Fictions from Rebecca Harrison
We lived where the fires were. The chimneys tall as skies, broader than river mouths. Our homes clung to the chimney sides. Our streets were stairways that never reached to the ground. Our homes were filled with the fire sounds. The crackle and hiss rumbled through the bricks. Genna sat on the edge of the greatest chimney, the one her home coiled around, and she dangled her feet in the smoke and let it settle in her hair. “We all smell of smoke,” she said, “but I smell of it the most.” She told me her great grandparents helped drive the fires into the chimneys and seal them inside.
We looked into the far and far, smoke wrapping us, and we saw the lands grown green. Once they were red and orange and yellow and always bright. In those days, the fires roamed, and the lands were theirs. Genna said she would let the fires out. She said the smoke was filled with messages.
We watched our mothers tending the chimneys. We helped them lower the nets. We saw them catch soot and haul it up and shake it over the sides. And as hard as we listened, we never heard it hit the ground.
When I was in my bed, and the only sound was my mother and grandmother scraping the net clean and the only smell was the soot dusting the floor, I thought of Genna—her words and the smoke twirling into her hair, and I pictured her unbolting the doors and letting the fires out and going with them—a dark shape in the brightening lands.
In the morning, Genna was gone. They said the fires had coaxed her down into the chimneys. Far down where they burn. I helped my mother shake the nets over the side and I watched the soot floating and I remembered the smoke curling in Genna’s hair.
The fires all died long ago. The chimneys crumble by inches but still stand into the clouds. And sometimes, when the sun is low, the clouds coil around the chimneys and I think I can hear the fires coaxing Genna down.
When the Bear was Running
You can’t steer a bear, even when your town is on its back. That’s what Grampy says every Wintercall. And then Pop leans back in his chair and replies “But, you can try.” Then we laugh. And I pull the hatches down on our windows to keep out the winds as the bear carrying our town runs. Grampy named them the biting winds, because, “they’ll bite your nose right off. You can laugh, Laurel, but it happened to a lass I knew, the winds whisked her nose right out the window, and she chased it through the streets. She’d probably still be chasing it now, if she hadn’t fallen off the bear’s back.” But Marmee was the only one I’d known who’d fallen off the bear’s back.
Seven years ago, now. It was my eighth Wintercall and the bear was running. Our town was all creaks and quivers. Snow bristled in the winds and furied into cruel drifts in the streets. The great trees were all around, and ahead of us—trunks so vast, the bear had to run around them, icicles so long it would take days to slide down them. Everybody else was inside, the hatches on their windows battened down, their tables pushed against their front doors to keep them closed. But Marmee bundled me in a coat so thick I could barely move and led me through the streets. We had to shout to hear each other. The world rushed past, wind-blurred, and we saw a great elk with its hooves wide enough to flatten three houses with one step. “That’s why people moved their towns onto bears,” she said. “And this is why the bears let us.” And with that, she tossed her red braid, whipped a long arrow from her quiver, pulled back her bow and launched it. I watched her arrow hit the elk in its single great eye. It fell. The ground jumped. Snow burst into the winds. “I never miss,” she laughed. “And you’ll be just as good as me, Laurel.”
She tossed her braid again and we walked onward, the great trees casting shadows over our town on the bear’s back. She grabbed my hand and snatched me out of the way of a falling pine needle—it was as tall as our home. “Why is the bear running?” I gasped out, my legs weary from keeping my balance. “No one knows. They all do this. Run up here to the deepest cold. You’ll get used to it.” There was a fallen tree ahead and I didn’t think to warn her or to grab on. Then the bear was jumping over it, and Marmee was tossed up into the winds, her hands reaching for me, and then she was gone.
“You can’t go out there,” Grampy said, as he placed his gnarled hand on the door. He smelled of pine needles chopped and stewed until they made sour tea. “I’m just going for a walk,” I said. “You think I was born yesterday, Laurel?” He raised his wrinkle-deep eyes to mine. “No, I think you were born when towns were still on the ground,” I tried to joke. He shook his head. No matter how much we laughed, he could never shake the sadness out of his eyes. He took his hand off the door and stepped back. “I’ll be back for dinner,” I said. And then I was out into the biting winds.
The houses about me were just rickety sounds, and beside them, the world was just winds hurtling in my ears. Battling the speeding air, I climbed to the lookout point and I waited, my face stinging so much I thought Grampy’s tale of the snatched nose would come true. I saw the fallen tree and I let go of the walls, took a deep breath, and let myself float up and out into the whirl, out to where my mother fell.
Rebecca Harrison sneezes like Donald Duck and her best friend is a dog who can count.