest man today.
* * *
was a rather quiet day for firemen in the city. You cannot plan
a quiet day. None of the firemen complained except some of the
Iris and Kevin came to my grave today, a little over a year
after my passing. Iris placed roses in my urn. Dad brushed dry
leaves aside from my name. Kevin hugged Iris and Dad. Then together
they held hands, Iris in the middle.
was a gentle breeze, red leaves falling. The air was cool, a
little easier to breathe, for the living.